Church in the Colonies

The big news in American religion is still the “rise of the nones,” and it’s got some people in a huff. A few people are bemoaning the decline in Christian America. However, over at Ponderings on a Faith Journey there’s a piece by Martin Marty on the history of church affiliation in the US dating back to the colonies. Here’s the core of it:

So how were things in the good old days? A consensus questioned by a few serious scholars—Patricia Bonomi among them—is that fewer than 20 percent of the colonial citizens were active in churches. Change came after 1776, so that, in one common estimate, church participation jumped from 17 percent to 34 percent between 1776 and 1850. A better past, more illuminating for comparison in present concerns, is between the early 1960s, when participation crested, and today.

Basically, before the Second Great Awakening, the majority of Americans were unchurched. At worst, maybe the current trend just means that we’re headed back to the status quo of the 18th century.

Of course, it should probably be said that “unchurched” is not the same thing as “nonreligious.” Most of the unchurched of the 18th and 19th century probably identified themselves as Christian. There were not enough churches in America, particularly outside of urban areas, to support the population. And while many colonists likely never saw the point in going to church, which was where the rich folk went to show off their good clothes, that didn’t mean that they didn’t believe in the saving power of Jesus.

Probably the biggest difference between then and now is that we are now living in a much more religiously diverse society. While the colonists lived in a world where some form of Christianity was the only live option, we’re now surrounded by thousands of different religious traditions. Christians have been “cafeteria Christians” since the beginning, but now there are a lot more options on the foodline.

People who find church uncompelling now have a lot more options to construct a faith that works for them. There are far more places to go to learn about religion than the Sunday sermon. So the unchurched are no longer de facto Christians who sleep in on Sunday, they’re potentially atheists, agnostics, pagans, “seekers,” “spiritual but not religious,” or a hundred other things.

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  • David

    I just recently stumbled onto your site and find it very interesting. While there is nothing wrong with searching for different opinions (in fact the opposite is true, because you need to test your beliefs) what I find disturbing nowadays, is how individuals who believe they have ended their search are seen as narrowminded and uneducated. I mean it’s okay to wonder what color the sky is but as soon as you’re convinced it’s blue, you’re branded a fanatic.

    • TrickQuestion

      Probably because you fail to accept anything other than “the sky is blue” as correct.

      • Kodie

        Not sure if spam.

    • Custador

      You can believe the sky is any colour you like, because the light that reaches our eyes from the sky on a clear, sunny day is generally blue, and your belief one way or the other will not change that. However, when every shred of evidence says that the sky is blue and you argue that it’s actually a lovely mauve and burgundy Paisley pattern, I’m completely justified in telling you that you’re either lying or mentally ill. But I won’t brand you a fanatic until you start protesting in the streets, waving placards, influencing law and trying to reform education, all in favour of your lie or delusion that the sky is a lovely mauve and burgundy Paisley pattern. When you do that, I’ll call you a fanatic.

      Is my shredding of your false dichotomy complete yet? I hope so. I hope I’ve not only demonstrated that your dichotomy is false, but also comprehensively outlined the situation as it actually exists in real life – For example, Creatardism versus Darwinian evolution. If you argue for Creatardism, you’re arguing that the sky is a lovely mauve and burgundy Paisley pattern, whereas every measurement, tests and observation ever carried out shows that the sky is blue (or, if I haven’t bludgeoned this paradigm to death yet, that all species evolved through natural selection).

      What’s interesting to me is, you equate your own belief to a fact: The sky is blue, your belief is true. Which, having had a peruse of your website, I can comfortably tell you: You’re either lying or mentally ill. I haven’t decided if you’re a fanatic yet.

      By the way, I deleted the URL from your post, because like Kodie, I am not entirely convinced that you aren’t a spam bot.

    • David

      The sky isn’t always blue, certainly. When it’s overcast, its grey. At nighttime, it’s ether very dark blue or indistinguishable from black. At dawn or dusk, it varies anywhere from orange to even mauve or burgundy :).

    • PsiCop

      To compare religious beliefs with the color of the sky, is invalid. Sky color is verifiable. You can go out and look up at the sky to see what its color is. You can stand beneath the sky with other people and discuss its color with them. You can compare its color to the color of other things. The sky’s color is there to see … and it’s there for ALL to see.

      Religious beliefs are something else. They’re not verifiable. People can discuss them, yes … but there’s no objective referent for them to point to when they do so. Anyone can fabricate any religious idea s/he wants to and there’s no way to confim or deny it.

      Note, too, that no one uses the color of the sky as a justification for running the country the way they want. Sky color carries no political implications (that I know of). Religious beliefs, on the other hand, do … especially among folks who think they’re required to force everyone, of whatever faith or of none, to live according to the dictates of their own collection of unverifiable religious beliefs. Big difference there.

  • Guest Speaker

    Yes David, like all those people who, based on their certain belief that the sky is blue due to the color of the great sphere passing over the flat earth, make policy decisions to invest in anti-evolution campaigns instead of NASA.

    It’s not that someone is narrow minded or a fanatic because he believes something; the problem is when these people refuse to change their minds even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary AND then try to press their beliefs into public policy. At some point it rightly invites a little ridicule.