Defining Our Terms

A recent headline asked the wrong question. The TIMES headline read “America’s Becoming Less Religious. Is Politics to Blame?”

The correct question is: has politics become religion?

The article begins with statistics. It quotes results from GallupPew, and PRRI, showing that the percentage of Americans who identify with any religion is in steady decline, “as are those who believe in God, the devil, Heaven, Hell, or angels; who say religion is a very important part of their life; maintain membership in a church or synagogue; or attend church regularly.”

The article proceeds to examine the possible causes of that decline.

Economic prosperity and functional governance (both wonderful things) can weaken our felt need for religious resources. For example, much of what religious institutions historically provided America’s citizens—education; counseling; support for the needy; marriage options; entertainment; and explanations for how the world works—are increasingly provided by the state and the market. Church participation has become more optional, just one more activity middle-class families do in the suburbs—or not.

Another factor is simply the inevitable consequence of living in an increasingly cosmopolitan, multiracial democracy where liberal values of tolerance are celebrated. Diverse neighborhoods, schools, and civic institutions force us to confront the reality that there are wonderful people out there who don’t share our religious beliefs. Our children will be friends with one another, maybe even spouses. Rising generations find the divisive dogma of many religious groups increasingly strange, if not offensive.

There is another explanation that the article explores: politics.

For the past few decadessociologists and political scientists have demonstrated across multiple studies that as Christianity has become increasingly aligned with right-wing conservatism and the Republican Party, Americans who might have otherwise identified as Christians on surveys are now identifying as “nothing in particular” or “none.” The conclusion many seem to be drawing is “If this is what it means to be religious, count me out.”

We see quite a bit of that reaction on this site. And as the article notes, that reaction is mirrored by political conservatives, who have become increasingly likely to identify with religion because they see it identifying them as Trump supporters–actually (although the article doesn’t explicitly acknowledge it) as White Nationalists. White Americans identifying as “White Evangelical,” see the label itself as meaning “pro-Trump MAGA conservative.”

The article assumes that “This is another way that politics has driven secularization”– that the association between right-wing politics and religion driving young progressives away from religion is also secularizing religious folks. It compares the former phenomenon to the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy in Putin’s Russia, where the number of Russians who identify with Russian Orthodoxy has grown, but the growth doesn’t reflect a rise in religious practices like church attendance and prayer. Instead, it reflects a rise in nationalistic fervor, ethnocentrism, and a fondness for the old Soviet Union and Stalin.

And that brings me back to my long-ago interpretation of Soviet Communism, which I saw not as an economic theory–at least, not primarily–but as a religion, a belief system.

The linked article is interesting, and as far as it goes, informative and factual. But it doesn’t grapple with what I see as the most important question, namely what is religion? I’d define it as a belief system based in faith rather than on demonstrable fact– a belief system that elevates certain values and behaviors on the basis of convictions that are simply not subject to empirical confirmation.

How is a belief that White Christians are superior beings entitled to pre-eminence in American life any less “religious” than a belief in the existence of heaven or hell?

You can undoubtedly come up with numerous examples of what we usually call “ideological” beliefs. What the studies cited in the linked article really demonstrate is that–at least in today’s contentious culture– “religion” and “ideology” have become virtually indistinguishable. And that’s a problem, because what we have come to call “culture war” is really a debate about whose belief system should be imposed on everyone else.

Political scientists tell us that laws are legitimate when they are agreed to by majorities of citizens holding very different world-views: for example, Americans of virtually all beliefs agree that murder, robbery and rape are wrong, and should be punished. (Although we still debate the definitions of even those terms.)

Americans aren’t really getting “less religious,” but they are admittedly getting less traditionally religious. Political ideologies have morphed into a different kind of religion. One is grounded in respect for pluralism and equal liberty of conscience. The other is intent upon protecting what they believe to be their god-given superior social status.

Compromise seems unlikely.


  1. Another bit of shorthand would say that one side believes in god while the other believes in good.

  2. To believe something religiously means rejection of any evidence to the contrary. The belief is based on faith rather than evidence. Thus, religion and science do not play well together. What they can do is coexist but only in a society where both are free from coercion by the other according to the libertarian principle. Conflict between the two is inevitable. If compromise does not occur, violence is also inevitable.

  3. Highly recommend noted journalist Tim Alberta’s new book — “The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory.” Alberta, a self-described evangelical Christian, is the son of an evangelical Christian pastor. His deep knowledge of the evangelical Christian power and influence structure proves valuable as he describes what he sees has happened to “his” religion and church.

  4. It’s almost as if the two political parties fit the same criteria that Sheila pointed out. One is based on pluralism (D’s), while the other is based on their supreme status, or shrinking status, among the masses (R’s).

    However, it is not a perfect reflection due to the D’s embracing every war they can start or get involved in. We don’t really have a party for peace and diplomacy. You’d think that with all the existing religions today, we’d see our values reflected by one political party or the other. We lack moral leaders!

    The downward spiral of church attendance has been falling for decades. For me, it was the hypocrisy of the religious folk. Believe one thing, but act contrary to those beliefs. This is best displayed by the Republican Party for supporting Trump, who is intentionally playing them as suckers. Why would any religious types support Donald?

  5. The behavior of White ‘faux’ Christian Nationalists completely contradicts the religion they claim to believe in. Many of them are some of the most hateful people you may ever cross paths with.

    Heather Cox Richardson’s February 11th Letter from an American highlights Abraham Lincoln’s view of intellect and superiority of skin color. The viewpoint of the slave owners in Lincoln’s time was that white people are superior due to their skin color. Lincoln pointed out that their belief should also mean that people with even lighter skin than theirs should be able to own them as slaves.

  6. Yes in part, politics plays a small part. The church itself has a large role also. There are not too many true evangelicals that expound the faith. Youtubers such as Mike Winger, Sean McDowell discuss the headwinds for the church in their videos as well as discuss what the churches true role is in the community.
    New atheism too is on the decline, also seen as a religion of sorts. Thats due to the arguments for intelligent design and scientists coming to a realization that the probability leans away from even the smallest or the beginnings like the amoeba have billions of lines of code “written” for their function having come from nothing. The universe we live in has a beginning. But who put that into motion. Thats a physical law.
    Habernas has a new four volume set of his discussion over the resurrection a fifty year study as I corinthians 13-,16 states Christianity hinges on this one event.
    Other scientists relate the voice of God thru Christ and his hypostatic state being divine and man thru the relation of wave particle theory. The world was spoken into existence as stated in John 1.
    Its the more we know about our universe and how we got here and the actions of an all loving God who would actually care to relieve the gap we have created gives hope for our existence after we depart.
    We know Einstein found the fourth dimension in the existence time relativity but others are acknowledging greater dimensions probably out of our time continuum. Once we end up in that space we are there? No changes.
    Look at John 3:17 after reading John 3:16. Then turn to those around you with the same mission at hand.

  7. “Political ideologies have morphed into a different kind of religion. One is grounded in respect for pluralism and equal liberty of conscience. The other is intent upon protecting what they believe to be their god-given superior social status.”

    Think you are missing the “third” religion, perhaps growing faster than the other two and not having much to do with politics. This is the religion of “ME” – “I can say anything I want; I can do anything I want as long as it is entertaining and giving me a ‘brand’.” I would not be surprised if there is a strong correlation between these folks and “sometimes/never” voting.

  8. I agree that as often as we aren’t asking the right question, we are answering the wrong question. The Indiana house is considering a bill that would ban “realistic” shooter drills in school because it has the potential to traumatize kids. This is an amazing example of how we have normalized gun violence to the point that we have in school drills. The question should have been “How do we stem gun violence?”. You get a very different answer.

    I hate to rise to the off topic bait, but for all of those “Genocide Joe”, comments, consider how many more people die in the US every YEAR gun violence than have been kill in an out and out war between Israel and Hamas. If anything, the behinds the scenes diplomacy coordinated by the Biden Administration with multiple international partners on the Gaza conflict is pretty amazing and represents a new direction for US diplomatic relations where the US is not the cavalry and needs strong partners in areas of common interest.

  9. Humans naturally empathize with, feel responsible for, and care for or nurture those they identify with.

    Ideology can help us see ourselves and others univerally. But it can cause and justify particularism — us seeing others as fundamentally different. And it can cause ruthless intolerance — the ends justifying ANY means, including utterly inhumane policies and actions which would, sans ideology, naturally horrify and repel anyone otherwise favoring the ends.

    To secularly paraphrase Christopher Hitchens’ observation, it takes toxic ideology to get good people to do evil things.

  10. One of the ways that Donald Trump, King of Republicans, wormed his way into the foundations of the Republic is by appointing extreme Christians to the Supreme Court. They conspired to change American Jurisprudence forever when they introduced the term “sincere religious belief” into law books here.

    That forever moved us closer to Islamic Countries that do not believe in the separation of church and state, making them theocracies.

    That joined Reagan’s,”Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” and Nixon’s “when a burglary, as you have described a black-bag job, ah … when a burglary, ah … is one that is undertaken because of an expressed policy decided by the president, ah … in the interests of the national security … or in the interests of domestic tranquility … ah … when those interests are very, very high … and when the device will be used in a very limited and cautious manner and responsible manner … when it is undertaken, then, then that means that what would otherwise be technically illegal does not subject those who engage in such activity to criminal prosecution”, widely interpreted as when the President does it, it is the law.

    Chip. Chip, Chip. There goes our Constitution.

  11. I agree with Lester, there us a 3rd option in the religion of “ME”… But a 4th option is also out there, and that is the kind of open spirituality that honors the Divine and the Holy, but recognizes every human and all of life and the Universe as sacred.
    Needless to say, it’s a less popular option these days. But it’s everywhere and includes many scientists and people of faith in many traditions. THAT is the wholesome, healthy humanistic and intellectually honest option.

  12. It appears that Trump’s buddy Putin has decided to follow Trump’s advice to “do whatever the hell he wants to do” with reports this morning that the Russian patriot Navalny has passed away in a Russian Arctic prison. Trump has set the tone with his appeal to the Supreme Court that he should be immune to prosecution for “killing political opponents” and we have Christian Evangelicals who apparently approve of such lethal conduct, though with differing motivations. Trump wants such unquestioned authority in search of dictatorial power while the Evangelicals prefer dictatorship over democracy as a means to preserve Christian nationalism.

    It is not just the young who are rejecting this rise in post-Hitlerism. I am not young but reject the underlying motivations of both Trump and the Evangelicals since if they succeed the blessings of democracy we have inherited from the Greek agoras, the Florentine Enlightenment, and the efforts of our Founders will be no more in favor of a pope-approved king-serf arrangement reminiscent of the Holy Roman Empire, which Voltaire correctly noted “was neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire.”

    It appears that Christian Evangelicals have their new “pope,” a criminal psychopath who has captured a failed political party via cult worship, lies, threats, force and intimidation. Our task? Ending this horror show of fascism versus democracy with our vote at the polls this November.

  13. Excellent thread today!
    Lester brought up an excellent point about me’ism, or being a me’ist! I guess we could also just call it what it is, more of a self-a-grandized narcissism, or a mega narcissist.

    These worshipers of self, or, selfish humanism, look for others that fit that description to admire. It doesn’t matter the stripe or spot of the admirer or the admirerie, Just a compatible belief system.

    You can look at all of these award shows, and the participants attempt to out-weird each other by their outfits which more than likely reflect the inner individual. The more bizarre the better. That actually promotes allegiance or various allegiances which absolutely dismiss and replace compassion and empathy with the religion of Me!

    It ends up to be not what One can do for others, but what others can do for me. This is completely opposite of what Christ refers to, or, the Mosaic law before. Even if you look at the many covenants mentioned in Scripture, they all refer to compassion, empathy, and, fruitage of the spirit! I believe that starts in Galatians the 5th chapter around the 21st verse. And also, I believe is mentioned in Leviticus The 19th chapter. Around about verse 17 and 18.

    Having hope and true faith as mentioned in Hebrews the 11th chapter, is difficult for many because they really have no faith. They have faith in the celebrities they worship, but, the ancient writings done under inspiration, seem to be far removed from an individuals heart and replaced by something seen and heard on a constant basis that usually is the antithesis of that inspired word. The word which is Bringing to the fore examples of selflessness, written and recorded by those under inspiration.

    As mentioned before, the men of lawlessness replace religion with personal dogma and make themselves God. This of course turns the masses away from religion because they see it as hypocritical. But like those who spoke to Job, even his wife, told him to curse God and die! That’s what so many do today! They curse God, they curse the writings, they curse the beliefs, because many don’t read the word, they don’t study the beliefs, it’s a form of laziness! Instead of the opposite, it’s become appealing to curse God and die! Some of us on the other hand don’t find that a very attractive pathway. But you have to have a certain emphatic zeal to find the truth. And, reject all of those who are manipulating that truth to their own ends. And that’s what true faith is!

  14. I like the new web site design but it’s hard to see the comment box lines with the light grey against the white background. Maybe it should be a black line box around the comment area.

    My answer to this post of defining the terms of religion is that it is a CULT. Capital C. That’s why I am no longer involved in religion and how I will lead my life from here forward. I can treat people with kindness and I can stand up and beg that these so called religions pay their fair share of taxes. I think their influence will diminish and we will have a better society.

  15. Navalny’s death was the first thing I read this morning and I’m just sick of the Putin influence on our country. These republicans either choose our country or they are traitors.

  16. Al Rider – nice build on. Your kind of religion suggests the very best values/ethics/standards of the underlying beliefs of Judaism/Christianity/Moslem and other religions which lead people to act like what drives life is the common good – not my tribe or my values.

  17. All of the religions have been violent. Religon is about supremacy.They have all been founded by incels, madmen, the gullible,stupid and the most socially awkward human pieces of filth.

    Every single one of them. I wish all of them would take their useless and worthless gods and shove s/he right up their collective arse.

    Political parties have become religions/cults,as well. And I feel the same toward them.

  18. Religion makes people ugly. Ugly Americans, ugly Israelis, ugly Arabs. Religions are cons that will not survive an educated population. The kids mock it because it’s a joke, a trap for the weak-minded, and as the religions become more backward, they will shrink even more rapidly.

    Good riddance.

  19. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and one of the first and strongest advocates for separation of church and state, came to that conclusion largely because he believed that the worldly concerns of politics would unavoidably compromise sincere love of God. He was right.

  20. I kind of believe in a lot of what George Carlin says about religion and life in general. I see Jesus and Satan more as concepts. They were made up along with stories in the Bible. Its in our nature as humanbeings to search for explanations to the things we don’t understand. The ultimate fight of good over evil seems to attract a lot of followers.

  21. I’m not sure who said it, in fact it might have been a dream, but I think it makes a point: The evangelicals have met the Anti-Christ and they invited him in and made him President.

  22. Patmcc, very nice! You made me laugh and smile. 🙂 And, your comment realtes to what I wanted to talk about, as it happens.

    It’s curious to me that the article uses “blame” in the title, rather than “reason”, say. It shows their bias is that less religiosity is bad. I expect this is why even when the article is considering reasons for the increase in secularism, at no point does it mention one simple reason for less religiosity is that people stop believing in a god. I think they left this point out purposefully; don’t want to give anyone ideas in this regard!

    If you have ever watched a former believer describe the process of losing their belief and becoming an atheist, you will see a common occurrence. When they finally understand that they no longer believe and leave their religion, it is often enormously _freeing_. They are no longer constrained by the dogma and rules they were expected to follow previously (some of which may have been quite vile). They can now look at the world and decide how they should approach it and the other denizens of it. Many become less bigoted and more open to helping others. (Not all, of course, we are still frail and fallible humans.)

    The article argues that young people are becoming less religious because they are left-leaning. I’d argue that it’s at least as much completely the reverse: young people are becoming more left-leaning because they are less religious.

  23. John H,

    WADR. There is much data also suggesting that more young people are becoming more conservative as well as numbers showing they no longer care about politics at all. Get real.

  24. Lester, you’re so wrong. Young people see their rights going away and have fewer than their grandmothers. They are paying attention. Swifties are registering to vote and getting involved. It’s going to be a huge wave of youngsters voting. Just look at the demographics of NY’s race to replace George (crook) Santos.

  25. AgingLGirl. I agree, but Lester has been denigrating today’s youth for at least as long as I’ve been reading his comments and shows no sign of being swayed by any evidence that does not support his world view. I guess you could say he has complete faith in that view.
    My position is that faith is the enemy of reason. Maybe that is why religion in free countries is declining.

  26. Religion means going to the root for meaning. Seems many people have found that comforting over the ages and carrying on traditions gives a sense of security? In this country we have the freedom to search for truth which authoritarian dogmatic religions hamper. If people want to join with others in finding ways to cope with the challenges of life along a truth finding mission and keep stepping out in that belief, then so be it.

  27. I think it would be helpful to look at other cultures and see what upholds them in times of terrible trials.

  28. WAD, ladies: “Turnout in the NY-3 special was about 170,000 based on reporting Wednesday morning, with probably some small number of votes outstanding. Back in 2022, about 270,000 votes were cast in the congressional race, so this turnout was a little under two-thirds of that total.” So what makes you think this typical pathetic special election turnout showed that young people made the difference?” Where’s the data?

  29. Many of my fellow lapsed Catholics have left the Church and religion in general because we see the moral corruption, criminal behavior, exclusion and oppressive punishing behavior of its male dominated, supposedly celibate hierarchy.
    The hypocrisy and the demeaning dismissal of the victims of abuses that are well documented have driven many away. Instead of acknowledging the abuse and criminal activities that covered it up, they have doubled down. Legal accountability has since come home to roost on those diocese that have been held accountable, driving many into bankruptcy, financial and moral.
    Do I miss the comfort of ritual and community? Yes. Do I miss the snide judgement and petty internal politics of those who often wind up driving the parish members to distance themselves? No.
    Whited sepulchers is an apt description for many who publicly set themselves up as somehow superior while they hold so much rot in their hearts.
    Young people are not stupid. They can see very clearly where exclusion and disdain morph into hate of the “other”. I get it, even if it took me much longer to get where they are. I just hope they vote Blue.

  30. As previously noted here, an extended family member’s framed saying hanging on a wall in her house, reading “Just Believe,” would, as per today’s posting be seen as something in favor of the MAGA crowd’s belief system. And, she happens to be a MAGA follower. Sad.

  31. For Lester. Just google it or click on this link.

    “More young women also now identify as liberal (40%) than moderate (37%).
    Young men are slightly more likely to identify as conservative (29%) than liberal (25%), with moderate (44%) as the largest share — numbers which have remained remarkably steady over the last 25 years.

    Between the lines: The oldest subset of women — 65 and up — is also moving to the left. That’s mostly a factor of liberal Baby Boomers getting older, said Lydia Saad, director of U.S. social research at Gallup.”

Comments are closed.