Americans Aren’t Losing ‘God Talk,’ They’re Gaining Sensibility

Americans Aren’t Losing ‘God Talk,’ They’re Gaining Sensibility October 22, 2018

An October 13 op-ed by a mega-church pastor’s son in The New York Times contends that the “decline in our spiritual vocabulary” in America is a bad thing.

Humanist slogan on a protest T-shirt. (Jennifer Boyer, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

I see it as just the opposite.

In his article, titled “It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God: The decline in our spiritual vocabulary has many real-world consequences,” Jonathan Merritt laments that:

“More than 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to them. An overwhelming majority of people say that they don’t feel comfortable speaking about faith, most of the time.”

God talk fading away

According to research, this erosion has been steadily occurring since early in the 20th century, Merritt says.

Merritt believes that one of the key reasons religious phraseology seems to have gone out of vogue in 21st-century America is that,

“Many people now avoid religious and spiritual language because they don’t like the way it has been used, misused and abused by others. But when people stop speaking God because they don’t like what these words have come to mean and the way they’ve been used, those who are causing the problem get to hog the microphone.”

Like blown-dry, wealth-absorbing televangelists, bogus street preachers and amoral politicians like Donald Trump.

Faith talk now political

No argument there. Religious talk these days is Right Wing political talk, which discriminates based on race and gender (and gender identity), disingenuously gives moral cover for, say, ripping undocumented immigrant children from the arms of their parents, and tramples on the rights of nonreligious Americans (as in companies with religious objections to legally mandated birth control access refusing to accommodate employees who want it).

But I don’t see a slide in God talk as a reflection of the United States’ current contentious political reality.

I see it as Americans more and more choosing to view religious ideas — meaning materially unverifiable ideas  — with a pound of salt. More than a quarter of the U.S. population today claims no affiliation with any religious organization, and this new, largely secular demographic has been surging in size for several decades.

So, when many of us nonreligionists — atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and the religiously unconvinced or apathetic — hear words like faith, God, Jesus, salvation, soul and the Holy Ghost, we recoil. And I believe many believers do as well.

Change in the zeitgeist

Merritt first sensed this change in the religious zeitgeist when he moved to New York City from the traditionally God-fearing South and found that his conversations with New Yorkers “stalled out the moment the subject turned spiritual.”

The research Merritt deep-dove in, including a survey he himself commissioned to the Barna Group and The Journal of Positive Psychology, substantiated a fade in Godspeak across the board. Wrote Merritt:

“But here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly aren’t faring much better. A mere 13 percent had a spiritual conversation around once a week.”

This is a problem, Merritt believes, because Christianity in America, as elsewhere, has primarily with language nurtured believers, lured new recruits and, thus, perpetuated the faith over centuries. Wrote Merritt:

“Nearly every New Testament author speaks about the power of spiritual speech, and Jesus final command to his disciples was to go into the world and spread his teachings. You cannot be a Christian in a vacuum.”


Vocabulary perpetuates faith

Such continuous proselytizing of faith by its constant widespread repetition is what embeds religions within societies by colonizing and subjugating people’s minds.

But how can such indoctrination be a good thing, especially when enforced on intellectually vulnerable children and precisely because it insists the existentially unreal is real?

To Merritt, though, fading God talk is a bad thing.

“[W]hen you combine the data about the decline in religious rhetoric with an emerging body of research that reveals how much our linguistic landscape both reflects and affects our views, it provides ample cause for alarm.”

The key phrase in the above quote is “affects our views.” That is exactly right. The ubiquitiousness, the constant presence everywhere, of the language of Christianity in America — “our linguistic landscape” — affects our views. And, more to the point here, perpetuates them, often subconsciously, subliminally, beyond our alert notice.

A ‘rhetorical problem’?

Merritt proposes that this fading away of God talk is a “rhetorical problem” and that Americans must strive “to revive sacred speech and rekindle confidence in the vocabulary of faith” to offset spiritual fraudsters who would continue to co-opt Godspeak in nefarious ways.

No need, I’d say.

I totally support a bit of recoil every time we hear such words and phrases as The Lord, Heaven or Hell, God’s word, immortal soul and eternal salvation. And while we’re at it, we should instinctively reject quasi-religious utterances of our secular leaders, such as “Truth is not truth,” which is, in fact, the heart of Christianity since Augustine of Hippo, if not before.

Even lionized Martin Luther, who assaulted the medieval Catholic Church with Protestantism and ushered in the Reformation, said reason was the “Devil’s whore” and urged the faithful to believe only in the “Word of God,” rejecting the assumedly “God-given” reason of their senses and minds.

A revised vocabulary

Jennifer Bardi, deputy director of the American Humanist Association and editor in chief of it’s magazine, The Humanist, wrote in a letter to the editor rebutting Merritt’s piece that changing the nation’s spiritual vocabulary would be a very good thing. Quoting Pew research, Bardi wrote that whereas 90 percent of Americans say they believe in a “higher power,” only a slim majority subscribe to a biblical-style God, and 56 percent reject the notion one needs to believe in a supernatural God to be moral.

“Mr. Merritt’s God talk can therefore be broadened to very positive ends,” Bardi wrote. “For common cause, ‘gospel’ can be ‘moral code’; ‘saved’ can be replaced with ‘enlightened’ and so on. A new vocabulary can unite moral Americans of all religious stripes or none at all.”

That’s “God talk” even I could get behind.


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