The Upside Of Secularization

I have long been interested in what you might call the “sociology” of religion–the effects of various forms of religiosity on the body politic, especially when that body politic is diverse. That interest led to the publication of my first sabbatical project–God and Country: America in Red and Blue, back in 2007. (I think Baylor University Press still publishes it.)

The conundrum, of course, is that certain aspects of religious devotion can be very positive–especially the support offered by religious communities. Those studies showing that religious folks were healthier or happier or whatever weren’t wrong, but the value was the existence of that supportive network, not a direct line to deity.

Other aspects of religiosity are negative–especially fundamentalist belief systems. Our current culture wars come courtesy of people who act on their belief that their God wants everyone to behave in a certain way, and those who pander to them. (“Live and let live” is simply inconceivable to folks who talk to God….)

Scholars tell us that the growing secularization of America has been accompanied by a loss of community and an epidemic of loneliness, which is certainly troubling, so I was very interested in this article focusing on the positives of secularization.

It began with the facts:

Last week, Gallup released new data showing that standard Christian beliefs are at all-time lows. Back in 2001, 90% of Americans believed in God; that figure is now down to 74%. Belief in heaven has gone from 83% down to 67%; belief in hell from 71% down to 59%; belief in angels from 79% down to 69%; belief in the devil from 68% down to 58%.

These declines in personal belief are tracking with church attendance, which is at an all-time low (even when accounting for the pandemic’s social distancing). Religious wedding ceremonies are similarly at an all-time low, as the percentage of Americans claiming to have no religion has hit an all-time high.

The author acknowledged that weakening of religion meant the loss of strong congregational communities and the “comfort of spiritual solace and the power of religiously inspired charitable works.” Nevertheless, he insisted that it is good news for democracy.

When secularization occurs naturally within free societies and people simply stop being religious of their own volition, such a change comes with many positive correlates — not least healthier democratic values and institutions…

Democracy requires citizen participation.

On that front, atheists and agnostics stand out. When it comes to attending political meetings, protests and marches, putting up political lawn signs, donating to candidates, working for candidates or contacting elected officials, the godless are among the most active and engaged. Americans who are affirmatively secular in their orientation — atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers — are more likely to vote in elections than their religious peers.

Another crucial pillar of democracy is tolerance, the acceptance of people who are different from us, or behave and believe differently. In a diverse and pluralistic nation such as ours, civic tolerance of difference is essential. In study after study, nonreligious people are found to be much more tolerant than religious people.

Ironically, atheists are far more accepting and tolerant of religious people than religious people are of them.

What about information? Democratic self-government requires an informed citizenry–and these days, that means citizens who are able to separate the wheat of reality from the chaff of misinformation.

Research shows that secular people are on average more analytically adept than religious people. Religiosity, especially strong religiosity, is significantly correlated with greater acceptance of fake news.

The very first sentence of the U.S. Constitution’s very First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This fundamental principle of our democracy, which bars the government from either promoting or persecuting religion, is essential in a society that contains millions of people with multiple religious faiths, and no religious faith at all. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has shown a willingness to bulldoze this safeguard, threatening one of the founding premises of our nation.

The best hope for our democracy may be the growing number of secular Americans, who are by far the most supportive of repairing this principle.

Secular Americans, and the many Americans who belong to less dogmatic, more inclusive religious denominations, need to attend to the loss of community, the loss of the comfort that comes from being a valued part of something larger than family or clan. It’s notable that some atheist/humanist groups have regular Sunday meetings, to supply that very human need for companionship and fellowship.

Meanwhile, we should celebrate the waning belief that your God is the only “right” God, and He (always a He) wants you to impose “his” will on everyone else.

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(Positive) Signs Of The Times

One of the multiple newsletters that hit my inbox comes from Religion News Service. (Given the influence of religion–especially Christianity–on American policy, it has always seemed prudent for this very irreligious observer to keep tabs on what’s happening to and among the purportedly pious…)

Recent reports have signaled a welcome–if belated–effort by those I consider to be genuinely religious to respond to the ugly perversions that excuse bigotries of various kinds as exercises in “sincere” religious belief. I’ve previously shared statements from “Christians Against Christian Nationalism.” Here are a couple of other examples:

Within the last two years, students at religious schools across the country have made headlines pushing back against university policies regarding LGBTQ students or staff.

They’ve staged a monthlong sit-in at Seattle Pacific University, a private school associated with the Free Methodist Church, against a policy that forbids the hiring of LGBTQ people. They’ve called on Baylor University, that affirms marriage between a man and a woman as the “biblical norm,” to officially recognize an LGBTQ student advocacy group. They’ve protested at Brigham Young University after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates the school, said same-sex romantic behavior was “not compatible” with university rules, despite the removal of the “homosexual behavior” section from its Honor Code, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The article reports that students at more than 100 campuses staged a walk out on Oct. 11–coming out day– to protest religious exemptions to Title IX, “carve-outs”  that allow discrimination against LGBTQ students by the presumably devout.

One university observer was quoted as saying that students “are done being told that in order to be a good Christian, that means you must be a white, straight Christian, or embrace white, straight Christian values.”

An equally intriguing story involved a massive ad  campaign. Dubbed the “He Gets Us” campaign, it is a $100 million effort to “redeem Jesus’ brand from the damage done by his followers, especially those who say one thing and then do another.”

The campaign, funded by the Signatry, a Christian foundation based in Kansas, will expand in the next few months, with an updated website, an online store where people can get free gear if they forgive someone or welcome a stranger, and an outreach program for churches, all leading up to a Super Bowl ad.

Lee said organizers also want to start a movement of people who want to tell a better story about Jesus and act like him.

Our goal is to give voice to the pent-up energy of like-minded Jesus followers, those who are in the pews and the ones that aren’t, who are ready to reclaim the name of Jesus from those who abuse it to judge, harm and divide people,” Lee said.

Jason Vanderground, president of Haven, a branding firm based in Grand Haven, Michigan, said the movement hopes to bridge the gap between the story of Jesus and the public perception of his followers. The campaign has done extensive market research and found that, while many Americans like Jesus, they are skeptical of his followers.

That last observation reminded me of a bumper sticker I’ve seen a couple of times, proclaiming something along the lines of  “Jesus–Protect Me From Your Followers.” It also reminded me of that quote from Mahatma Gandhi–“I like your Christ, but not your Christianity.”

The president of the marketing firm handling the campaign said Christians see their faith as a great love story, while increasing numbers of others see Christians as a hate group.

“Jesus said people are going to know my followers by the way they love each other and the way they interact with each other,” he said. “I think when we look at American Christianity now, we don’t see nearly as much of that — and that concerns a lot of people.”

We certainly haven’t been seeing much loving-kindness from the loudest, ostentatiously pious, self-identified Christians–or for that matter, from the fundamentalists of most religions.

Religion and philosophy can assist people in finding meaning, in dealing with the complexities of life and  wrestling with its inevitable moral ambiguities. To appropriate another observation, religion can be used as a shield or a sword. When people find comfort in their beliefs, using those beliefs to shield them from life’s “arrows,” it serves a defensible purpose. When it becomes a sword with which to label and attack unbelievers, dissenters, and various “others,” it is no longer defensible.

Apparently, a lot of genuinely religious folks are fed up with the hypocrisy and hatefulness of their sword-brandishing brethren. I’d call that a positive sign.

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A Persuasive (And Scary) Analysis

Kevin Drum has published a lengthy, very thoughtful and well-documented article in Mother Jones, investigating the sources of America’s anger.

As he points out, Americans aren’t indiscriminately angry: we’re angry about politics–and “way, way angrier” than we used to be. The question, of course, is: what accounts for the degree of animus that characterizes today’s partisan divide?

Drum points to survey research showing that partisan ire is significantly higher than in the past. He then– meticulously–examines the “usual suspects”–the villains identified by the chattering classes as likely causes. Spoiler alert: he finds them wanting.

I’ve been spending considerable time digging into the source of our collective rage, and the answer to this question is trickier than most people think. For starters, any good answer has to fit the timeline of when our national temper tantrum began—roughly around the year 2000. The answer also has to be true: That is, it needs to be a genuine change from past behavior—maybe an inflection point or a sudden acceleration. Once you put those two things together, the number of candidates plummets.

Drum goes through both those “usual suspects” and the data, eliminating conspiracy theories (as Hofstadter in particular made clear in his Paranoid Style in American Politics, a “fondness for conspiracy theories has pervaded American culture from the very beginning.”) and providing several examples equivalent to the nutty QAnon beliefs with which we are familiar.

He also deconstructs the effects of social media, despite acknowledging many of the concerns about it.

Social media can’t be the main explanation for a trend that started 20 years ago. When you’re faced with trying to account for a sudden new eruption on the political scene like Donald Trump, it’s easy to think that the explanation must be something shiny and new, and social media is the obvious candidate. This is doubly true for someone whose meteoric rise was fueled by his deranged Twitter account. But the evidence simply doesn’t back that up.

Drum even considers the possibility that our national anger has been triggered by reality– by things in the country getting worse: manufacturing jobs disappearing, middle-class incomes stagnating–and for conservatives, the steady liberalization of cultural norms. But as he points out, with examples–contrary to conventional wisdom, a lot of things have gotten better, not worse. Even racism has declined.

So–if the “usual suspects” aren’t the cause, what is? Why has American trust in government plummeted and hostility toward political opponents skyrocketed?

To find an answer, then, we need to look for things that (a) are politically salient and (b) have changed dramatically over the past two to three decades. The most obvious one is Fox News.

When it debuted in 1996, Fox News was an afterthought in Republican politics. But after switching to a more hardline conservatism in the late ’90s it quickly attracted viewership from more than a third of all Republicans by the early 2000s. And as anyone who’s watched Fox knows, its fundamental message is rage at what liberals are doing to our country. Over the years the specific message has changed with the times—from terrorism to open borders to Benghazi to Christian cake bakers to critical race theory—but it’s always about what liberal politicians are doing to cripple America, usually with a large dose of thinly veiled racism to give it emotional heft. If you listen to this on a daily basis, is it any wonder that your trust in government would plummet? And on the flip side, if you’re a progressive watching what conservatives are doing in response to Fox News, is it any wonder that your trust in government might plummet as well?

The anger generated by Fox has demonstrable political consequences.

Rage toward Democrats means more votes for Republicans. As far back as 2007 researchers learned that the mere presence of Fox News on a cable system increased Republican vote share by nearly 1 percent. A more recent study estimates that a minuscule 150 seconds per week of watching Fox News can increase the Republican vote share. In a study of real-life impact, researchers found that this means the mere existence of Fox News on a cable system induced somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of non-Republicans to vote for the Republican Party in the 2000 presidential election.

Finally, Drum notes that the political effects of Fox News have been magnified by religion–more specifically, its decline.

 This decline has been felt acutely by Republicans in particular. White evangelicals may have been the political stars of the Reagan era, but since their peak during the ’90s, Republicans have watched despondently as the reach and influence of conservative Christians has fallen even within their own party….

We’ve seen the impact of this increasingly powerful combination over the past several months, climaxing in the insurrection of January 6. But the insurrection itself was merely the most dramatic moment of a long campaign—and the campaign continues. How, we wonder, can so many people believe what Trump says about election fraud? How can they be willing to jettison democracy in favor of a demagogue? The answer comes into focus when you look at the past couple of decades. Thanks to Fox News, conservative trust in government is so low that Republican partisans can easily believe Democrats have cheated on a mass scale, and white evangelicals in particular are willing to fight with the spirit of someone literally facing Armageddon.

I think he’s right–and I have no idea what we can do about it.

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Fundamentalism

A couple of years ago, I came across a fascinating article in a legal journal comparing constitutional and biblical cherry-picking. I no longer recall the journal, the title or the authors, so no link, but I do recall the thesis: certain personality types have a need for bright lines and a profound discomfort with ambiguity, leading to the use of selected passages from religious and legal texts to confirm their pre-existing biases.

When evangelical Christian denominations embraced Trump–some pastors insisting he’d been chosen by God– it was tempting to describe religion in general as a big con. Like most generalizations, that characterization is both under and over-inclusive. The problem is not religion per se, but fundamentalisms of all sorts. As the referenced article made clear, religious dogma isn’t the primary problem (although some certainly is very problematic), it is fundamentalists’ insistence on its inerrancy.

In other words, there’s a great deal of similarity between Second Amendment absolutists and fundamentalists of all religious persuasion–and I do mean all religions. American Jews provide just one example. Pew recently published a study of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs. Unsurprisingly,  the study found that a majority of Jewish Americans lean politically liberal and currently favor the Democratic Party. However, Orthodox Jews (our fundamentalists), were “a notable exception.”

The survey, which was conducted in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, finds that 71% of Jewish adults (including 80% of Reform Jews) are Democrats or independents who lean toward the Democratic Party. But among Orthodox Jews, three-quarters say they are Republican or lean that way. And that percentage has been trending up: In 2013, 57% of Orthodox Jews were Republicans or Republican leaners.

There is further evidence that the content of belief is less troublesome than the intensity of that belief.

The Christian Science Monitor recently published an essay asking whether politics has become the new religion. The article featured examples of Americans for whom politics has become an identity and a quasi-religion–suggesting that the waning of traditional  faith commitments isn’t leading to a reduction of conflict, as many of us had fondly supposed; rather, those for whom lines must be bright and beliefs should brook no dissent have simply transferred their fundamentalist passions elsewhere.

The United States has long been known for what some sociologists call “civil religion” – a shared, nonsectarian faith centered on the flag, the nation’s founding documents, and God. But the God factor is waning, as so-called nones – atheists, agnostics, and those who self-identify as “nothing in particular” – have risen to one-third of the U.S. population, according to a major 2020 survey out of Harvard University. 

From MAGA devotees on the right to social justice warriors on the “woke left,” political activism that can feel “absolute” in a quasi-religious way is rampant. At the same time, American membership in houses of worship has plummeted to below 50% for the first time in eight decades of Gallup polling – from 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020.

The article points out that Americans have been moving away from organized religion for several years–and notes that–rather than easing intergroup tensions– the shift has dovetailed with the rise of an intense form of partisan politics. For personalities that need certainty about “righteousness,” political ideology provides a sense of “devotion, belonging, and moral certitude” they might once have found in a religious congregation.

The problem isn’t Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other theology. It’s the certitude motivating adherents’ intransigence and unwillingness to live and let live.

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Good Religion, Bad Religion

There’s a yiddish word that describes today’s post: chutzpah. 

Chutzpah is gall of the “how dare she” variety. It’s sometimes illustrated by an anecdote about a person who kills his mother and father and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

Today’s post is about Christianity, and the reason I acknowledge my own chutzpah is because I am neither a Christian nor a believer. I come from a tradition that emphasizes behavior over belief–works over piety–and has co-existed pretty comfortably with science and secularism. (Minorities tend to flourish in more open, secular societies.)

What prompted this post was an article I came across in–of all places–Marketwatch, asking  why approximately half of Catholics and a majority of Evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump. The basic answer to that question, according to the article, is continued resentment of the First Amendment’s separation of Church and State.

To this day, there are many people who would like to put religion back into the center of public and political life. This is presumably what U.S. Attorney General William Barr, a deeply conservative Catholic, meant when he denounced “secularists” for launching an “assault on religion and traditional values.”

Of course, a preference for putting “religion” back in the public sphere raises a question that becomes more and more relevant as the country diversifies: whose religion? 

The article also referenced the relationship between a certain kind of Christianity and racism. It noted that Protestants had been supportive of Separation of Church and State so long as they remained culturally and racially dominant.

This changed after the Civil Rights movements in the 1960s, which alarmed many white Christians, especially in the southern states. Today, evangelicals, like Catholic conservatives, are among President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. They, too, believe that family and faith are under siege from liberals and secularists…

The attempt by contemporary Catholic conservatives and Protestant evangelicals to infuse politics with their religious beliefs obviously runs counter to the ideas of the French Revolution, which sought to uphold freedom from religion, but also of the American Revolution, which instituted freedom of religion. Both groups are targeting the carefully erected barriers between church and state.

This is dangerous, not only because it fosters intolerance, but also because it challenges, in the spirit of de Maistre, the idea that political argument should be based on human reason.

Once political conflicts become clashes of faith, compromise becomes impossible. A believer cannot bargain over a sacred principle.

You can’t argue with God. (Or your version of God.)

The article reminded me of Robert Jones book The End of White Christian America, which probed the anxieties–and rage– of white Christian men, as the racial, religious, and cultural landscape continues to change in ways that erode their previously privileged position.

When I was researching my 2007 book God and Country, I came across the very useful categorization of the nation’s founders into “Planting Fathers” and “Founding Fathers.” The Puritans were Planters. They came to the New World for “religious liberty,” which they defined as freedom to worship the right God in the right church and establish a government that would require their neighbors to do likewise. One hundred and fifty years later, the Founders who drafted the Constitution and Bill of Rights defined liberty very differently–as the right to follow one’s own beliefs, free of government interference.

What had intervened was the Enlightenment.

Our legal framework may be based on Enlightenment understandings of liberty and the role of government,  but America is still home to lots of Puritans who reject that understanding– along with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on science, evidence and empiricism.

The continuing culture war between our contemporary Puritans, secularists, and adherents of  non-fundamentalist religions raises some important–and too often neglected–questions: what good is religion? do modern societies still need it? what separates “good” religions from harmful ones? what’s the difference between a religion and a cult?

My youngest son has suggested a useful distinction between good and bad theologies: If a religion makes you struggle with the hard questions–what does it mean to be honorable, to act humanely, to treat others as we would want to be treated, etc.–it’s probably good.

If, instead of helping you confront the questions, it provides you with the answers, it’s bad.

To which I will add: if your religion leads you to support a leader whose behavior is contrary to everything you profess to believe because he promises to erase the line between Church and State and restore White Christian male privilege, you are a flawed person embracing a deeply flawed theology.

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