Peter Foster is the American editor of London’s Daily Telegraph. He reports here on the rising tide of secularism in America.
The decline of mainstream Protestantism in America over recent decades has been well documented, but for much of that period Evangelical Christianity appeared to be immune to that wider trend, as mega-churches continued to grow and George W Bush took the White House.
But now, according to Mark Chaves, a divinity and sociology professor at Duke University and author of “America Religion: Contemporary Trends”, it seems that Evangelicals are now succumbing to the same forces of secularization.
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.
If the surveys are true, then we are seeing a move away from church by Evangelicals that echoes the devastating decline in mainstream Protestantism over the last fifty years. The change seems to be relatively slow, but Foster wonders if a leap in secular opinions might be around the corner.
it is now clear beyond reasonable doubt that America is secularizing, but that doesn’t answer a much trickier – and more interesting question: how far, and how fast?
America still feels highly religious on the surface, but is it possible that attitudes to religion in the US could undergo a sudden shift – as they have, say, on gay marriage – or is religion so fundamental to the US that any change will continue to be incremental?
Right now, the shift in attitudes to religion is, according to the famous“nones” Pew survey, driven by so-called “generational replacement” – ie the younger generation slowly becoming less religious and their attitudes filtering into society and the polling data, as their parents and grandparents die off.
If that trend continues, then change will be very slow. But there is another scenario, which is when a shift in attitudes leaps across generations, as happened with gay marriage, precipitating a much sharper change which has seen those in favour of gay marriage leap from 33pc a decade ago to 55-57 per cent today.
Foster doesn’t take the time to ask why America is becoming more secular. I think I know the answer.
It’s not too difficult: For years now there has been a fundamental shift in what Christians believe. The shift has been from Christianity being understood as a religion revealed by God for the salvation of the human race to the idea that religion is a human construct–devised from a particular set of cultural and historical circumstances and that the use of religion is to make the world a better place.
Those who hold to the first view understand the Christian religion as necessary to salvation. To put it bluntly you can’t go to heaven without being a practicing Christian and you will go to hell if you are not a practicing Christian. In other words, religion is necessary. Big time.
The second view of the Christian faith is that because it is a historical, human construct which has the purpose of getting people together to make the world a better place, then it can also be adjusted to different historical and culture circumstances. Indeed it MUST be adapted to different historical and cultural circumstances if it is not only to survive, but do its work of making the world a better place.
The second view is has been the prevailing view among mainstream Protestants for nearly a century now. Increasingly this pragmatic, non-supernatural view of religion is also the prevailing view of a younger generation of Evangelicals. While the mainstream Protestants are busy with their peace and justice agenda, the mainstream Evangelicals are more individualistic about their pragmatism and sell their churches for the entertainment value and the value they give the pew sitters. Sessions are given in parenting skills, money management, addiction rehab, communications tactics, relationship counseling etc. In other words, Christianity is a human construct which we adapt for various practical reasons to make the world a better place and make up better people.
The problem with this viewpoint is that it is intrinsically self defeating. People aren’t stupid. They soon realize that if religion is only a human construct which is useful for making the world a better place, then why do you need religion? They realize that the atheists are right. You can be a nice person and make the world a better place without the encumbrance of outdated beliefs, archaic moral systems and having to get up early on a Sunday morning to endure a tedious sermon and bad music for an hour.
Put simply, the second view of religion isn’t religion, and that’s why the younger generation are quietly happy to simply abandon it. What they have forgotten or probably never understood is that religion is, by definition, an interaction with the supernatural. Religion from time immemorial has been about the communication between gods and men. It has been the place where the supernatural and the natural meet.
Gods were appeased, sacrifice was made, heaven was won and hell was vanquished. Religion–real religion has always been about the blood and guts of glory, the sorrow of sin and the liberation of forgiveness. It has been about the quest for heaven and the fear of hell. It has been the interface between time and eternity, God and humanity, Death and Life, Demons and Angels–the soul’s longing and the body’s dying.
The younger generation of Americans are abandoning Christianity because what they have been given is not really Christianity. It is a set of table manners.
As Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has not been tried.”
The only thing that will bring people to religion is people who are living that religion in a vital, radical and subversive way through the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, people might seek out a religion that is religion, but they will quite rightly reject a thing that calls itself religion, but which is a counterfeit.