Happily God-less clergy say this time, it really is their year; Washington Post uncritically says, 'Amen'

Back in the dim recesses of history, I wrote for several information technology publications.

A running joke in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was that this year, whichever year that was, would be the "Year of the LAN," or local-area network, that had long been prophesied. My colleagues and I would smirk a bit whenever some conference speaker declared this, and go back to our reporting.

The "Year of the LAN" did eventually arrive. Anyone who has a home network, wired or wireless, could be said to have ushered it in. But it came gradually, without the fanfare many in the industry sought to attach to this trend.

I had similar emotions when looking over a story in The Washington Post proclaiming the advent of a growing coterie of humanist clergy. Though posited as an oxymoron, the article noted that humanists -- who say there is no God and declare they can live ethical lives without a deity or scriptures to guide them -- need leaders, too. From the article:

These clergy without a God say that their movement is poised to grow dramatically right now, as American young adults report a lack of religious belief in higher numbers than ever before, but also yearn for communal ties and a sense of mission in a tumultuous time.
“Even more since the election, we have folks say, ‘I’m really looking for a way either to feel hope or to do justice,'” [conference organizer Amanda] Poppei said. The Sunday after the presidential election, dozens of distressed liberal Washingtonians showed up at her service, and many have gotten involved in the congregation. Now, Poppei sees an opportunity for not just her community but humanists nationwide. “To me it’s just about, how can we maximize what we’re doing to allow us to take advantage of the moment right now? I believe really strongly that being a person in a community makes you a better person. America needs it.”
Fueled especially by the millennial generation, the portion of Americans who say they don’t ascribe to any particular religion has increased dramatically, from 5 percent in 1972 to 25 percent today. A small portion of those 25 percent identify as atheist or agnostic. The rest tend to describe themselves using terms like “spiritual but not religious” or just “nothing in particular.”

The Post item is resonating in other quarters, it appears. Maine's Portland Press-Herald picked it up, and perhaps other papers have or will do so. It has the "man-bites-dog" quality of many click-worthy news articles. In this case we are talking about self-proclaimed "God-less" clergy. This is also a story that has been written many times. It's a trend that journalists have been seeing on the horizon for quite some time now.

But how widespread a phenomenon is it, really? Even the Post acknowledges that this affects only "a small portion" of the 25 percent of Americans who claim no religious affiliation or "identify as atheist or agnostic." How small? How significant? Is there any way to measure the growth?

I ask because, like the aforementioned "Year of the LAN," this isn't the first time the Post has heralded a humanistic congregation's rise. Go back to December 2007, when the paper looked at "Believers in Community," hinting at growth in the sector: 

Statistics suggest that many atheists find a role for religion in their lives. According to a survey released in July [2007] by the Barna Group, a religious polling firm, 36 percent said they had prayed to God in the previous week even though they identified themselves as atheists. Five percent said they had read the Bible in the previous week.
The number of atheists remains low. According to last year's General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center, 2.1 percent of respondents said they do not believe in God.; 4.3 percent said they are agnostic -- that they are not sure whether God exists and don't think there was any way to find out.

So we've gone from 2.1 percent as atheist and 4.3 percent agnostic in 2007 via the NORC, to "a small portion," unspecified. Forgive me if I don't see an ordained humanist tsunami just yet.

Missing from the latest Post report -- and from its predecessor article, for that matter -- is any outside academic voice, such as Stephen P. Weldon, a University of Oklahoma professor who has studied the history of humanism for the past 20 years. Ironically, Weldon was quoted in a 2001 Post article about humanistic Judaism, which is not available online. (I found it via www.nexis.com.)

Weldon's voice, or another academic's, would have been a welcome addition to the story. Context is vital, I believe, to understanding how big or important a particular group is. Here, there's little in the way of context.

If I were the assigning editor, I'd ask the reporter to go back and get some more voices, some clearer statistics and more of a sense of direction. "A small portion" just doesn't cut it, in my view. And to herald 2017 as the "Year of Humanist Clergy" takes me back to those tech-conference days when the "Year of the LAN" was proclaimed again and again, until one day, it actually happened with virtually no fanfare.
 

Image with blog post: Sincere Kirabo, American Humanist Association; John Croft, Ethical Society of St. Louis; Chris Steadman, Yale University Humanist Director, at the Humanist Clergy Collaboratory in Washington, D.C. Photo via American Humanist Association on Twitter.

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