June 18, 2007
Monitoring Mass Secularism
— Martin E. Marty
"Anything anybody can say about America is true": this seems to be as true now as when countercultural philosopher Emmett Grogan said it decades ago and when I applied it to American religion in this cyber-space four years ago. Ross Douthat inspires my return to that theme with his recent pithy (two-page) article "Crises of Faith" in the Atlantic Monthly. Given the choice of a half-empty or half-full glass vision of American religiosity he chooses the half-empty, evaporating vision. But he ends with a caution to himself and readers: the trends on which he reports "shouldn't be exaggerated. America remains a deeply religious nation and its secularists an embattled minority," while the opposite is true in Europe. "But both continents may be drifting into a zone where religious belief is likely to be a persistent source of tension, rather than a commonplace or a curiosity."
He documents this notice with reference to the dialectic of waning Christianity and waxing Islam in Europe, and the growth in very recent years in America of what he calls "a mass secularism that looks to Europe and sees a model for America to follow." The religious statistics gap between the continents, he notes, is declining. He observes that during the half-year in 1966 when God was dead, as a Time cover story had it, this "death" was mainly a matter of stir among elites — and he deals with elite culture now while noting the "hard secularism" of several best-selling atheist authors. He does better with what is happening among the population at large. European faith did not fade so much because of Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud as when ordinary Europeans did their own thinking about where God was, and asked, Did the church matter through two World Wars or, perhaps more fatefully, in the relatively good times marked by consumerism, materialism, hedonism, and a few other pop-"isms"?
It may well be, as Douthat hints, that the very prosperity of assertive but adaptive religious groups in America has led them into similar fates. He pays attention to polls that suggest that more of the young are indifferent to or disdainful of religious institutions, which demand commitment; and he cites other polls that show some rise in the number of those who identify with no faith or faith community. That is the front that has most concerned religious leadership monitors and those wishing for change. Let the atheists and the fundamentalists argue, but church leaders suggest that the real enemies are indifference, apathy, and distraction.
Douthat also notices that groups highly adapted to pop culture and the economy of markets, media, and consumption — movements that are usually cast, and sometimes miscast, as Evangelical — may paradoxically be unwitting recruiters for the non-religious and anti-religious. "If the association of religiosity with political conservatism continues to gain strength," suggests the sociologist Douthat cites, "then liberals' alienation from organized religion [might] become, as it has in many other nations, institutionalized."
Envisioning trouble ahead, Douthat posits that "America has long avoided [the trap of religious vs. secular clashes] by enjoying near-universal piety; Europe, at least lately, has escaped the trap by cultivating near-universal skepticism."
Those two "near-" phrases may be overdrawn, but the trends
Ross Douthat's article "Crises of Faith" (The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2007) can be read by Atlantic subscribers at: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200707/religion.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
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