America may still be the most religious Western democracy, but this article speaks to religion on the decline in America, at least parts of it. Thought this might of of interest to some.
An increasing number of young people in America - and adults around the world - don't believe in God. Greg Epstein, who advises fellow atheists and agnostics at Harvard University, wants to create a kind of church for those who reject religion. But he's encountering resistance from some of the very people he wants to unite.
Rosy-cheeked angels smile from stained-glass windows, and crucifixes hang on the granite walls. The vaulting stone arches lend voices a holy echo. A chandelier-illuminated red carpet leads to the large casket, which is covered with white roses. When the balding man walks into the 165-year-old Gothic chapel, he greets mourners warmly, solemnly, with reverent words and tender handshakes, like a rabbi or a priest. But the well-wisher in a pin-striped suit is no man of the cloth. He doesn’t wear flowing robes or a skullcap, and instead of a Bible or other sacred text, he carries a book titled Funerals Without God.
"This is Reverend Epstein," says a friend of the deceased, a physician who considered religion a pernicious fiction.
Epstein interrupts: "It’s chaplain. . . . It’s OK. A lot of people aren’t sure what to call me."
Over the past two years, Greg Epstein, 30, has become a kind of ministerial paradox, a member of the local clergy who disavows God, preaches to atheists and agnostics, and seeks to build the equivalent of a church for nonbelievers and others skeptical of or alienated by religion. A former lead singer of a rock band, he now serves as the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, one of a small but growing number of such chaplains for nonbelievers on college campuses. In his position, which is endowed, he has helped marry and bury fellow atheists. He has presided over baby-naming ceremonies and organized a "coming out" ceremony for a congressman, Representative Pete Stark of California, one of the few public officials to acknowledge he doesn’t believe in God. He also counsels students and approximates evangelizing by handing out pamphlets with the question: "Are you a humanist?"
From the pulpit at Bigelow Chapel in Watertown (located in Mount Auburn Cemetery), speaking with the slow cadence of a clergyman delivering a sermon, Epstein tells those gathered not to expect a traditional service. "We intend, of course, no disrespect to those who have religious beliefs. . . . We hope and believe you will find the occasion dignified and acceptable."
He continues: "A religious funeral is a celebration of a particular faith, giving homage to God. A humanist funeral is a celebration of the individual human life and his contribution to humanity."
Later, after delivering a homily that might have been heard on a Sunday morning, he explains the contradictions of his role. "I have a religious personality, without a scintilla of religious belief," he says. "If it’s an oxymoron to believe that people who have ceased to believe in God still need caring and community, then I’m proud to be a walking oxymoron."
In a world where zealots crash planes into buildings in the name of God and politicians use the Bible to craft public policy, Epstein sees himself as in the vanguard of an emerging movement fueled by the rise of skepticism, advances in science and technology, and a spreading aversion toward radical religious ideologies and traditions. He and other humanists, who also call themselves atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secularists, or brights, point to a survey published in January by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which found that 20 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 say they have no religious affiliation or consider themselves atheists or agnostics – nearly double those who said that in a similar survey 20 years ago. Another Pew survey in March concluded the nation is witnessing a "reversal of increased religiosity observed in the mid-1990s." Today, 12 percent of Americans surveyed age 20 and older describe themselves as not religious, up from 8 percent in 1987. "This change," the survey’s authors wrote, "appears to be generational in nature, with each new generation displaying lower levels of religious commitment than the preceding one."
More here: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/magazine/articles/2007/09/16/the_nonbelievers/?page=2