There was an article in The Atlantic this past week entitled, “Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?” written by Derek Thompson. I would recommend that you read the article before proceeding with the post I am about to write. Otherwise, you might be a little bit confused.
The article is based on a rather basic premise. For a long time, America remained remarkably religious compared to a great deal of the rest of the Western world. Europe was hammered by secularization, but America for some reason remained highly religious into the 1980s. Then something started to change. For some reason, religious affiliation started to decline at that point, so Thompson tries to explain why that is.
The numbers are pretty uncontroversial and straightforward. The religiously unaffiliated were at 9% in 1993. That number has more than doubled to 23% in 2018. The “nones” have ballooned as a proportion of the American public, and Thompson cites Christian Smith, who wrote an excellent book on the topic, regarding the three main reasons he believes this tendency has started to develop: the association of Christianity with the Republican Party, the end of the Cold War and 9/11.
The bonding of the Christian and political Right was relatively well documented and not overly surprising. Without the atheistic Soviet Union, there was not the pressure to be religious in opposition to the Evil Empire. 9/11 showed the dangers of Islamic extremism, and that caused some to begin to believe all religion was similarly dangerous.
Following these political issues, Thompson moves on to social issues. Many churches, most notably the Catholic Church, have dealt with some very high profile scandals like many other institutions, religious or not. Changes in family structure have also somewhat removed church from what had been the traditional formula of get married, have kids, settle down, go to church. Thompson interestingly mentions delayed adulthood in this passage as well. Even something as simple as Sunday brunch, a trendy thing for millennials, interferes with weekly church attendance. We might not think of it as a big deal, but it is almost an underlying cultural assumption that also might help in explaining this tendency.
Thompson then asks a very provocative question after saying all of this. I think that his diagnosis is largely right overall. He has identified many of the political and social issues that have caused people to feel more comfortable expressing their lack of faith, and this information seems reasonable. The bigger question though is what does it mean for American society. Thompson writes:
“The deeper question is whether the sudden loss of religion has social consequences for Americans who opt out. Secular Americans, who are familiar with the ways that traditional faiths have betrayed modern liberalism, may not have examined how organized religion has historically offered solutions to their modern existential anxieties.”
I do not mean to reduce Christianity to merely a useful social tool, like some type of opiate of the masses. Rather, I like how Thompson puts it:
“Although belief in God is no panacea for these problems, religion is more than a theism. It is a bundle: a theory of the world, a community, a social identity, a means of finding peace and purpose, and a weekly routine. Those, like me, who have largely rejected this package deal, often find themselves shopping à la carte for meaning, community, and routine to fill a faith-shaped void. Their politics is a religion. Their work is a religion. Their spin class is a church. And not looking at their phone for several consecutive hours is a Sabbath.”
Thompson does not really take this further, but look at the list of different things that he identifies as sort of replacement for traditional religion.
When we consider politics as our religion, we are going to take it very seriously. In fact, we are going to take it as a fundamental part of our identity. It is filling a role in our psyche that needs to be filled by something. Is it any wonder then that people get so bent out of shape about politics? As they base their entire worldview around a highly imperfect political platform (neither party platform is divinely inspired FYI), they’re shocked when their politicians disappoint them or let them down. For those of us who are Christians, we shake our heads and are grateful that we follow One who is good all the time. We follow One who is not changed by big corporate donations or lobbyists.
When we consider work as a religion, imagine how stressed out we are going to be. I think all of us understand that none of our workplaces are perfect. Again, they are full of imperfect people. Even if your coworkers are amazing, they are still going to do things that irritate you every now and then. If you put all of your hope in that type of environment, again, you are going to be disappointed. This is nothing against any workplace; it is simply human reality.
What if we consider recreation, like a spin class, to be our religion? Recreation brings about many good feelings. We enjoy getting out and doing something fun. I love playing power soccer, for example. The thing about good feelings and that adrenaline rush you get from doing something fun is that eventually you fall off of that natural high. When you are done at the gym and you go home, you no longer have that spin class pumping you up, and you are going to desire something deeper. That sense of meaning and purpose is temporary, so you continually have to pump it up by doing something else. Not only does this lead to potential burnout, but it is hard to base our hope in something that is so temporary. Christians are happy that we follow One who can give us everlasting joy that persists even in the face of temporary hardship.
I really appreciate Thompson’s take in this article because he admits something that many people are not willing to. He admits that there are benefits to religion that actually have extra social benefits. Granted, this kind of utilitarian conception of religion is far less than what Christians would argue we have. I understand that. That being said, it is refreshing to read someone who is not bent on saying that religion is worthless and outrageously out of date. Instead, he is willing to recognize that our social fabric is built on something that fills in those gaps of meaning and purpose. For many people, religion helps answer those questions. For people who are not religious, they still have a desire to answer those questions, but without religion, they need to find alternative ways to fill in the gaps. Thompson is willing to admit that that is a very difficult errand. His honesty is appreciated.
I wrote a research paper a few years ago on the rise of atheist churches. These institutions are trying to step in and fill these gaps, but the funny thing about them is that even though a lot of them started with a great deal of fanfare, many of them have really faded. They have not carried on. I don’t exactly know why. My paper was more about the rise rather than the fall. That being said, I wonder if a great deal of it is because, even trying to build in these societal benefits that Thompson recognizes religion provides, there was still something missing. There was still a gap that needed to be filled in somewhere. Something about just getting together and having an inspirational service must not have been enough. Again, my paper did not extend that far to the fall, so I am not overly well read on that portion of the atheist church movement, but is it not incredibly hard to connect the dots here. Something about atheist church just didn’t feel the need that traditional church has for two millennia.
This is a question that we all need to wrestle with as we seek to engage our culture in the 21st century. What do we do as Christians? I think our path is pretty clear. Meaning is something that we need to talk about. It is clearly something people are longing for, and Christianity can help provide those answers. Our environment is not easy, but I think if we take this direction, we will address that fundamental human issue. Certainly we have to deal with the political and social environment Thompson accurately describes, and that will color how people perceive us as Christians, but if we remember that we are able to help provide answers for that fundamental, baseline issue of meaning and try to keep the focus on not, I think we may be able to gain some traction to share our faith in the world.