The religion of an increasingly godless America

By Amanda Marcotte
November 24, 2011

By Amanda Marcotte
The views expressed are her own.

Listening to the national discourse, one could be forgiven for imagining that America is becoming an ever more religious place. The amount of God talk in the public square has dramatically increased in a generation. Prior to the 70s, the concept of “the religious right” had barely existed, but now it’s a powerful lobbying force with multiple groups from Focus on the Family to Concerned Women for America, all sitting on more money than most liberal special interest groups could ever hope to accumulate. Republicans, especially, claw over each other to demonstrate fealty to a very narrow, fundamentalist view of Christianity that forbids gay rights, reproductive rights, and requires you to believe that evolution never happened. A generation ago, most people outside of evangelical Christian circles had never heard of things like “megachurches” or “the Rapture”, but now even people living in the most secularist urban enclaves are familiar with these concepts, if still less than approving. Americans seem not just more religious, but more drawn to reactionary religion than ever before.

That is, until you start to dig into the actual facts. If you poll actual Americans, you’ll find that the trend is not towards more religiosity, but towards less. Much less, in fact. Recent research from the Pew Research Center on politics and generational differences shows that interest in religion is actually declining from one generation to the next, and not only that, but interest in mixing religion and politics is on the decline. When asked which factors are the key to America’s success, fewer than half of Millennials say they believe that religious faith and values are important. They are the first generation to respond in such a way, as a majority of all older generations cite religion as an important factor. Even the generation known for cynicism, Generation X, has 64% of respondents citing religion as an important factor in our nation’s success, a full 18 points over the Millennial generation. Despite myths that people become more religious or more conservative as they age, previous Pew research shows that Xers and Boomers held roughly the same opinions on religion in their youth as they do now.

The research also found that more than one in four Millennials have no religious affiliation at all, the largest of any generation, though only by a small margin, as one in five Gen Xers is also irreligious. The percentage of unaffiliated Americans has grown gradually over the generations, but with the Millennials, we’re seeing a new trend emerge. There is now a large group of Americans who have a faith, but separate it from public life, keeping it in the private sphere.

So how to square away declining rates of belief with the perception that America is a land where the Bible is thumped regularly in the public square? What we’re seeing with the heightened emphasis on religion in politics is the death throes of the old order. After all, in the past, where it was assumed that a vast majority of Americans were not only religious, but Christian, those who wanted Christianity to dominate didn’t feel they had anything to prove. It’s only when they started to feel their power threatened did they become defensive, and in doing so, became much louder.

Right wing Christians would be the first to tell you that they feel that the dominance of traditional Christian values is under threat in this country. If you have any doubt about this, look at the long list of people they consider the enemies, internal and external, to their view of how America should be: atheists, Muslims, feminists, liberals, uncloseted gays and evolutionary biologists, amongst others. They aren’t wrong to believe these groups are growing both in numbers and in influence, as the polling data suggests that they are. The increasing volume and militancy from the religious right is to be expected in light of these changes. Sarah Posner, a senior editor at Religion Dispatches magazine, says the religious right has grown specifically in response to massive social changes. Opposing these changes was “exactly their point,” she told me, and conservative Christians believe that when they see these more secularist worldviews on the rise, they have a duty “to redouble one’s efforts”. She added that, in the eyes of evangelical leaders, “evangelicals had insulated themselves too much from secular society, and that they had a God-given duty to have an impact on the culture, on politics, on the media, and so forth.”

Most importantly, the religious right sees the Millennials as a special threat requiring most of their attention. Abstinence-only education, the attempted defunding of Planned Parenthood, creationism in the schools, and the growth of the home-schooling movement are all aimed at the youth of America. In some cases, as with TLC’s Duggar family, the religious right is going so far as to step up baby-making, hoping to create enough religious youth to curtail the power of the growing cohort of secular youth.

Of course, that it’s predictable doesn’t make it right. That Americans are becoming more fond of the separation of church and state is a good thing. After all, our Founding Fathers set out to create a society that had such a separation, and they believed, rightly, that religion and politics shouldn’t mix. (“In God We Trust” was only added to our currency during the Civil War era.) That desire has never fully played out in American politics, and there’s every reason to believe it won’t truly play out in our lifetimes. But at current rates of growing interest in the separation of church and state, the religious right will have an increasingly hard time being viewed as more than a vocal minority by the rest of the country.

We should welcome such a change. The more that religion can be pushed off into the realm of private practice and out of the public square, the better for public discourse, as we can dispense with the God talk and move on to reality-based discussions about what we want and how we can get it. The Millennials have the right idea when it comes to dismissing the belief that religion somehow improves politics. Now we just have to wait for the religious right to finish with their temper tantrum over this, and then we can move on to the future.

Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks to attendees during a prayer service at the First Baptist Church in Killeen, Texas November 8, 2009. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

54 comments

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A brief defense of the morality of atheism and/or agnosticism:

Some claim that only through religion is it possible to live a good and moral life. That without the threat of eternal punishment, people will rape, kill, plunder and dance to song like folks in the Old Testament.

However, if you grasp that this life is all there is, that our difficult existence is all we have and all we’re ever going to have, then suddenly the sanctity of life becomes far more significant. If you kill someone who might go to Heaven, then you can just tell yourself that you did them a favor. But if you kill someone knowing that you have forever obliterated them, then you can never forgive yourself. Likewise, all living things become sacred. Every moment of life becomes crucial. It isn’t enough to simply not kill, but in every aspect of your life you must firstly avoid harm, and secondly try to help whenever possible. Atheism doesn’t deprive life of meaning, it imbues life with vastly more importance.

Granted, there must be a minimum threshold of awareness in an individual for this conception of the preciousness of life to take root. Perhaps people who fundamentally lack empathy do need to be convinced of the consequences of an afterlife to adopt the strictures of an artificial morality. Yet that is hardly a positive recommendation for religion.

Lest anyone thing I hate religion, I don’t. I have known and loved and respected many religious people. Yet what I loved about them was never a product of their particular religion, but the qualities they possessed intrinsically. They would likely have been worthy of love and respect no matter their religion.

This is NOT to suggest that all religions are relative. I do not subscribe to moral relativity. Not all cultures are the same, and not all religions are equal in their harm/harmlessness. For all their complexity, we have brains that gravitate towards simplistic narratives. The world is impossibly complex, and it can be a dizzying task to understand the best path through life. And this is the raison de etre for religion. Once upon a time, religions were a necessary technology for humans to act in concert with one another and ensure survival.

In my opinion, the modern understanding provides us with a solid basis for morality which does not rely on myths. Thus religion is obsolete. As time goes by, if civilization can survive the fury of the jilted religionists, humanity will outgrow the crutch of belief.

Peace be with us all.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

Wow! Such a myriad of great ideas and topics to debate. Here’s one for the non-believers of Christianity: The odds that no supreme being created this world in all of its awe and splendor are the same for an F-5 tornado blasting its way across a junkyard and assembling Buckingham Palace on the other side. The Bible can be trusted. The God of Abraham is real and hasin’t “gone out of (man’s) style.” He sits on His Throne in Heaven as you read this. When a contrite heart is finally opened and explored, one can see God’s rainbow. Don’t let man’s politics and proclivity toward his (own) brand of science keep you from your salvation through Jesus Christ. Life is short. Ensure that your name is added to the Lamb’s Book of Life.

Posted by Tahlie | Report as abusive

Goodness without God is Goodness for Goodness Sake.
‘My Goodness for Goodness Sake’ Where have I heard that before!? My Freewill is mine. It exists with or without a God. My choices are mine. W/WO God. I choose to value myself as I would value others. At my ending, I will know all, Be it nothing or everything. ‘I am an Atheist, I only pray that I’m Wrong.” It is only Within, My United State of neurons and synapses, where my Peace begins. PEACE BE WITHIN US ALL. No one finds it outside of self, without having a place for it inside ONES SELF.

Posted by dumbfish | Report as abusive

I don’t want to hear sermons from a candidate. I want to hear practical solutions to the problems a religious-right candidate imposed on the country — poverty, inequality of opportunity, job loss, rising food prices, etc. etc. etc. I am tired of the ranting, raving, God invoking rhetoric of the evangelical contingent. I am a theologian myself and one of the things I most appreciate is that God is best invoked as Jesus suggested — quietly in one’s own home or in church/synagogue/mosque.

Posted by mbote123 | Report as abusive

It is quite surprising how many people who have disagreed with Amanda’s post have added fuel to the stereotype of the Religious Right as unintelligent, misinformed and ignorant.

Several writers insisted that Amanda was suggesting that all religious belief be outlawed rather than that religious beliefs not be permitted to blatantly mixed with politics, as is the case in the U.S. of today.

There is a very large difference between demanding that personal, partisan and non-universal religious views NOT be imposed the general public through government and the judiciary and suggesting that people should retain whatever religious ideas that they like, provided that they do not impose them on those who believe them to be immoral, irresponsible, stupid, false, unnecessary or just plain harmful. Indoctrinated people are not in any mental condition to make judgements about this.

One writer made the astounding statement that all the best archeologists have proved that some of the things written in the Bible are historically correct. The argument was then extended to “prove” that everything else written in the Bible was equally true and correct. This is like arguing that because Batman comics refer to New York, which can be shown to be a real place, therefore everything else in the comic is factual. Worse, the writer fails to acknowledge that mainstream archeology has, over the last 50 years, discovered that a great deal of what is written as “history” in the biblical record is either grossly unsupported or proved to be indisputably false by archeological findings and contemporary histories. The general consensus of reputable scholars is that that further back in history one goes, the more unreliable the biblical accounts of what happened. Creation did not happen as written in Genesis (or the earlier Babylonian religious mythology from which is was “borrowed”. The Flood did not happen as written in the bible. The walls of Jericho fell down long before Joshua got anywhere near them. The Exodus never happened. Jesus could not have been born in Bethlehem in Judah as there was no such town in existence at the time. There was a Bethlehem in Galilee, but it would not have fitted the Old Testament messianic “prophecy” that New Testament writers insisted applied to Jesus. And so on and on. The writer is clearly very ignorant of modern archeology which is committed to accuracy and intellectual integrity. No doubt he has restricted himself to material that deliberately fails to provide a balanced view of archeological findings and deliberately avoids mentioning anything that challenges its religious agenda. This is a know failing of the first few decades of religiously funded archeology in the Levant: material
that did not “prove” the Bible to be “true” was ignored, dismissed or destroyed.

Posted by rosita123 | Report as abusive

Overdue.

Sorry to pull rank in terms of age; but, I figured this crap out when I was 13 years old. That was 60 years ago.

Mail me a penny postcard when Congress catches up.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive

I think what we are now (finally) seeing is an end to traditional organized religion (i.e., religion based upon precepts that are dictated by religious leaders), and the takeover of the religiously organized (i.e., people whose own personal conscience dictate their religious beliefs).

Posted by RickCarter | Report as abusive

Ms Marcotte says, “After all, our Founding Fathers set out to create a society that had such a separation [of church and state], and they believed, rightly, that religion and politics shouldn’t mix.”

She is wrong. It is true that our founding fathers wanted to separate the church and the state organizationally, so that the Federal government would not single out a denomination for Federal endorsement, as England had the Church of England. However, it is not at all true that the founders thought that religious beliefs should play no part in government. Even Thomas Jefferson, a Deist and not at all a Christian even though he respected Jesus as a moral teacher, said that our rights derive from God our Creator. There are many quotes that I could cite to show that, while there was to be no religious test to hold office, that the founders knew that religious convictions were necessary for good government and a civil society.

When I took geometry in my long ago high school years, we were told that all the formulae, the derivations, and so on of geometry rested upon assumed and unprovable axioms. The same is true of science: we assume that the way things worked yesterday is how they will work today and will work tomorrow. We cannot, however, prove that all processes, the gravitational and magnetic fields, and so will not change at the drop of a hat. We assume constancy, or else science itself would be impossible.

In the same way, all moral choices depend upon assumptions. Christians believe that all human beings have value because we are all created in the image of God and God has told us in the Bible that we are to respect and value that image.

If one does not believe in a Creator, upon what does one base the value of human life and human beings? Those who believe in strict evolution have no real basis for valuing human beings, for if evolution is true, we are nothing but the products of matter plus time plus chance – we are, in other words, nothing but cosmic accidents. Of what value is an accidental arrangement of molecules that is somehow self-replicating? There is no real value. I may like to think of myself as valuable, because I enjoy living – but that does not prove in itself that I have any inherent worth that demands respect from others.

Because I am an evangelical Christian, I will vote my values, for I am convinced that Christianity has the clearest grasp of what is true and good. Christians, of course, are far from perfect, and some of us are dreadfully flawed and mistaken in a variety of ways and ideas.

Secularists will vote their values as well – even though many of those values they have taken from Christian teachings, while denying the assumptions on which those teachings are based. Give secularists a few generations, and they will recognize the underlying philosophical basis on which they operate. One of the French existentialists said, “The only serious question is, “Why not suicide?’”

Secularism is a dry tree, which will produce no fruit. The more they exclude religious convictions from the public square, the sooner they will become cynical and depressed – and despotic.

Posted by Hakkatan | Report as abusive

Ms Marcotte shared HER opinion. For her it’s RIGHT. She has the same right to an opinion as you do, and you need not agree. The “he said, she said” as to the founding fathers is not at issue to this article. Neither are the speculations of your high school teachers. Anyone with sight must know that change is rapid and everywhere.

The values and priorities of people in biblical times was utterly different by the beginning of the twentieth century. Christian preachers had figured out that if they didn’t change the “sinners cowering before an angry God” message to one of a benevolent and loving God they would have no “flock”. That change was, relatively speaking, “at the drop of a hat” after thousands of years the “old” way.

Science is an emerging puzzle, as yet incomplete. As a new piece is found, it may fit in or knock out something we were using as a “place holder”. Each new fact contributes to what we know…and may even point us toward a new and interlocking puzzle. It has proven more consistent over time than most societies or religions.

You must have notices that some believers are more pious and some are less pious. Man’s exercise of free will (moral or immoral choices?) arises out of personal values unique to each of us. Some people are of strong character and some of weak character. The way biblical or theological “assumptions” are LIVED differs widely which is why there is no “one size fits all.

When you speak of “a Creator” you know what YOU mean. You can only speak, however, for yourself. You see only from your unique perspective of education, experience and expectations. Ask ten “believer” passers by to describe their God or Jesus and you’ll get ten different answers. You claim a uniformity and continuity that is, at best, a mirage without substance.

What if our world were like the wondrous view a high school student studying a slide with a drop of water on it has through a microscope? If the life on that slide were aware of the huge eye looking down, before such obvious superiority and omnipotence it might well bow down and pray to this wondrous being. Yet when the bell rings, the slide is cleaned and put back in the box; and nothing remains of what once was. No communication. No mutual awareness. Ships that pass in the night.

Right and wrong are the foundations of any “social contract” between we cosmic accidents. Do you really see value in watching our beautiful big blue marble “progress” at ever-increasing speed towards becoming a big brown marble? I believe I shall pass this way but once. I would leave this world a better place by my chosen path.

The eagle, the sparrow, the butterfly and even the snake “enjoy living”, but know not someday they will die. Is there not supreme irony in man’s conceit…that he may be somehow exempted from such end if he but does certain things?

But is is disingenuous to ignore that major Christian holidays essentially hijacked earlier and well established pagan celebrations and festivities and many “values” of right and wrong have their origins in secular prehistory.
Why not suicide? Because I see myself as a unique self-determining being and not a mere “tool” in some cosmic destiny beyond my comprehension. I choose my course in life, choose to be happy and choose to associate with others who know and prefer contentment to dissatisfaction.

There are many who profess to be Christian (or insert other religion here) that are unhappy, “cynical and depressed”, and at their wit’s end emotionally. The void within them in their pews is unseen or unspoken and week after week they leave without solace. Religious despots rule some fundamentalist sects (cults?) with an iron hand.

The journey to individual understanding, happiness, contentment, satisfaction and fulfillment is long and unmarked, because it is unique for each of us. If we but open our eyes, the path is there before us. There are no short cuts.

Happy Holidays!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

In time of a subconscious awareness (it is in the air) of an upcoming climax people seek for strength in a supernatural being, i.e. one that is not subject to circumstances as we are. Subconsciously we cannot erase the implanted consciousness of knowing, that there are consequences to all what we think, say, and do. For individuals this reflexes in our actions commonly desiring to flock together for strength and support. The people of America are well aware of the coming calamities if they continue their course, not knowing how to change. To change, we need to become acquainted with the laws set to keep the whole of the universe in order. These can be found only in a religion. However, concerning our social development, i.e. economy, we need to adhere to the “Laws of Economics”. http://theworldmonetaryordertocome.blogs pot.com/2010/11/introduction.html

Posted by carlvzdj | Report as abusive

Ms. Marcotte confuses seperation of church and state with trying to make religion a purely private matter.

Seperation of church and state, at least in the United States, is based on three consitutional provisions and the principles behind them: no religious test for publice office (including no requirement of religion or nonreligion to hold office), no establishment of religion (including no government favoritism of religion over nonreligion or of nonreligion over religion), and no law restricting the free exercise of religion.

Trying to make religious values and speech a strictly private matter, totally out of politics, runs counter to those principles and to principles of free speech. It’s also impossible anywhere in the world, regardless of any laws. Every religion seeks to influence the actions of its members in ways that it considers to be moral. Every major religion bases morality on the call to treat others as we want to be treated. None of them say “except when you participate in politics.”

Ms. Marcotte’s hostility to religion appears to be based on the actions of some of the followers of the Christian right who want to use the government’s power to impose their intolerant values on everyone. In listing the religious right’s perceived enemies, she should have added mainline and progressive Christians and people of other faiths who work for social justice, who some of the conservatives call “apostates” or worse. Instead, she lumps us all together and concludes we should all keep our mouths shut. Sorry, Amanda — not a prayer.

Posted by Greg.deGiere | Report as abusive

Questions for the religious:

Your choice of religion is on average overwhelmingly determined by what deity your parents and community worships. Do you really believe that others who were born into religions not your own are eternally damned for just for being respectful and obedient toward their families?

All those children of God with the misfortune of choosing heretic parents will suffer for all time because they didn’t reject their whole society and embrace a religion which they may never have even heard of?

Do you actually believe that YOUR religion is the ONE TRUE religion? To get a feel for the odds of your luck to be born into the correct religion, allow me to show you a list of the most popular current religions:

Christianity: 2.1 billion
Islam: 1.5 billion
Hinduism: 900 million
Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
Buddhism: 376 million
primal-indigenous: 300 million
African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million
Sikhism: 23 million
Juche: 19 million
Spiritism: 15 million
Judaism: 14 million
Baha’i: 7 million
Jainism: 4.2 million
Shinto: 4 million
Cao Dai: 4 million
Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million
Tenrikyo: 2 million
Neo-Paganism: 1 million
Unitarian-Universalism: 800 thousand
Rastafarianism: 600 thousand
Scientology: 500 thousand

I ask this of my fellow humans who are forcing themselves to believe the unbelievable in order to maintain their ties to their family, society, and history. When you are able to understand why you do not subscribe to any (or all!) of the religions on this list, not to even mention the dead religions like Zeus and The Shakers, then you will understand why I do not subscribe to YOUR religion.

Meanwhile, Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist = 1.1 billion. It takes courage to make sense of the universe on your own terms. Lack of courage is a poor rationale for belief in demonstrably false doctrines, however.

I’m not interested in depriving a spiritual cripple of the crutch they need to make their way in the world. That would be nearly as cruel as depriving an actual cripple of his actual crutch. But when religious people are constantly thrusting these silly beliefs (and before you get offended, look at that list and tell me you don’t see lots of silly beliefs) into our lives in myriad damaging ways, a little pushback is certainly called for.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

Go away atheists! Keep your godless religion private! Stop shoving the Atheist religion down our throats!

Posted by jefffranklin | Report as abusive

To BajaArizona,

Because Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father or God except through me.”

Posted by hnrast | Report as abusive