Ever since Karl Marx penned his denunciatory statement on religion in 1843 (that religion is the "opiate of the masses"), secularists, social progressives, and other opponents of religion have worked to convince us that religious faith is an outdated relic of the past whose inexplicable (in their view) existence remains only by means of a stubborn, unenlightened, and uneducated lower class.
Indeed, there appears to be an abundance of data supporting the claim that religious belief in America is—generally speaking — in a state of free fall. In 2009, ABC News, citing a recent study by the American Religious Identity Survey, reported, "In one of the most dramatic shifts, 15 percent of Americans now say they have no religion — a figure that's almost doubled in 18 years. Americans with no religious preference are now larger than all other major religious groups except Catholics and Baptists" (Dan Harris, "America Is Becoming Less Christian, Less Religious," March 9, 2009, ABC News).
Greg Paul, writing in the Washington Post last year, argued, "As the survey results come in, as the irreligious best-sellers sell, and as the scientific analysis gets published, it is increasingly clear that Western atheism has evolved into a forward-looking movement that has the wind at its back, is behind the success of the best run societies yet seen in human history, and is challenging religion as the better basis of morality" (Greg Paul, "Atheism on the upswing in America," Washington Post, 9/20/2011). Despite the staggering display of historical and cultural ignorance represented by the latter part of that statement, Mr. Paul summarizes what I think many would like us to believe: "To be religious is to be stupid!"
As for atheism, somewhere between 2 and 9 percent of Americans describe themselves as atheists (this broad range is due to the difficulty some have in defining the term). Apparently many self-described atheists don't quite understand atheism. According to a 2008 Pew Research poll, 21 percent of atheists said they "believed in God." Regardless, the number of those who claim to be atheists remains relatively static.
In reality, religion in America is not so much in decline as it is in a state of transition and change. New Age spirituality — as nebulous as it is — may be growing but so is the Catholic church. Increasing numbers of younger Christians — those most often considered to be the target of the modern seeker-sensitive church — are migrating instead to more traditional ecclesiastic forms such as that found within Presbyterian, Anglican, and Orthodox churches. Anecdotally, I have observed an increasing desire among young Christians in particular for more intellectual and theologically rigorous faith expressions.
There is no doubt that Christianity, as it has come to be understood in America, has been in decline. That may not be a bad thing. Frankly, I think the potential demise of culturalized, politicized, and Americanized forms of Christianity represents a hopeful trend! While Marx suggested that religion serves to dull and subdue attention to real life, I would say that false forms of religion do worse by offering a spiritual placebo, which only provides surface satisfaction with the "divine" rather than true reconciliation and intimacy with the Creator.
In the wake of this cultural upheaval, the Christian community that seems to be emerging (I mean nothing by that term!) may be smaller than, say, 50 years ago but it is arguably becoming more theologically astute and biblically faithful. Perhaps a remnant?
As for the growing category of "no religious preference," the evidence seems to suggest that more and more Americans are simply wandering through life oblivious to the larger questions, pleased to be ignorant and satisfied with the superficial.
In contrast to the idea that religion persists due largely to ignorance, research conducted in 2011 by University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox found that since the 1970s, it is the least educated who dominate the rapidly growing category of those having "no religious preference." Whereas among the most educated, religious faith remains relatively stable at about 46 percent, reporting at least monthly church attendance. This is only down from 51 percent forty years ago, which, when taken alongside population growth, represents an increase in the number of churchgoers among the most educated.
Philip Schwadel, associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, also challenges the scholarly contention that increases in education necessarily leads to declines in religious participation, belief, and affiliation. His research confirms that more education does not decrease the odds that an American will believe in God or the afterlife. In fact, his research revealed that more education "positively affects" religious participation and the role of religion (including devotional activities) in daily life.
Barry A. Kosmin, who serves as director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture and as professor in the Public Policy and Law program at Trinity College, presented a paper at the 2010 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion he called "Religion and the Intelligentsia: Post-graduate Educated Americans 1990-2008." Contrary to the notion that intellectual elites and atheism go hand in hand, he found "the elite today look more like their parents than their professors." His findings include:
• While 82 percent of all Americans said in 2008 that they believe in a personal God or a high power, so did 85 percent of elites.
• Elites share the majority's doubts about evolution although they are still more likely to support it, with 48 percent saying humans evolved from earlier species of animals, compared to 38 percent of the nation overall.
• Elites have high levels of household membership in a house of worship: 63 percent say they belong compared to 54 percent of overall.
Perhaps the growing indifference to religion in America is not so much the product of enlightenment as it is the result of ignorance that is so easily facilitated by vain pursuits, intellectual indifference and mindless amusement. Rather than Christianity, which engages heart, mind, soul and strength — the whole person — perhaps a hedonistic secularism, which encourages people to either ignore or sleepwalk through life's most important questions is the true "opiate of the masses"!
© 2012 S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the president of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit www.battlefortruth.org.