"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Decline Of Religion In America

It is easy to see that the hold that both traditional and evangelical religions have had on Americans is weakening.  A famous Pew study recorded the rise of the ‘Nones’; pastors everywhere lament that their congregations are dwindling; and there is a general increase in secularism throughout the country.  Religion is paling as a panacea, opiate, and  social support in an age of virtual reality, genetic modification, Prozac, and pleasure without guilt.  Who listens to those sweaty Bible-thumpers anyway? The Catholic Church has become a refuge of liars, thieves, and child-abusers.  Christmas has been for sale for years; and the story of Christianity, when deconstructed, is less an inspirational tale of suffering, resurrection, and redemption than a fabulous mythical tale little different from that of Gilgamesh, the epic battles of Siva and Ravanna, or the Enlightenment of the Buddha under the banyan tree.


However, it may only seem like everyone is giving religion a pass; and what has become superficially evident is actually a fact - there are far fewer true believers than ever before.  There are far fewer true believers than ever before. Peter Foster, writing in The Telegraph (2.21.14) has found that even among white evangelicals, the bedrock of fundamental Christian belief in America, religious faith is slipping:

Using data from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey, Chaves discovers that among White Evangelicals born in the decade 1981-90, some 22 per cent now say they have no religion, a figure is close to the 24 per cent of mainstream Protestants born in the same decade who say the same.

What is interesting, is that if you go back a decade and look at White Christians born 1971-80, just 12 per cent of Evangelicals say they have no religious affiliation, compared with 19 per cent of mainstream Protestants: the secularization trends are clearly converging.

That is, not only have mainstream Protestants given religion a bye, but those who have always been counted on to pay their spiritual dues every month, are slacking off.  Worse yet, these statistics reflect the trend among young evangelicals.  If these declines continue even at the same rate, then mega-churches and store-fronts will be closing up like five-and-dimes.

But is this pessimistic scenario likely?

Analysis of European secularization might provide us some pointers for the US going forward. There, according to analysis by David Voas, a sociologist at Essex University, it is clear that the rise of so-called "fuzzy fidelity" – i.e. those with no explicit religious affiliation, but who still believe in some kind of higher power and go to church on Christmas – has proved to be a "staging post on the road from religious to secular hegemony.

Which means that even among those who check off some religious affiliation on census forms may be only marginal believers.  They are about ready to jump off the lifeboat.  After years of attending mass only twice a year on Easter and Christmas, even the pageantry and choral music isn’t enough to keep them in the pews, so might as well ditch the routine altogether.

"Indifference," Voas writes in his 2008 paper The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe, "is ultimately as damaging for religion as skepticism”.

The US Census form is far too exclusive, for there is no box for “Don’t care”.

“No religion” is far too demanding a category for most non-believers.  Atheists are a proud and determined group for whom denial of the divine is as much a religion as evangelical Christianity.  They check the “No religion” box with a black Magic Marker, a thick, dark blot to indicate their rejection of obscurantism and blind faith.

“Don’t care” is the box for most others who never think about religion one way or another.  They don’t struggle with belief, agonize over the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus Christ.  They have no anxiety about being faithless and religiously unattached.  They don’t keep a prayer book on the bedside table just in case Jesus comes a-calling or rosary beads in their pocket.  They simply aren’t interested.  They are not tempted when they hear choir practice at the local church, nor wonder about God and eternity when they pass a churchyard.  They are indifferent.  A Sunday sermon is no different from an lecture on life insurance.  Religion doesn’t matter. 

Foster points out that despite the decline in religious faith in the country, there is no openly non-believing or secularist member of Congress which might suggest that the roots of religion have not been completely pulled up.  Regardless of what Americans believe or do, their self-image as God-fearing citizens is hardwired.  Religion and patriotism have been so long intertwined that disengaging them will take decades if not more.  Long after most people have stopped going to church, they still tear up at the Pledge of Allegiance’s ‘One nation under God’. 

In other words, even if half of our elected representatives are indifferent to religion, it makes no political sense to stick that pin in their lapels.

Eventually it will happen.  Congressmen and the governed alike will embrace secularism at the expense of religion.  No more prayer breakfasts, invocations of the Creator, or references to Jesus as a personal savior.  No more Billy Grahams kneeling with Presidents, no more invitations by kingmaker and mega-pastor Rick Warren to the Saddleback Church. 

After all is said and done, it is hard to believe that something so persistent in human society will disappear.  Religion has been a part of life since the first thunderbolt. People worship mountains, trees, and rocks.  They sacrifice lambs and virgins to appease angry gods. The treasuries of the world’s great religions are full to the brim, and religion is nothing if not a giant, multi-national corporate empire. Not only that, but Muslims are on the rampage, demanding the heads of devil-worshipping American apostates. Far from considering the demise of religion, they are intent on forming a world Caliphate, a spiritual empire enforced by militant defenders. What power do Unitarians in Bethesda, Maryland have against the might of the holy scimitar?

Despite what exceptionalists think, America is not the center of the world.  Secularism may be the new religion here, but not everywhere.  In fact, there is a resurgence of a religious fervor are more fundamental and passionate than the United States has ever seen.

Not to worry.  Josef Stalin, when asked about the moral authority of the Catholic Church, famously replied, “How many divisions does the Pope have?”  We will always have military might, and secularism is good for business, and business creates wealth and might, so while radical Muslims may rant, rave, and sabre-rattle, we have many, many godless divisions on our borders.

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