At least, that’s according to the Heritage Foundation, which recently released a study that claims religious practice increases sexual satisfaction, and leads to more happiness and “hope,” less drug use and depression—and, for a limited time only, whiter teeth. With such manifold benefits, one wonders why anyone would forsake god.
And yet an ever-increasing number of Americans—both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population—are becoming unbelievers. In fact, although most Americans happily call themselves Christian, we are fast becoming a godless nation. Religious pandering—from Jimmy Carter’s born-again rhetoric to Bush’s compassionate conservatism—has masked the real story about religion in modern America: the gradual, but inexorable, rise of secularism since World War II.
As Cathy Young, a former editor of Reason Magazine, puts it, “40 percent of Americans do not belong to a church and do not consider religion a very important part of their lives.” Even more strikingly, a 2001 comprehensive poll of over 50,000 Americans found that the number of secular Americans has more than doubled to 29.4 million since 1990, and now exceeds the number of Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Buddhists combined. In fact, nonreligious or secular Americans outnumber adherents of every religion but Christianity. And the number of Christians is falling: Even in the midst of this much ballyhooed religious revival, the proportion of Christians has actually decreased by 9.7 percent in little more than a decade.
Yet the rise of secularism isn’t remarked upon in the mainstream media, which prefers mega-church scaremongering (evangelicals are coming to get you!), or condescending articles on virginity balls and the like. So why does the growing secular minority feel besieged by the shrinking religious majority?
This mixture of fear, disdain, and incomprehension might be a legacy of recent (until 2006) electoral defeats, but—in defiance of popular myths —Americans aren’t eager to impose religion via the ballot box. Most voters say that religion seldom or never influences their voting decisions, and voters are far more concerned about officials who pay too much attention to religion than those who pay too little (51 vs. 35 percent in a 2004 CBS/New York Times poll), as the Schiavo backlash reflects.
Even within the most religious groups of voters, such as born-again Christians, religious beliefs only have a limited relationship to political beliefs. For example, according to Barna Group research, one-third of born-again Christians believe that abortion is morally acceptable behavior. Nor does the religious right vote as a monolithic bloc. In 2000, 10 million white evangelicals, and almost half of all voters that self-identify as “religious right” but go to church less than once a week, voted for Gore over Bush.
The President himself, despite being secularists’ bête noir, is not the firebrand he’s made out to be. Bush may talk to god, and use religiously-charged language in public speeches, but his presidency has been far from a “tide of religiosity engulfing a once secular republic,” as the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. hysterically claimed. In fact, Bush has offered little more than rhetorical support to right-wing causes. Opening government funding to faith-based charities—probably Bush’s most dramatic pro-religion action—hardly marks a biblical deluge.
There is, however, one glaring exception: systematic discrimination against atheists. Most Americans (54 percent) have an “unfavorable impression” of atheists, regarding then as godless loose cannons without any grounded sense of morality. (Even in 2002, the Pew Center found that the corresponding number for Muslims was only 29 percent.) This prejudice lets politicians like Mitt Romney say, “We need a person of faith to run this country” and not receive even a mummer of criticism for establishing a theism litmus test. In fact, his statement is almost necessarily true, because, even though most voters wouldn’t disqualify a gay, black, or female presidential candidate, only 37 percent would vote for an atheist.
Clearly atheism is still stigmatized. But given the broader secularization of America, it seems likely that this reflects specific connotations of the word “atheist” rather than general loathing of non-theists. In other words, despite the ardent efforts of blogs like “Faithful Democrats” (which features Crimson editorial editor Loui Itoh ’07), Democrats are not doomed by obstinately ignoring the burning bush.
Ultimately, although students tend to view our ivory tower as one of a few lonely secular outposts in a vast wilderness of religious ignorance, this indulgent, self-laudatory narrative is mistaken. Likewise, modish militant atheism (Richard Dawkins and the like) misses the mark; shrill, self-righteous atheism may be sexy—oh so radical, sure to infuriate the parents—but it’s like kicking a dying horse. In retrospect, talk of a new 20th-century great awakening will be seen as the last gasp of a bygone era, as the Americans catch up with the godforsaken Europeans.
Piotr C. Brzezinski ’07 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.