There’s a calendar hanging in the Spectator kitchen, the sort that has a picture and a canned line of wisdom attached to each month. During March we’re told, “Fear of failure must never be a reason not to try something,” accompanied by a man leaning so far on his motorcycle that he surely fell off a few seconds later. And yet, despite the secular, non-religious nature of the calendar, March 29 is listed as “Good Friday,” and marked in green to designate a holiday.
That caught my eye when I was pouring my coffee yesterday. America, by the numbers, is losing its faith. Religion has been relegated to a background role in society; the quiet, inoffensive province of the individual. To even suggest it ought to be something more is to draw snickers and accusations of extremism.
Yet Good Friday, the darkest day on the liturgical calendar, the solemn remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion, is often still regarded as a secular holiday. Many businesses close after lunch. Many mainstream restaurant chains loudly advertise their seafood dishes.
Given the statistics, you might wonder whether this is a good business strategy. The state of religious organization in America today is still fairly strong, given the number of churches and media outlets. But the state of the religious themselves is much more grim. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, citing recent Pew data, lists some alarming numbers:
One [religious] group…has swelled: those with no religious affiliation, also known as “nones” (as in “none of the above”). In the 1950s, this was about 2 percent of the population. In the 1970s, it was about 7 percent. Today, it is close to 20 percent. These gains can be found in all regions of the country, including the South. The trend is particularly pronounced among whites, among the young and among men.
Americans are moving away from religion at a rate unequaled in our history. But what explains this shift?
Many credit the work of the so-called New Atheists, led by authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. But this quartet – the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” as they pompously refer to themselves – is also proudly anti-theistic; that is, not only are they personally atheists, but they actively attack other people’s religion. “How Religion Poisons Everything” is the comically absolutist subtitle of Hitchens’ book on the subject.
New Atheism, then, appeals mainly to those who are seeking an enemy, which means very few people at all. I noticed this when I reported from a national atheist convention in Virginia several years ago. Hotel conferences are usually insulated events, but this one came off almost as parody, with attendees milling around with scarlet letter A's pinned to their chests, buying each other’s books and muttering about how religion must be destroyed. The capstone moment had to be when Richard Dawkins wondered, “If you've been taught to believe it by [religious] moderates, what's to stop you from taking the next step and blowing yourself up?” The hotel then failed to explode, which seemed to strike a cautionary note in Sam Harris, the most reflective of the four horsemen. “[Atheism] is not a worldview,” he warned, “though it is frequently portrayed as one.”
Indeed it is, and primarily by the hyper-dogmatic New Atheists themselves. People aren’t buying this all-encompassing worldview, which is why, as Gerson notes, 64% of those who claim no religious affiliation still believe in “God or a universal spirit.”
Rather than embracing outright hostility to religion, it seems people are drifting slowly away from their churches, and sometimes from their faith. Some of this is the fault of the churches themselves. We Catholics watched the pews empty after the pedophilia scandals broke in 2002. Several leading evangelical preachers have also been caught in sexual crimes or dissolute behavior.
But more importantly, we’ve changed. Most religion claims to point towards absolute truth, but our cultural morality has been moving in a relativistic direction. We’re at risk of becoming C.S. Lewis’s men without chests, incapable of discerning singular morality and wary of distinguishing between good and evil, outside of a few select judgments (i.e. “hate” – whatever that is – is bad). We prefer to let anyone and everyone do as they please so long as no one else gets harmed, a philosophy relentlessly reinforced by a constant stream of TV shows, movies, and other media.
This withholding of judgment started off as a good thing, since, for example, it made us more tolerant of each other’s ethnic and racial differences. But it’s since blurred the lines between right and wrong in a way that’s made people leery of religion. “I won’t judge,” is a frequent saying of young people today, and religion requires moral judgment. It’s no wonder that, even among the religious, far more believe in heaven than hell: heaven feels good, whereas hell requires an acknowledgment that certain behavior is evil, something we’re reluctant to do.
Another problem is that religion, and Christianity in particular, has the greatest appeal to the downtrodden, who have little stock or position in life. Those who don’t much appreciate the current world have every reason to believe in another one. Christianity initially confounded Roman pagans because its message spread so quickly among women and the poor.
Georg Hegel argued that Christianity was a religion for slaves, since it elevated them to equal metaphysical footing with their masters. But today, none of us are slaves. We have not only political recognition, but also the greatest standard of living in the history of the world. If we can turn on our TVs with our iPads, who needs God?
(The answer is that we all do. Despite our talking cars, studies show we’re unhappier than at any time in our history. But that’s another subject for another column.)
Still most people, even those who are emphatically non-religious, cling to a nebulous and non-judgmental form of faith. I was recently discussing this with a friend of mine (we’re both Catholics). He told me that, specific beliefs aside, he couldn’t imagine living his life without the scaffolding of a belief in God. Even if he lost his job, his friends, his family, his mobility, his mind…at the end of the day, he still had his faith there to catch him. It was a safety net.
I think, for a lot of people, this is the main reason for that nebulous faith. They don’t want to be lectured or subscribe to anachronistic traditions, but they still want to believe in something…at least for now.
They should look a little deeper. There’s a sublime beauty in what we Christians celebrate this weekend – the somber crucifixion, the Saturday reflection, the Easter joy – that extends beyond our religion and contains deep truths about the world around us. Besides, you can’t miss it. It’s still marked on your calendar.
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