Opinion & Features

The atheists who take heaven for granted

According to recent research by the University of San Diego, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as atheists doubled to 22 per cent between 1984 and 2014, while the proportion of the populace who believe in or regularly pray to God has reached an all-time low. No surprise there, you might say. It’s a while now since atheism in the United States was considered “un-American” or tainted by association with godless communism.

Yet the research also shows that this decrease in the belief in God has been accompanied by a rise in the belief in heaven or some kind of afterlife. This figure has risen from 73 to 80 per cent since 1972. “It was interesting that fewer people participated in religion or prayed, but more believed in an afterlife,” remarked the University of San Diego psychology professor, Jean Twenge. “It might be part of a growing entitlement mentality – thinking you can get something for nothing.”

I suspect that Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable Than Ever Before (2006), is on to something. People’s day-to-day religious outlook is inevitably shaped by social, technological and cultural forces. Just as the first information technology revolution, the printing press, occurred in tandem with the emergence of Protestantism – both of which challenged authority from below – so the second big information technology is likewise fostering a society in which greater importance is placed on the individual.

For instance, some sociologists noted in the last decade the resurgence of a belief in guardian angels. This was deemed a logical outcome in a society that both adheres less to organised religion and has become more atomised, consumerist and focused on the self.

This shrinking inwards towards the self has been accelerated by the age of Instagram selfies and Twitter. A generation that grew up with the internet has come to expect most commodities – from online news to television to movies – to be free and instantly available. A “paywall” is spoken of as a monstrous effrontery.

For those today who know only instantaneous gratification – who wouldn’t understand the concept of waiting for holiday photos to be developed, or for one’s favourite television programme to be repeated – even reading a book seems daunting. Accomplishment is measured instead by more superficial methods, such as how many “likes” or “retweets” you get on social media.

“Self-esteem” and “self-belief” is what matters now. This is why, when they go to university, Generation Me become so easily upset and offended, demanding “safe spaces” and censorship. The new generation, as Professor Twenge outlines in her book, are taught “to be whatever you want to be, as long as you ‘believe in yourself’.” This is why the language of gender-fluidity appeals to them (and baffles their elders): one can “be” a man or a woman as long as one simply “identifies” oneself as such.

Yet some things don’t change in human nature: a hardwired fear and incomprehension of death. Appropriately, this can be witnessed most obviously on the internet when a much-loved celebrity dies before their time: Victoria Wood and Prince being the most recent examples. They are “out there somewhere” or “looking down on us now” or “resting in peace”. This language transcends ages and cultures.

For centuries, belief in heaven in Christian cultures was accompanied by the notion that for some reason, usually by good behaviour and avoidance of sin, your soul warranted a place there. Thanks to my generation having cosseted them and filled their heads with all this babyish talk of “self-esteem”, Generation Me don’t believe in making an effort to get your rewards. I mean, why do good or try to change the world when a quick sympathetic hashtag will do? Let’s hope the Pearly Gates don’t have a “paywall”.

One of the most pleasing aspects about the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love was that it portrayed the Bard not so much as a poet or grand man of letters, but more akin to a hack. He’s always searching for new ideas, looking for sponsors to pay him money to write, scribbling into the small hours to meet urgent deadlines.

I like to think of his Spanish contemporary Miguel de Cervantes, the 400th anniversary of whose death we also commemorated recently, as likewise an inspiration for creative types. Here was a man who endured injury, kidnap, imprisonment, bankruptcy, an unhappy marriage and ill-health, and who in his prime saw his 20 to 30 plays sink into obscurity.

Only in 1605, in his 59th year, did he publish Don Quixote, which became an instant bestseller, and which today is regarded as a masterpiece of European literature. There is a lesson here for all writers and artists who toil alone.

Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked