Last week, my news feed blew up with a surprising announcement: the “Post-Seculars” have arrived.
Before I get into what exactly that’s supposed to mean, let’s deal with the source of this news. This new classification of human being comes to us from an article published in the American Sociological Review, and is based on data collected from the General Social Survey (GSS), a biennial survey of American households that, among other things, asks respondents about their attitudes regarding religion and the sciences, as well as general familiarity with facts about the latter.
Now, that’s about as much background as you’ll get from your standard internet source, but fortunately for you I’m a nerd, so I read the actual paper (with skimming. I’m not a robot). Basically, participants in the GSS were asked a lot of questions like: “does science increase opportunities for the next generation,” “should science receive more government funding,” “is the Bible the actual word of God,” etc. Yes, the religion portion is absurdly Judeo-Christian-biased, but they tried to cover more ground with some personal rankings of general religiosity. In addition, the participants were asked to answer some questions to test scientific knowledge, like: “does radioactivity occur naturally?”
Our sociologist friends found that 43% of participants adhered to what they refer to in the article as the “traditional” perspective (religiously focused with little to no understanding of/appreciation for science) and 36% could be labelled as “Moderns” (the opposite of Traditionals). The remaining 21 percent were something in between.
Turns out, this third class (dubbed Post-Seculars) demonstrated a much better understanding of science than Traditionals, as well as a more positive attitude toward it. However, they also demonstrated a remarkable affinity for religion, potentially even more so than Traditionals. However, Post-Seculars stopped short of full union between faith and the sciences in regards to such hot topics as human evolution, the age of the earth, and the Big Bang. Basically, they’re scientifically literate religious people that have minimized the conflict between science and religion in their world view.
So, demographically speaking, who are these hybrids that represent 1/5 of the U.S. population? Conservative (and I mean really conservative) Protestants, mostly. White ones. In a probabilistic sense, women are more likely to fall into this category than that of the Moderns, too. Also, they tend to have roughly similar incomes to those of your typical Modern (which average higher than the incomes of Traditionals). All this to say, they defy a lot of predicted trends among sociologists.
Truth be told, Post-Seculars aren’t really as new as that label would imply. In fact, the thoroughly-discussed divide between religion and science in Western society is a relatively recent development. Hell, even the Puritans were largely responsible for the professionalization of science.
Basically, the existence of this new batch of Post-Seculars just means that the divide between science and religion isn’t as static in our society as many have previously thought, and there’s probably still a lot of shifting to be had in the future.
Now, at first glance, I couldn’t help but view Post-Seculars as an improvement in our society. As a biologist, after all, I think that scientific literacy is critical, and they’re staggeringly more knowledgeable about science than their Traditional counterparts. But what that actually means for our society is still unclear. In the areas investigated, Post-Seculars were even more adamantly opposed to scientific advances in genetically-modified organisms or stem cell research (admittedly complicated issues) than were Traditionals. Issues like climate change, another hugely political topic, were sadly absent from the analysis. Further, it’s hard to say whether the Post-Seculars converted mostly from Traditionals or Moderns.
Regardless of what impact they’ll ultimately have on our society, I feel fairly frustrated by Post-Seculars. Because, in the end, they’re creating a patchwork world view that’s comfortable for them, regardless of whether or not it’s reasonable. They embrace the scientific method, but only when it’s easy to do so. As soon as it challenges their belief, they discredit it. They accept the process by which we figured out how lasers work, but cast aspersions on it when it leads us to believe the earth is a whole lot older than 10,000 years. But it’s still, fundamentally, the same scientific method. This kind of thinking is, dare I say it, intellectually dishonest.
And it really isn’t necessary. Now, I consider myself an Agnostic, but I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot of value to religion. It can and should be reconciled with modern science. Heck, the Catholic Church is doing a fantastic job on that front. These conservative, Protestant, overwhelmingly white, middle-to-upper class Westerners are just a bit behind the curve from a more thorough Post-Secularism.