A More Religiously Diverse United States

Pew Research’s projections for 2050 see greater religious diversity in the United States.

They anticipate Christians falling from 78.3% of the US population to 66.4%, though due to population growth the total number of American Christians will be larger in 2050.

By mid-century Muslim Americans will increase from 0.9% to 2.1% of the population, and globally Muslims will grow faster than any other group due to high birth rates in predominantly Muslim countries.

In contrast, the unaffiliated will decrease as a percentage of the world population because birthrates in developed nations are low.

The US is an outlier, however. The unaffiliated will increase from 16.4% to 25.6% of all Americans by mid-century.

The global trend of high birthrates in the most religious countries and low birthrates in the most secular countries is interesting. Does increased secularism cause low birthrates? Do low birthrates cause secularism? Or is there a third factor(s) causing low birthrates and secularism to coincide?

I’m guessing there’s a third factor. And it’s likely increased economic independence decreasing people’s reliance on each other.

The unaffiliated, however, are a large group that includes not only atheists and agnostics but also the spiritual but not religious. And the latter accounts for most of the unaffiliated.

It’s time for Pew to count disbelievers and spiritual but not religious separately. This would help us better understand trends because an increase in unaffiliated Americans doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in American atheism.

Maine’s Demographic Crunch

Maine’s population has peaked at 1.33 million and is expected to stay there through 2030.

But could Maine eventually see a population decrease?

The Portland Press Herald reported recently that between 2010 and 2013, 97,233 Mainers left the state while 95,223 moved into Maine – a net loss of 2,000 people.

This wouldn’t matter if Maine had a high enough birthrate. But the Census Bureau says Maine’s population was flat during the same time frame.

Even though states like Florida have a higher percentage of senior citizens, Maine’s lack of young people makes it the oldest state in the nation with a median age of 43.5 years old.

And the loss of young adults means the loss of two generations because their children will be born somewhere else.

This is a problem because the proportion of workers to retirees will be cut in half when Baby Boomers retire. With only two workers for every retiree, Maine is going to see an increased need for government funded services while fewer young people to start businesses tightens tax revenues.

Maine is a Baby Boomer state. Right now the population bubble is people in their 50s. But the Census Bureau’s graph comparing 2000 to 2030 shows the baby bust known as Generation X (who in 2030 will be in their 50s) looking like a dent between Boomers and Millennials. Meanwhile, the population of 20-something Mainers in 2030 (people who are now in elementary school) will be smaller than even Generation X.

This makes me wonder what will happen to Maine’s population in the mid to late 21st century when Baby Boomers are no longer with us and the number of young adults isn’t even close to replacement level.

Especially for northern Maine. The long standing migration pattern to southern Maine means that even if Maine’s overall population doesn’t decrease significantly, the population of northern Maine could still plummet.

The state’s projections anticipate continued growth in southern Maine, as well as some parts of mid-coast and central Maine. But the growth isn’t expected to happen in cities like Portland or Lewiston/Auburn. Instead, growth will be in the suburbs.

Meanwhile, some northern and eastern counties are expected to see double digit population decreases.

The Demographic Times They Are A-Changin’

I’ve heard it said that by mid-century whites will be a minority in the United States. But strictly speaking this isn’t true.

The Center for American Progress, in collaboration with the liberal Brookings Institution and the conservative American Enterprise Institute, released a report about America’s future. States of Change: The Demographic Evolution of the American Electorate, 1974–2060 looks at where we’ve been and where we’re going.

And the demographics, they are a-changin’. The report describes the emerging American racial mix using the phrase “majority-minority” to describe whites being less than half of the population but larger than any other group.

I prefer the word plurality. Semantics aside, whites will not be a minority by mid-century because being the largest group, though less than half of the population, is not comparable to the place African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and others have held in American society.

Regional Differences

Also interesting are the expected regional differences. My home state of Maine is 94% white (non-Hispanic). By 2060 this is expected to drop to 88%. Yet, Asian-Americans today are the largest group in Hawaii at 37.7% while whites are 23%.

Northern states from New England to the Pacific Northwest are projected to remain majority white in 2060, but Latinos are anticipated to outnumber whites in the Southwest – including California and Texas. And this could significantly alter politics in Texas, with national ramifications. Whites and Latinos will be roughly equal in mid-century Florida.

Although the African-American share of the demographic pie is expected to remain constant, notable shifts could happen in the Deep South. Will blacks one day outnumber whites in Georgia?

The Asian-American population is likely to increase significantly, and California will notice this most, as will every major American city.

Immigration Is Good

Immigration is going to be a major driver of these shifts. The United States has always followed a predictable pattern with immigration: heavy immigration from certain parts of the globe results in xenophobia and racism among Americans whose ancestors immigrated a few generations earlier. The newcomers are often poor but within a couple generations are as well educated as anyone else and have added invaluably to American culture. And then they lament that today’s immigrants aren’t like their grandparents.

In the nineteenth century the Irish began showing up in droves, and Americans put signs in shop windows saying “Irish need not apply.” The Irish were drunks, lazy, always on the dole (welfare), and practiced a pagan religion (Catholicism). Then in 1960 the great-grandson of Irish immigrants got elected president, and on March 17 every American claims Irish ancestry. But Americans of Irish descent are counted among those who want to close the door to Latinos.

But Latinos are a different group. Italian-Americans were geographically separated from Italy, so the Italian language in America faded away. But the Americas are mostly Spanish speaking, and the Southwest United States was once northern Mexico. Thus, Hispanics will be the only major ethnic group to retain bilingualism. And that’s okay. Canada does it just fine. Switzerland is trilingual.


Let’s take a look at the 2016 presidential election, and what that might mean down the line.

States of Change tells us that the Greatest Generation (think World War II) is only 1% of the US population, so not a group politicians will be courting. Members of the Silent Generation (think Elvis Presley) are now in their 70s and 80s. They’re less than a tenth of the population.

Baby Boomers and Millennials are each about a quarter of the population, and they are the ones politicians must focus on. But Boomers are key (for this election cycle) because people are more likely to vote when they’re older. And politically, they’re very polarized. Bill O’Reilly and Michael Moore are both Boomers.

Did I forget someone? Oh yeah, Generation X. My generation. Demographically, we are a baby bust. We’re a fifth of the American population. Like the Silent Generation, we will be forgotten. Reality Bites. Our best strategy is to ride Millennial’s coattails.

As the older generations pass away, Republicans will have to become more socially progressive to survive. Fiscally conservative young people are much more socially progressive than their elders. Fifty-eight percent of Millennial Republicans support gay marriage, and almost two-thirds would legalize marijuana.

The Millennial Future

Talkin’ ’bout my generation. It’s an American tradition. The Greatest Generation trashed Baby Boomers in the ’60s, and Boomers trashed GenX in the ’90s. Now it’s Millennials turn to be trashed. But they’re in their 20s. They will grow up, they will take the reins of leadership, and it will be fine. Expect an unprecedented number of women leaders from this generation.

Today, Millennials are 27% of the population. By 2060 they’ll be 21% (the same percentage GenX is today).

Not bad.

By comparison, GenX will be 8% in 2060. Those born after 2000 (a generation still being born) will be a quarter of the population, and folks born circa 2020 through the 2030s will be an equal score. The generation starting to be born around 2040 is, by 2060, expected to be slightly smaller.

Big picture: In the 2020s Millennials will start to fill the void left by Baby Boomers’ setting sun, and they will maintain this position until the 2060s.

US History from a Latino Perspective

European colonization of what is now the United States starts with the English landing in Virginia and Massachusetts.

Well, not so fast, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto. In his book, Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, Fernández-Armesto points out that in 1508 Puerto Rico became the first permanent European settlement in what is now US territory. St. Augustine, Florida and Santa Fe, New Mexico are also Spanish settlements predating the English.

Fernández-Armesto challenges us to read American history, not east to west, but north to south: as Mexico expanded into Tejas, California, Colorado and points between, it ran up against US manifest destiny.

The Mexican territory of Tejas, for example, had an illegal immigration problem: white Anglos were moving into the land they mispronounced as Texas, and they brought black slaves with them despite slavery being illegal in Mexico. There were wars (remember the Alamo?) culminating in the Mexican-American War, which Anglo-Americans have mostly forgotten, but which Mexicans and Mexican-Americans remember as well as Southerners remember the Civil War.

Following US acquisition of what is now the Southwest, property owned by Mexicans was confiscated, programs of forced Anglicization were imposed, and racial discrimination (including lynchings) began.

Yet, today we hear people asking, where did all these Hispanics come from?

Fernández-Armesto closes his book by explaining “Why the United States Is – and Has to Be – a Latin American Country” :

…the perspective advocated in this book [is] the United States as a country with a Hispanic past as well as a Hispanic future. Migrants from Hispanic America need not be feared as intruders: they can be welcomed as homecomers. Their language need not be treated as a threat, but relished as an enhancement and embraced as an opportunity. …In the United States we must make pluralism work because, paradoxically perhaps, it is the one creed that can unite us.


So What If It’s the Opium of the People?

What does a priest do if he’s lost his faith, but the people of his parish need him? Pretend. Because actions matter more than belief.

So concludes Miguel de Unamuno in his 1930 short story, San Manuel Bueno, mártir.

The people of a small Spanish village believe their priest, Don Manuel, is a saint.

Por todos mostraba el mismo afecto, y si a algunos distinguía más con él era a los más desgraciados y a los que aparecían como más díscolos.

He treated everyone with equal kindness, and if he showed any preference it was for the most unfortunate and those who seemed most rebellious.

Angela is a young woman whose faith is made strong by Fr. Manuel’s example. But her brother Lázaro is an atheist. When he returns to Spain from America, Angela introduces him to Fr. Manuel hoping for a conversion.

But that’s not exactly what happens.

Lázaro shares his unbelief, and to his surprise Fr. Manuel admits that he too is an unbeliever.

Realizing that life is meaningless, which Fr. Manuel says is like seeing the face of God (which the Bible says will kill you), is too difficult for people to face. Faith is the consolation of life (Fe en el consuelo de la vida). Belief makes people happy, and to take that away would destroy them.

Fr. Manuel believes in love – that’s why he can’t believe a just God would condemn some people to hell. And with that doubt went the rest of theology.

Referencing Karl Marx’s statement that religion is the opium of the people, Fr. Manuel remarks,

“Opio… Opio… Opio, sí. Démosle opio, y que duerma y que sueñe.”

“Opium… Opium …Opium, yes, let’s give them opium, and let them sleep and dream.”

…yo le decía: “Pero ¿es usted, usted, el sacerdote, el que aconseja que finja?”

I said to him, “Is this you, you, the priest advising me to pretend?”

“…poca teología; religión, religión.”

“…very little theology; religion, religion.”

Relating the story to his sister, Lázaro tells her,

“…es un santo, hermana, todo un santo. No trataba, al emprender ganarme para su santa causa…arrogarse un triunfo, sino que lo hacía por la paz, por la felicidad…”

“…he is a saint, sister, a true saint. When he set out to win me to his holy cause…he was not trying to secure a triumph for himself but was doing it for the peace of mind, for the happiness…”

Reflecting on this later, Angela wonders if Fr. Manuel’s acts of love were acts of theology (si es que no era también teología lo nuestro). As Unamuno remarks in the author’s note,

Habrían creído a sus obras y no a sus palabras, porque las palabras no sirven para apoyar las obras, sino que las obras se bastan.

They would have believed their works and not their words, because words cannot confirm works, but works stand by themselves.

This short story raises many questions.

Was Fr. Manuel really as selfless as Angela thought?

The risk of a priest coming out as an atheist in a traditional culture a century ago was far greater than 21st century America. Was Fr. Manuel’s perspective really just a selfish rationalization to avoid losing his status in society?

Of course, it may have been more. As Fr. Manuel remarks at one point, “persecutions more often come from a persecution complex than from any persecutor” (“las más de la persecuciones son efecto más de la manía persecutoria que no de la perseguidora.”). Every atheist knows that merely being out of the closet is enough to trigger the Christian persecution complex, but in Fr. Manuel’s day that could have gotten him killed.

Other questions include:

Can meaning only come from God; and if so, how do we explain the meaning atheists experience in their lives?

Is it true that the villagers would not have been able to handle a thoughtful discussion about God’s existence? Is Fr. Manuel patronizing them?

Even if the villagers are simpletons who can’t handle thoughtful discussions, and who need religious belief to dull the pain of life, is Fr. Manuel’s deceit nonetheless unjustified?

Even though Lázaro is an atheist, does he continue to be so culture bound that he still must idolize a priest and not question him? In other words, is Lázaro’s pretend faith really just another type of blind faith?

As an atheist ex-Catholic who once wanted to be a priest, I obviously made different choices. But I wholeheartedly agree that words (theology) are empty – it’s actions that reveal what you really believe.

English translation by Paul Burns and Salvator Ortiz-Carboneres.

Maine Hermit Wisdom: Get Enough Sleep

In 2013 an elusive hermit was arrested for stealing food and sundries. Dubbed “the North Pond hermit,” Christopher Knight survived over a quarter century in the Maine woods, living in a tent even in winter.

He just walked into the Maine woods in 1986 and didn’t come out till he got busted.

Here in Maine, winter starts in November and ends in April. January high temperatures often hover around 20 F (-7 C). This winter I was up north near the Canadian border with lows of 30 below.

GQ did an exclusive interview with the hermit. His thoughts range from the popularity of Lynyrd Skynyrd 1,000 years from to his preference for coffee brandy, which mystified the GQ writer (who obviously didn’t know what a big deal coffee brandy is here in Maine).

Jail was difficult for a hermit. The noise, the confinement, the presence of other people. “I am retreating into silence as a defensive move,” he told GQ.

Don’t ask me no questions and I won’t tell you no lies.

But that just increased his stature among his fellow inmates. “I am surprised by the amount of respect this garners me. That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable.”

Asperger syndrome is speculated. He’s obviously highly intelligent. The average man would have been a Popsicle after the first year, but he survived 27 cold Maine winters.

And committed 1,000 burglaries before getting caught due to technology that he knew nothing about. He had been out of society so long he hadn’t even heard of the internet (and really couldn’t care less about it).

He didn’t just steal food and sundries. He rigged a radio to get audio TV, cuz Everybody Loves Raymond is really funny. He also stole books, and according to GQ is quite the literary critic. His assessment of Henry David Thoreau? A dilettante. Fair enough. Thoreau was not even closing to roughing it at Walden Pond.

What hermit wisdom has he to impart?

Get enough sleep. That, and the observation:

“Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing – when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”

And this bird you cannot change.