Sunday, October 30, 2011

Terence McKenna Denounces Relativism and New Age Woo

Here's a powerful short YouTube clip of Terence McKenna goring the ox of postmodern relativism and non-evidential New Age woo in a clear, humorous, mild mannered, and supremely effective way. It just doesn't get any better! Thanks to PZ Myers.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Changing the World Through a Shared Cosmology

This past week, we (Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd) visited our dear friends and colleagues in Santa Cruz: Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams — co-authors of the books The View from the Center of the Universe and The New Universe and the Human Future. There we learned of a superb 18-minute new video of their work: "Changing The World Through A Shared Cosmology" (which is a TEDx talk). The concepts, the illustrations, and Joel and Nancy’s presence on this video are all inspiring. Click on the video image to watch it now — and then tell your friends and colleagues about it, too.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: What's involved in making a new world?

by Tom Atlee

The following is cross-posted here. Short URL:

Dear Friends,

My sleep was cut short last night by waking up worried at 3:30 a.m. PST about NYC Mayor Bloomberg's ultimatum that the Occupy Wall Street protesters leave Zuccotti Park - aka Liberty Square - at 7 a.m. EST so the park could be cleaned.  I won't share the nightmare scenarios my mind concocted, but I finally got up and was profoundly relieved to find that the intervention had been "postponed".  The Mayor's office said that park owner Brookfield Properties "believes they can work out an arrangement with the protesters that will ensure the park remains clean, safe, available for public use and that the situation is respectful of residents and businesses downtown, and we will continue to monitor the situation."  When it was announced, the massive crowd of protesters went joyfully wild.

Apparently a number of factors made a difference:  massive protest from many quarters (including Canadians protesting to Brookfield, which is a Canadian company); the occupiers thoroughly and very visibly scrubbing down their already quite clean site during the night; a LOT of supporters showed up overnight; and they were visibly preparing for a lockdown resistance - explaining on their site how to lock arms, bike lock themselves to things, etc.  Many observers (including me) suspect Bloomberg's "clean the park" project was a thinly disguised attempt to end or cripple the occupation, but at least he recognized what a mess it would make - in SO many ways - to proceed.

So these determined interesting folks have made it over one more dramatic hurdle in their quest for a better world.

Several days ago I sent free copies of my two books (Priority Mail) to the Occupy Wall Street library. I'm happy they escaped the "cleaning" intervention.  I encourage any other authors on this list to consider donating copies of their works.  The ideas of people interested in co-intelligence should be made available to the protestors.  The address is

 The UPS Store
 Re: Occupy Wall Street
 118A Fulton St. #205
 New York, NY 10038

While proceeding with work on my new book on empowered public wisdom, I continue to be fascinated by the ever-expanding Occupy movement.  I find myself spending about half my time tracking it and its impact.  It is quite a remarkable phenomenon.  In this posting, I'm especially interested in their process.

Here's what's in this message:

First, I offer some fascinating charts about the inequities that inspired the protests in the first place and Senator Bernie Sanders recommendations of demands that would start ameliorating them - as well as news of some 1%ers supporting the 99%ers.  Then I share a few key Occupy resource sites, including ones that will be linking up Occupy activities around the world this Saturday, Oct 15 into a "global agora" and "global general assembly".

Following that is an article describing what's happening at Occupation Wall Street site, with unusual insight into their "working groups".  I find it intriguing to contemplate the similarities between OWS's use of working groups and the self-organized sessions in an Open Space conference.  I wonder what other processes could be adopted for special use in this movement...

Then I share three interesting ways professional facilitators and coaches are engaging with the Occupy movement:  Tree Bressen offers hot points on consensus process.  Coaching Visionaries helps people decide on their best role in the movement.  And Tim Bonnemann has initiated research into the Occupy movement's group processes.

After those items, I share a video taken of a General Assembly in Occupy Atlanta where the group discusses whether to hear from civil rights legend Congressman John Lewis who has come to address them - and he ends up leaving.  I share the commentary by the conservative group that filmed it, and then offer my own commentary.

Finally, I offer reflections on the shadow side of such ambitious transformational work, and its evolutionary role in learning what we need to learn to actually succeed at creating the world we want.

It is all incredibly rich, filled with problems and promise.  If you are (or are thinking of getting) involved in the Occupy movement, consider using the Coaching Visionaries questionnaire to explore your thoughts and feelings.  It just might shed light on other areas of your life, as well - and with a bit of adaptation, it could be reconfigured to help you do just that.

Blessings on this and all the other Journeys.


~ Tom


Occupy Wall Street: More popular than you think
Truly remarkable bar graphs showing what the actual distribution of wealth is in the United States, what Americans think it is, and what they think it should be.  A mind-boggle... bursting with potential...

To get down into the nitty gritty detail of the economic inequity over the last half century, see this fascinating slide show of 41 charts collected by Business Insider

Six Demands to Make of Wall Street
By Sen. Bernie Sanders

And for news of the 1% supporting the 99% see 


Global Virtual Assembly for sharing and networking results of local General Assemblies
Over 900 events in more than 80 countries - including more than 100 in the US - scheduled for Saturday, October 15

Global Agora up and running for sending each other videos and messages

The central site for catalyzing and networking all Occupy actions
Especially this great story about the evolution of their site
and access to a growing list of co-created resources about how to create an Occupy action, including descriptions of their group processes


Working Groups as Open Space
Inside Occupy Wall Street: A Journalist-Participant Describes What Life Is Really Like (Complicated and Inspiring) at Zuccotti Park


From Tree Bressen, consensus process trainer:

I am pleased to offer a new handout called "The Top 10 Most Common Mistakes in Consensus Process and How to Avoid Them".

I was inspired to write this especially in support of the current Occupy movement, which has bunches of people participating in consensus decision-making who may not be experienced.  A two-page quick handout can't replace a training, but it can help in the meantime.  Please forward it to anyone you think would find it useful.  Feedback welcome.


From Coaching Visionaries, a group of professional coaches:
We are currently creating this website to support the growth of the vision of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

If you'd like to be informed once it is ready, please join the Facebook group or send an email to

Coaching Visionaries is a coalition of Certified Professional Coaches that has come together to join forces with Occupy Wall Street to support the community in envisioning a better future for us all, and calling that vision forth into the world. We are here to assist you in strengthening your already-powerful voice, maintaining a peaceful community, and growing a global movement built on a foundation of solidarity and hope.

We are working one-on-one with individuals, and we are also available to join specific working groups to help you dream a bigger vision and find concrete ways to achieve the vision that is being born from this community. We can also help you connect to your own deeper self to find the strength and courage necessary to discover your own unique role within this process.

What is Coaching and How Does it Work?

Coaching is a partnership that maximizes human potential. When you work with a coach, you will not be advised as to what to do or how to do it. Your coach helps you look deeper within yourself to find your own solutions to the issues that are important to you. You start by presenting what you'd like the coach to help you with, and then the coach will ask you questions that allow you to navigate your own way to the answers that are true for you. We commit to holding a space of non-judgment and unlimited possibility in which you can feel safe to explore the outer limits of what is possible.

The coaches with Coaching Visionaries come from a perspective of aligning with your whole self. We adhere to the importance of the Mind-Body-Spirit connection. Another way of looking at this is that we work with you to engage both sides of your brain - the rational and logical left brain as well as the creative and visionary right brain.

Who is this for?

We are here for Occupy Wall Street. Any issue that is connected to the vision or challenges of this movement are welcome to be brought to us for coaching:

Are you interested in participating but not sure what your role should be?
Are you on a working group that is facing difficulties of any kind?
Were you arrested or witnessed violence and need support?
Are you a facilitator and need a fresh perspective on how to organize?

What is YOUR role in Occupy Wall Street? Why are you here?

This is an excellent question for you to address with a coach. We'd like to empower you to step fully into an active role in this process that excites you and draws on your unique talents. Occupy Wall Street needs your gifts and strengths!

If you'd like to explore your purpose in connection with the movement, please answer the questions below and then bring your answers to a coach.

Q U E S T I O N N A I R E  -- Finding Your Purpose in Occupy Wall Street

If you'd like to talk to a coach about how you can become involved in the movement in the most powerful way possible for you, please take a few minutes to answer the following questions and then bring them to a coach.

What really excites you and gets you fired up about Occupy Wall Street?  What is most important about what is going on here? Is there anything that you dislike about it that you would like to see change in some way?

What matters most to you in life? Include what makes you laugh, feel alive, motivates you to move and change, gives meaning to your life.

What are your core strengths and qualities? What strengths and qualities do you want to call out in yourself by being involved in Occupy Wall Street? How can your involvement in Occupy Wall Street help you grow as an individual?

How do you envision a role or possibility for yourself within the movement? Think outside the box with this one. Get creative!!!

What is a time from your life where you did something you were very proud of, or where you felt very connected to your core self?


from Tim Bonnemann, Founder and CEO, Intellitics, Inc.

As an exercise in Dialogue and Deliberation research, I'd like to collect first-hand reports from local Occupy sites on any of the following topics:

*  Group methods, meeting formats (what types are being used, how well do they fit)
*  Facilitation/moderation (how good is the quality, what are the challenges)
*  Group decision making, incl. consensus (how robust and efficient is the process, what works or not, what are the challenges)
*  "Dialogic atmosphere" (for context, please see my blog post here:
*  Briefing materials (what quick guides, handbooks or other training materials for process/facilitation etc. are being used)

If you've been to any of the protest sites and noticed anything interesting in this area, please share your notes!


Occupy Atlanta Silences Civil Rights Hero John Lewis!

COMMENT BY THE VIDEOGRAPHERS:  Many curious citizens and media outlets came to the first Occupy Atlanta event, and were visible shocked and confused by the consistent Marxism employed by the group. People abandoned their individuality and liberty to be absorbed into a hypnotizing collective. The facilitator made it clear that he was not a "leader" and that everyone was completely equal; words often spoken by leftists, but in this case they actually applied their philosophy. Into this surreal and oppressive environment, Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights hero and icon of American leftism, came to speak as has so often done at left-wing rallies and events in Atlanta. He is practically worshiped in Democrat circles, and was visibly stunned to see these Marxists turn him away. It was reminiscent of previous Marxist revolutions in history when those who ignorantly supported the revolutionaries are, over time, purged and rejected for the "good of the collective", when their usefulness has expired.

COMMENT BY TOM ATLEE:  It is fascinating to view this event through the videographers' eyes.  Their perspective is so different from mine that it offers a great opportunity to reflect on how powerfully our filters shape our perceptions.

So here's my response to them:  I find the filmmakers' idea that the collective overwhelmed the individual to be absurd.  In consensus an individual can block the process - and did - forcing a reconsideration.  The reference to "hypnotism" seems to be a misunderstanding of the repetitions required to help the whole crowd hear what's going on when there is inadequate amplification equipment.  But if they are used to (and like) a leader making decisions or to hot debates filled with mutual interruptions, I can see how they would go crazy watching this laborious consensus process.

And now here's what I saw and how I interpret it:

Congressman John Lewis walked into an unfamiliar culture.  Not only is that culture different from what he is used to, it is still figuring out what it is and how it works.  One thing it knows is that it believes in equity.  What it doesn't know yet is how to apply that value most usefully.  After all, John Lewis fought all his life for equity, and probably has tremendous gifts of insight and experience to share with the occupiers.  But he showed up apparently unscheduled, expecting to be given the priority consideration that he, as a political celebrity, is used to.

The occupiers were divided about whether he - or anyone - should be given the special privilege of stepping into the middle of the group's agenda to be heard.  Since they were using consensus process, everyone needed to agree to turn away from their agenda and listen to John Lewis, or else the group would have to continue on with the agenda.  From hand signals during the meeting it seemed that most people in the crowd wanted to both hear John Lewis and continue with their agenda.  They finally decided to hear him at the end of the agenda.  At which point he left.  I'm not sure whether he left because he felt disrespected or dismayed or because he is, after all, a Congressman and has a busy schedule, and can't wait for the crowd to finish everything else they're considering before they listen to him.  It is clear he never signed up for consensus process, probably has little experience with it, and doesn't really understand what's involved.

So did consensus work?  Did it come up with a wise solution?  In this case, not necessarily.  One the one hand, it displayed the group's determination to live in an environment where everyone is treated equally - and to decide as a group what they are going to do without being unduly influenced by the larger culture's dynamics of privilege.  On the other hand, it clearly left a significant minority (which in this case happened to include many African Americans) unsatisfied with what was happening - which is exactly what the process is designed to avoid.  However, consensus is not designed for making extremely urgent decisions; it just takes too long.

So what to do?  My own long-term suggestion would be for the process working group to come to terms with this limitation of consensus and begin consciously observing when it becomes a problem and developing ways to address each type of urgent situation they observe.  In this case, what was lost was an opportunity to learn from and be inspired by John Lewis.  One approach would be to have those in the group that wanted to engage with John Lewis, quickly form a John Lewis working group and go to a different part of the occupation site to talk with him - and then bring their learnings back to the larger group when he leaves.  However, then they would not have been able to participate in the General Assembly decisions.  They would have to trust the group.  There may be better solutions, but you get the idea.  Choices often involve trade-offs and if we want to use consensus we have to acknowledge its limits, face the trade-offs involved, and create options to deal with them.

My biggest overall response to this video is poignant compassion for these people wrestling with the challenges of creating a new culture AND a fervent hope that they constantly reflect on their experience and refuse to stagnate in any particular box, even the radical box of consensus process.  Co-creation - and the need to do it consciously - never stops...


From Riyana-Rebecca Sang <>

...the Occupy Together groups are starting to have to face the
reality that it is downright difficult to reach our ideal of bringing
together people from all walks of life, with disparate belief systems,
communication styles, education and cultural backgrounds, etc. into one
force that can challenge those in power and lead to laws and policies that
serve a united majority and our sweet garden planet home rather than the
rich minority....

In conversations on the margins of the crowds, people
admit sheepishly about feeling left out for being the vegan, the queer, the
heterosexual, the anarchist punk, the suburban mom, the elder with decades
of experience, the young kid stepping out into the world of activism for the
first time.  These moments are the shadows of unity – moments that show us
the growing edges of where we need to go and teach us the tools that we need
to develop in order to get there....

We all want the deep work of great change but we are never actually
prepared for how hard its going to be, or how our personal shadows can snake
through even the most conscious intentions to ambush us from behind.  And
that’s how its supposed to be. We can imagine what it would feel like to be
our biggest, brightest selves, and we can envision what this world would be
like if we could truly come together to heal, protect, and nourish our
communities and ecosystems, but it’s the dirty, difficult work of wading
through the shadows that gives us the skills, capacities, and tools to
manifest them and get to the next level.  We may have a sense of the what,
but the how comes with the journey, developed through the growing pains of
evolution.  Part of that growth process is shining a bright light into the
shadows, not to dis-spell their darkness, but to see what is there and what
we can learn from diving deep into them.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Cure for Collective Insanity?

A review of Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean's The Magic of Reality

by Michael Dowd

Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean have made my holiday shopping this year easy. Indeed, if I could pick but one book as required reading for every adolescent and adult in the world, it would be The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.

Why am I so evangelistic about this book? Because it expands and deepens the powerful open letter that Richard wrote in the mid-1990s to his (at the time) ten-year-old daughter Juliet, “Good and Bad Reasons for Believing.” Now, just about anyone on the cusp of puberty and beyond can learn about their deep ancestry, why there are so many animals, what causes earthquakes, what powers the sun and the stars, why rainstorms sometimes produce rainbows, and even “why bad things happen.” Who can read this book and fail to see science as one of humanity’s shining achievements!

Early in chapter 1, which is titled “What Is Reality? What Is Magic?,” Dawkins lays out in a few simple paragraphs a key distinction: “Magic is a slippery word: It is commonly used in three different ways… I’ll call the first one ‘supernatural magic,’ the second one ‘stage magic,’ and the third one (which is my favorite meaning, and the one I intend in my title) ‘poetic magic’.”

Crucially, perhaps because youth are his intended audience, Dawkins maintains a tone throughout that is in no way derisive of anyone’s mythic story — including the mythic story that has been deployed for far too long in Western culture to prevent school children from learning that all creatures are their cousins and that it is a fact of chemistry that they are made of star stuff.

I do believe that, if read far and wide, this book could go a long way toward curing our species of its current collective insanity. Consider this recent statement by my fellow religious naturalist and noted philosopher of religion, Loyal Rue:

"The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed. But if we live in proper relationship with reality (wisely), we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle. What we are less in agreement about is how we should think about reality and what we should do to bring ourselves into harmony with it.”

The Magic of Reality is a stunning example of our best collective intelligence about the nature of reality and how we’ve come to know (rather than merely believe) that science provides a more accurate map of “what’s real” and “what’s important” (or, how things are and which things matter) than ancient mythic maps could hope to achieve. I would argue that nothing is more necessary at this time in history than for people of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs to grasp the importance of distinguishing mythic and meaningful stories of reality from the measurable and meaningful truth of reality.

After all, isn’t the ability to distinguish one’s inner, subjective world from the outer, objective world pretty much the defining mark of sanity? When a person cannot consistently do this, we say that he or she has become a danger to self and others. When a large and media savvy segment of an entire culture insists on selectively using (and selectively ignoring) the discoveries of science, the danger is vastly compounded.

Clearly and compellingly helping readers draw a distinction between myth and reality (while valuing both) is what The Magic of Reality does so brilliantly—and beautifully! Richard Dawkins’ steady prose and helpful metaphors combine with Dave McKean’s stunning illustrations to make this volume a feast for head and heart.

As I’ve written and spoken about many times during the past two years (for example, see my “Thank God for the New Atheists” sermon that was simultaneously published in Skeptic magazine and Australasian Science), I consider Richard Dawkins and many of his New Atheist colleagues to be modern-day prophets. Traditionally, prophets were not so much foreseers or foretellers. They were men and women who spoke boldly and unflinchingly on behalf of reality. Their message (couched in religious terms, of course) was essentially this: “Here’s what’s real, folks—and here’s what’s emerging. We need to get right with reality, or perish.”

In the same way that the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin helped spark the Protestant Reformation five centuries ago, I see Richard Dawkins and David McKean’s book helping 21st century religious folk to break free of idolatry of the written word and thereby spark an Evidential Reformation.

It is on this point that I depart from Dawkins in a major way. I truly do wish for reform of all the world’s religious heritages—not annihilation. And I wish for reform not just because reform is a more practical and realistic approach for smoothing out the harsh edges of literalistic religious zealotry. Rather, I work for reform because religions, historically, have had an important cultural evolutionary role to play.

Following evolutionist David Sloan Wilson (author of Darwin’s Cathedral and Evolution for Everyone), I understand that religions evolved, in part, to make possible vastly larger scales of cooperation than kin selection and reciprocal altruism tend to produce on their own. Religions that could evoke individual sacrifice in the interest of shared goals were those that helped their societies defend territory, conquer the less fortunate, and adequately provision generations to come.

Thus, in a heretical way perhaps, I regard Richard Dawkins as not only a gift to our species but as the boot in the butt my own Christian tradition requires to stay relevant—and to have anything useful at all to pass on to the young people who increasingly listen, globally, more to each other than to their immediate elders.

It is now up to those very same young people to make The Magic of Reality go viral!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Dawning realizations re Occupy Wall Street

by Tom Atlee

The following is cross-posted from my main blog site, here. (See comments posted there too.)

It is slowly dawning on me that I've seen events very similar to Occupy Wall Street.

The first time was on the Great Peace March in 1986 which started out from Los Angeles as a hierarchical mega-PR event with 1200 people and tons of equipment. It suddenly and traumatically went bankrupt in the Mojave Desert two weeks later. 800 marchers went home. 400 marchers didn't. It took them (us) two weeks sitting around an BMX track in Barstow to reorganize with no formal leaders (but tons of ambient leadership) and little support (but tons of vulnerability that soon attracted grassroots support). As we re-started our 3000-mile trek with 400 people, it turned into a 9 month miracle of self-organization (I mean, where DO you put 400 people each night 15 or so miles further down the road?!!), out of which came my first experiences of and ideas about collective intelligence, which led to my life work today. The lives of hundreds of other people were transformed by that March, whose emergent troubadours sang "echoes of our care will last forever..". The folks at Occupy Wall Street are doing a similar experiment in passion-driven self-organization.

The other comparable events I've seen were run by Open Space and World Cafe - especially Open Space. Remember?: The two legs of Open Space are "passion" and "responsibility", which combine into that remarkable guidance formulated by Peggy Holman as "Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service." Are we seeing that in Occupy Wall Street, or what?! Then there's "It starts whenever it starts." "Whoever comes is the right people." "Whatever happens is the only thing that could have" and "When it is over, its over." In Open Space there are two exploratory plenary sharings each day. For most of the day, though, there's no preordained agenda - only people gathering in groups to do what they want to do together. Or being "butterflies" (going off on their own, often stumbling into random conversations) or "bumble-bees" (going from group to group, cross pollinating). No one is "in charge".

The whole thing holds together because those who are present share a passion. In Occupy Wall Street, the shared passion is a desire to reclaim human life and community from "Wall Street" - the greed-based, hierarchical corporate-financial system that has colonized and degraded our minds, lives, politics, economics, world, and future. That passion has a thousand manifestations, which are the polyphonous "issues" that swarm around Liberty Square like bees in a meadow.

So I realized: OF COURSE Occupy Wall Street doesn't have "demands." Demonstrations and protests have demands. But although O.W.S. LOOKS like a protest and a demonstration (and occasionally turns into one), it is actually something more, something else: It is a passionate community of inquiry acting itself out as an archetypal improvisational street theater performance embodying, in one hand, people's longings for the world as it could be and, in the other, their intense frustrations with the world as it is. These longings and frustrations reside in the whole society, not just in the occupiers.

The occupiers are behaving and reaching out in ways that release and activate those suppressed transformational energies all over the country and world. (Arny and Amy Mindell call such archetypal energies "timespirits" after "Zeitgeist", the spirit of the times.) To think of Occupation Wall Street as primarily a demonstration or protest misses the profound novelty and power of what they are doing. All of us - they and we - are figuring out what it is they are doing as they do it. They are kinda building the road as they travel.

That the whole thing wasn't consciously built according to any plan - that it EMERGED - is both its power and its limitation. We would do well to think about how to combine such powerful spontaneity with transformational processes (like Open Space and World Cafe) that use self-organization to help spread evocative energy from a dynamic center like Occupy Wall Street out into the society, transmuting that society's latent frustrations and longings into a force that can shift the energy of the whole System towards Life. I sense a new form of activism, of citizenship, of aliveness being born here. Each of us gets to ask what role we want to play in that flowing, creative Mystery. And the roles we inevitably play inevitably become part of the inevitable river as the ice inevitably melts...


~ Tom

A few recent insightful articles about Occupy Wall Street...
On the eve of my trip to Occupy Boston
#OccupyWallStreet is a Church of Dissent, Not a Protest
Andrew Ross Sorkin's assignment editor
What the Environmental Movement Can Learn From the Wall Street Zombies

Sunday, October 2, 2011

America's Secular Revival

The following was written by Tana Ganeva and is cross-posted from Salon AlterNet, here. For a deeper and broader look at this subject, see Davidson Loher's, "Evidence: The Decline of Christianity in America," James Haught's, "America's Religious Decline and Secular Boom," and the late Michael Spencer's "The Coming Evangelical Collapse".

America's Secular Revival

by Tana Ganeva

Five signs that, despite the GOP's efforts, religion's impact on U.S. politics will soon decline

In between bragging about the number of people they’ve killed and vilifying gay soldiers, the GOP presidential candidates have spent the primaries demonstrating how little they respect the separation of church and state. Michele Bachmann seems to think God is personally invested in her political career. Both she and Rick Perry have ties to Christian Dominionism, a theocratic philosophy that publicly calls for Christian takeover of America’s political and civil institutions. (Even Ron Paul, glorified by civil libertarians for his only two good policy stances — opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and drug prohibition — sputtered about churches when asked during a debate where he’d send a gravely ill man without health insurance.)

GOP pandering to the religious right is just one of those facts of American public life, like climate change denial and creationism in schools, that leave secular Americans lamenting the decline of the country, and of reason and logic. Organized religion’s grasp on the politics and culture of much of Europe has been waning for decades — why can’t we do that here?

But there are signs that American attitudes are changing in ways that may tame religion’s power over political life in the future.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, tells AlterNet that she thinks what happened in Europe is (slowly) happening here. While questioning religion remains controversial — Gaylor says the group’s work on church and state issues often elicits hate mail strongly suggesting they move to, you know, Europe — atheism, skepticism and agnosticism are becoming more widely accepted.

“The statistics show there are more of us … If you’re in a room of people you can count on more to agree with non-belief or to be accepting of non-belief,” says Gaylor.

Here are five trends that give hope one day religion will reside in the realm of personal choice and private worship, far away from politics — something like what the Founders intended hundreds of years ago.

1. American religious belief is becoming more fractured

The intrusion of religion into places where it doesn’t belong, like government or public education, naturally requires high levels of organization and control — it’s not something that just happens. So it’s a good sign that even many Americans who maintain a personal religious faith are distancing themselves from heierarchical, top-down religion. Polls have repeatedly shown that even among the devout, emphatic proclamations of faith do not translate into actual churchgoing. In fact, church attendance rates hovered at around 40 percent until pollsters realized there’s a major gap between what Americans tell them about their religious habits and their actual religious habits. Tom Flynn summarizes the over-inflation of U.S. churchgoing and offers more accurate stats:

Americans may believe in a god who sees everything, but they lie about how often they go to church. Since 1939, the Gallup organization has reported that 40 percent of adults attend church weekly. (The most recent figure is 42%.) Gallup’s figure has long attracted skepticism. Were it true, some 73 million people would throng the nation’s houses of worship each week. Even the conservative Washington Times found that “hard to imagine.” New research suggests that there may be only half to two-thirds that many people in the pews.

Americans are also actively shaping their religious beliefs to fit their own values. Profiled in USA Today, religion statistics expert George Barna shares recent findings that show religion is becoming increasingly personal. Believers might drift from faith to faith until they find one that works for them, or cobble together a belief system drawn from many religious traditions. The U.S. is becoming a place of “310 million people with 310 million religions,” Barna is quoted as saying.

2. Non-belief — and acceptance of non-belief — on the rise

Last month was the first time atheists were knocked from the top of America’s most hated list, an honor that now belongs to the Tea Party. While this development may have more to do with the fact that the mainstream media’s love affair with the Tea Party is not shared by most Americans, it also dovetails with increased visibility and acceptance of atheism.

Gaylor tells AlterNet that the FFRF’s membership has never been bigger, and her observation conforms to larger trends. In a 2008 study by Connecticut’s Trinity college, 15 percent of Americans polled as “nones,” a group composed of vehement atheists, agnostics or people without religious affiliation. In 1990s, only 8.1 percent of the U.S. population could be categorized in this way, according to the report.

In an interview on NPR, Blair Scott, founder of the North Alabama Free Thought Association, says he’s noticed people are becoming more and more open-minded about non-belief: “I mean, I’ve been the victim of discrimination and harassment. They are very real, and they are legitimate concerns that people have. But what we’ve seen recently is an increase in the general public’s, maybe not acceptance, but more curiosity of what atheism is and is not.”

Scott also points out that the controversial writing of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins regularly makes it onto the New York Times bestseller list, which in turn helps popularize atheist arguments and philosophies, even in unexpected places:

I mean, I expect an atheist group in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, etc. But where we’re seeing them pop up is little places like Jackson, Mississippi; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Tallahassee, Florida, you know, so these little bitty mid-size and small towns, and that’s an incredible phenomenon because what that means is that these people are finally willing to say, okay, I live in a small town or a midsize city, but you know what, I know there’s others out there like me.

3. Growing numbers of young people who do not identify as religious

America is still a shockingly religious country by Western standards. But a more nuanced breakdown of religious belief tells a different story. Statistically the most devout demographics are middle-aged and older, while young Americans are increasingly likely to shun religious identification, according to professors Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, writing in the L.A. Times:

As recently as 1990, all but 7 percent of Americans claimed a religious affiliation, a figure that had held constant for decades. Today, 17 percent of Americans say they have no religion, and these new “nones” are very heavily concentrated among Americans who have come of age since 1990. Between 25 percent and 30 percent of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.

The writers point to a surprising culprit: the powerful religious right movement whose tight grip on American political life has steered the country in an aggressively right-wing direction for decades:

Throughout the 1990s and into the new century, the increasingly prominent association between religion and conservative politics provoked a backlash among moderates and progressives, many of whom had previously considered themselves religious. The fraction of Americans who agreed “strongly” that religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions nearly doubled from 22 percent in 1991 to 38 percent in 2008, and the fraction who insisted that religious leaders should not try to influence how people vote rose to 45 percent from 30%.

This backlash was especially forceful among youth coming of age in the 1990s and just forming their views about religion. Some of that generation, to be sure, held deeply conservative moral and political views, and they felt very comfortable in the ranks of increasingly conservative churchgoers. But a majority of the Millennial generation was liberal on most social issues, and above all, on homosexuality. The fraction of twentysomethings who said that homosexual relations were “always” or “almost always” wrong plummeted from about 75 percent in 1990 to about 40 percent in 2008. (Ironically, in polling, Millennials are actually more uneasy about abortion than their parents.)

4. Hate group that exploited religion to bash gays hemorrhaging funds

As Americans increasingly reject the politics of hate, the right-wing groups that thrive on it are facing tough times.

While many practicing Christians live their faith without trying to impose their values on others, the aggressive Christian extremism of organizations like Focus on the Family has always been charged by the demonization of people who are not like them.

Unfortunately for FOTF, many Americans just don’t hate gay people enough to keep them afloat. In 2008, FOTF had to cut its staff by 18 percent. Last week, FOTF had to do another round of cuts, again citing a drop in donations (though it claims the lower funding is a result of tough economic times). On the issue of gay rights, Focus on the Family CEO Jim Daly said:

“We’re losing on that one, especially among the 20- and 30-somethings: 65 to 70 percent of them favor same-sex marriage,” Daly said in the interview. “I don’t know if that’s going to change with a little more age—demographers would say probably not. We’ve probably lost that.”

It’s important to note that the religious right is still exceptionally powerful, as evidenced by the prominent role right-wing Christianity still plays in American politics. It is a powerful movement with lots of followers, smart P.R. and tons of organizational muscle. But as Sarah Seltzer pointed out, “The Christian right is far from dead, but it’s good to see one of its biggest wedge issues losing its power to wedge.”

5. Getting married by friends

On a lighter note, it looks like increasing numbers of Americans are looking to jettison religion out of their marriages as well. The Washington Post reported last week that more Americans are choosing wedding ceremonies without the trappings of religion, including the clergy. Reporter Michele Boorstein finds a crew of college friends who officiate at each other’s weddings:

Their decision to forgo the more traditional route is a slightly extreme example of a once-quirky trend that is becoming more mainstream. A study last year by and showed that 31 percent of their users who married in 2010 used a family member or friend as the officiant, up from 29 percent in 2009, the first year of the survey.

Boorstein points out this trend is likely the result of young people’s drift away from traditional expressions of religious faith.