I just read Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why? By staff writer for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson. I find The Atlantic to be full of insightful articles, even when I don’t wholeheartedly agree with them. This article is no exception.
Thompson recalls those enlightened 19th century pundits who predicted the death of God and advances in “scientific discovery and modernity” that would lead to widespread atheism. Thompson is a skeptic, himself. While Europe has largely gone the way the pundits predicted, The United States has resisted that prognostication – at least until recently.
Thompson blames “America’s unique synthesis of wealth and worship” and “stubbornly pious Americans” for the United States not going with the flow of the Enlightenment ascent of man from the superstitious dark ages into the light of science and reason.
While the rest of the western world has been drifting away from religious affiliation, and religion altogether, the United States seemed impervious to those forces working on the rest of the western world – until recently. Things began to change in the United States in the 1990’s, and that trend continues.
The article borrows heavily from Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, for figures and figurings of the reasons why. The shift is clear, though, and the statistics bear it out, that religious affiliation and interest in religion in the United States is waning and going the way of the rest of the western world.
“According to Smith, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” Smith goes on to provide some explanation for how these “events” have triggered the change. He says,
“The marriage between the religious and political right …. disgusted liberal Democrats, especially those with weak connections to the Church. It also shocked the conscience of moderates, who preferred a wide berth between their faith and their politics.”
Thompson’s article got me thinking. He is right about the trend away from religion in the United States. We don’t need data to tell us that. The “nones” are increasing while the committed believers are decreasing. That these observations come from “outside the camp” doesn’t make them false.
Thompson’s explanations for the reasons why this is may be more of a mixed bag. He (naturally) views the changes through a naturalistic lens. He may be right about some of the cause and effect, but he (naturally) isn’t likely to see the more spiritual side of those things.
I “grew up” spiritually during the mid to late 80’s when the marriage between religion and the political right was consummated. I fell out of step with it, and lost track of it, when I went to law school in 1988. Apparently the honeymoon went well.
I count myself (even today) as an evangelical (though I search for a different label). My spiritual upbringing included the experience of the courting of the religious right of the Republican Party. (Or was it the other way around?)
Law school, however, challenged even my most sacrosanct connections, and the cares and concerns of fatherhood and providing for a growing family distracted me from other relationships. It was all I could do to hold onto God during this time, and the truth is that He mostly held onto me.
Perhaps, that was a blessing in disguise, as I didn’t grow into the religio-politico affiliation that seems to characterize a large segment of the evangelical church today. I am a more distant observer of that relationship today, so I think I have some objectivity left.
I agree (partially) with Thompson’s assessment that the congruence of the religious right and the political right changed the political landscape. It also changed the religious landscape. Perhaps, more than we might care to acknowledge.
The separation of Church and State built into the US Constitution was meant to protect the State from the Church, but it works the other way also. It protects the Church from the State.
My long held view of the “Dark Ages” (which may not have been as dark as we tend to recall) is that the corruption in the Church was directly related to the marriage of the Church to the State. Hitched to the power and influence of the State, the Church loses its distinct, salty flavor.
The Church is no longer countercultural when the Church dominates and controls the culture. When the kingdom of God is wedded to the kingdoms of this world, its mission gets compromised and warped and falls flat.
I believe the bedfellows of the religious right and the political right have done more damage to the Church than any impact they might have on politics in the US.
The second event Smith credits for the decline of religious orientation in the United States is the lightning strike of 9/11. As I read Smith’s critique and theories on why that singular event had such an influence on religiosity in the West, I can clearly see how the devastation of that cataclysmic event extended beyond Wall Street to the churches on the corner of Main Street.
“It would be a terrible oversimplification to suggest that the fall of the Twin Towers encouraged millions to leave their church, Smith said. But over time, al-Qaeda became a useful referent for atheists who wanted to argue that all religions were inherently destructive.”
The sudden and shocking attack on the heart of the civilized world, where the Dow Jones reigned supreme, gave rise to the New Atheists. In one breath, they condemned radicalized Islam, and in the next breath they locked Christian religion into their crosshairs and fired relentlessly. It was a full on and sustained attack that continues today.
A generation has grown up with a shockingly visual example of religious evil etched in their minds.
Following the fall of the Twin Towers, the western world engaged in a sustained counterattack on the heart if Islam (as the west perceives it) in the Middle East. This attack was sustained with political and religious fervor, and many people grew to recoil against it over time.
Aren’t we doing to them what they did to us? A thousand fold! When is enough enough?
The religious right is fond of quoting Dr. King – that the darkness cannot drive out the darkness, and we cannot fight hate with hate and expect love to result from it – when it comes to race relations in the US, but the religious right doesn’t follow that advice when it comes to Islam.
What about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies when we are talking about a threat to ourselves (and not just a threat to others – people of color in the US)?
When we fight fire with fire, we tend to get more fire. Ironically, the arms we provided to counter revolutionaries in the Middle East against Islamic states in the past were turned on us in the process. Al Qaeda was stamped into the ground, but ISIS rose up out of that blood-drenched soil like a Phoenix.
The religious fervor that led Islamists to fly planes into the Twin Towers is no different than the religious fervor that sustained the Crusades and sustains the unrest in the Middle East today – in the minds of people who are already ambivalent about religion.
Distrust of fundamentally religious motivation may be at an all time high. The organization of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority in the 80’s and their religious opposition to change set the stage. Having entrenched their position in the political landscape calling for a return to fundamental values built on a foundation of religious piety, that landscape was laid waste by an act of the most heinous evil motivated by religious fundamentalism demanding that the world bow down to another form of religious piety.
Religion became the enemy.
“In a twist of fate, the Christian right entered politics to save religion, only to make the Christian-Republican nexus unacceptable to millions of young people—thus accelerating the country’s turn against religion.”
The call of the Religious Right to return to a religiously-minded view of the Constitution was matched by the call of the non-religious left to reinforce the wall of separation between Church and State. Force and counterforce.
Did the Religious Right prophetically see a downslide coming? Or did it trigger and hasten the downslide? Even conservatives who are skeptical of the alignment of church and state and left-leaning Christians have reacted adversely to the coup attempt on the political and cultural control of the country from the Religious Right.
Thompson observes that the damage to religion in the US came not just from the outside. As the religious right doubled down, “divorce rates spiked in the ’70s through the ’90s, following the state-by-state spread of no-fault divorce laws”. Divorce rates spiked in the Church, also, in the same degree as they spiked outside the Church.
The effort of the Religious Right and Moral Majority to wall out the moral decline in the country through the bulwark of religious influence in the political arena was crumbling from the inside. The failure of the Church to live up to the morality it sought to impose on the rest of the world was the trojan horse.
The call to religious morality in the political arena came at a time of crumbling religious morality that was happening in the Church. The hypocrisy of that juxtaposition was not lost on the world outside the Church.
In another article, the same author (Thompson) laments the loss of meaning and purpose that the youth feel today as interest, identification and participation in religion wanes. (Elite Failure Has Brought Americans to the Edge of an Existential Crisis by Derek Thompson for the Atlantic September 5, 2019) We see this, Thompson says, in the rising rates of suicide, depression and anxiety in young people over the last 30 years. Thompson says:
“The deeper question is whether the sudden loss of religion has social consequences for Americans who opt out. Secular Americans, who are familiar with the ways that traditional faiths have betrayed modern liberalism, may not have examined how organized religion has historically offered solutions to their modern existential anxieties.”
Thompson, who echoes the sentiments of fellow atheists and agnostics, like Doug Murray and Tom Holland, is candid about the hole that religion lost leaves for society that was built on its bedrock. That he is willing and able to pay tribute may be more evidence of the belief that religion is dead than any real sorrow in its demise. He recognizes the best character of religion as we often do only in memorial:
“Anxiety, depression, and suicidality have increased to unprecedented levels among young people. Meanwhile, deaths from drugs and suicide—so-called deaths of despair, which are concentrated in the white working class—have soared in the past two decades, recently reaching the highest levels ever recorded by the federal government.”
I don’t believe the existential angst of modern youth is any greater than it was when I was young (judging by my own myopic experience), but the options they are willing to entertain have shrunk, and religion is increasingly not one of them.
Is the Religious Right beating a dead horse? Is religion (and God) dying and nearly dead in America?
Will religion go the way of the dinosaurs in the aftermath of 9/11, like a comet lifting a cosmic plume of dust that will finally lead to the extinction of the stubborn piety of American religion?
Is religion doomed?
I suspect that the trend will continue, as it as in Europe and Canada. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is relatively on fire for Christ. Especially China, Iran, South America and Africa.
In the nation of Israel, God brought judgment against them for their idolatry and their refusal to do justice – the two main causes of God’s judgment identified by the Prophets. I see a parallel in the modern US.
Israel wanted a king like the other nations, and they trusted in the power of other nations to protect them. We wanted a king also, and he was called Donald Trump. We have turned to secular politics for our cultural salvation, and it is backfiring on us. (We have plenty of other idols as well, including the cult of personality, prosperity, etc.)
Perhaps, the death to religion that we are experiencing is this just death to an old, sinful man that has been fed too much and allowed to live too long in the American Church. Perhaps, we are reaping the judgment of God for our idolatry and refusal to do justice.
Thompson recognizes that “rising anxiety, suicide, and deaths of despair speak to a profound national disorder.” We are not well. We have an identity crisis as people have left religion in its apparent death throes to wake up to a cold, godless reality. People have lost their mooring and seek desperately for a new one.
Thompson predicts that this present state is merely a “purgatory … between the unmaking and the remaking” of a new cultural reality. He doesn’t say what that reality is. It doesn’t matter what it is.
He is buoyed by the Enlightenment faith in a perpetually ascending pattern of natural selection acting inevitably on random, unguided mutations to make better organisms, better hominids and a better world. His hope is founded on another bulwark – a more radical and ruthless fundamentalism that separates and favors the strong over the weak.
Life will go doggedly on, for now. Some of us will adapt and survive. The inevitable end, however, that the naturalist knows better than the religious man, is that life will end. All life. It simply will.
Ice ages follow periods of warming. Comets will strike, raising the great plumes of our disaster. The energy in the universe will eventually, inevitably wane.
There is no reason to believe that evolutionary forces will favor human life – or any life at all. Life is the upstart reality in this universe, and this universe will quench it as certainly as it gave birth to life.
Thompson’s hope for a secular awakening, a humanist answer to the existential angst, is a temporary and futile hope, at best, that requires the suspension the awareness of our inevitable demise to fuel a fleeting answer to our angst and willing disbelief in the blind, pitiless indifference of the natural world to human existence.
What hope do we have, but for a religious one?
What promise do we have, but a transcendent one? What evidence do we have that life can rise from the ground in which it is buried but for the one example in the history of the universe in which life grew out of death?
There is no greater hope or evidence on which hope can be based than the man, who claimed to be God incarnate, who died and rose from the dead. There is no greater story ever told.
Human beings build altars and offer sacrifices on them borne of an innate desire for something eternal that wells up within us like geysers betraying that which burns within our core. Human beings tend to want to build temples in which we try to house gods that we can control.
God, however, does not live in temples made by human hands. He is not appeased by the sacrifices we offer on our altars of control. He put that desire within us, and only He can satiate it.
The Religious Right may have hastened the death of American religion, but Scripture tells us that the shoot of a Living Vine grows out of that remnant stump. It is, even now, growing stronger in areas of the world where decaying corpses of other religions and ruins of manmade artifices are giving way to a Living God.
There is something more sustainable than stubborn piety at work even in the death throes of American religion. A faithful God, Creator of the Universe who set people in their places and times in hope that some would seek Him and find Him is at work, and branches connected to His vine will prosper.
The risen Christ is ever present promising to make all things new, inviting anyone who will listen and receive Him to be born again. Not religion, but a living Savior, God incarnate, who took on death in human form, and rose again showing us the way to a real hope. The old must pass away to give way to new life.