Are We Losing Our Religion and Does it Matter?

Gallup reported recently that 77 percent of Americans believe “religion is losing its influence on American life.” The other half of the equation is that 75 percent “think it would be positive for American society if more Americans were religious.”

I wish they would have asked respondents if it mattered what religions were followed and what, exactly, was meant by the word “religion.” We have some facts here to be sure – and probably not invalid facts – but there is a great deal more that we cannot know from simple poll questions.

I wish this because I have a feeling that a lot of people don’t consider a lot of other religions to really count. The prevailing conservative Christian view of Islam comes to mind (e.g. that it does not deserve First Amendment protections because it is not a “real” religion), but so does the conservative Christian view of my own religion.

In other words, they might have answered differently if by religion what was meant was a country full of Pagans or a country full of Muslims or a country full of some other religion’s adherents. In those cases, some of those who say we need more religion might be saying we need less.

It’s very easy for people to dismiss religions they don’t approve of as cults. This is a common conservative Christian failing, even though by any definition of cult, Christianity qualifies.

Gallup goes on to inform us that,

Americans who attend church regularly and who say religion is important in their own lives are far more likely than others to say it would be positive for American society if more Americans were religious.

Ninety percent of them feel this way. This is no surprise.

I have noticed in my own travel through life that conservative Christians in particular seem to need the affirmation of others. They need the reassurance that they have not made a catastrophic error in judgment. Non-believers, particularly those who aren’t struck dead by an angry, jealous God, tend to make them uncomfortable.

Why do you think that the apologetics industry is booming? Each book published might as well have “Don’t Panic!” in big bold letters on its cover.

But is losing our religion a bad thing? The Founding Fathers recognized the dangers of religion. They lived in an era when the memories of religious wars were very fresh.

I have in my own ancestry French Huguenots (Protestants) who fled Catholic France and a persecuting king. Many other Americans can say the same. There are valid historical reasons for the widespread distrust of the Catholic Church on these shores. And let’s be honest: the Catholic Church is not now doing itself any favors by giving us more reasons by essentially saying only their point of view is valid and we must of necessity, abide by their beliefs.

We’ve been down this road before.

The Old World came at the New World with a vengeance, not only militarily and economically,, but religiously as well, with each of the European powers converting the natives to their own form of religion. We had Protestant natives and Catholic natives, just like in Europe.

The First Amendment may have done what it was intended to do and prevented religious wars in America. One thing the Civil War was not about was religion, though as Kevin Philips points out in his book 1775: A Good Year for Revolution (2012), religion did play a role on whose side people fought on, so much so that from the British perspective, the Revolution was a Presbyterian or Congregationalist war. That is what happens, the British thought, when you let in a bunch of colonists who don’t follow the Church of England.

Some things never change. If only the British had had the benefit of Republican and Tea Party immigration policies – including calls for shooting people who disagree with them.

It is not surprising that religious people in particular lament the loss of religion. It is what they grew up with, what they are comfortable with, and what their pastors and right wing radio and television personalities tell them they need. That we need.

Entire media empires feed the notion that America without religion – a particular religion – is doomed, not only to societal collapse but to God’s wrath. We’re talking a Sodom and Gomorrah redux here.

That these beliefs could be taken as a positive argument for losing our religion seems to be missed by many. Honestly, how many former Christians are going to miss all the fire and brimstone and fears of hell? A conservative Christian has no idea how liberated we all feel.

I felt like I had escaped an asylum. I still do. I become more convinced of it every day. I know perfectly well that there are perfectly sane and decent Christians out there, as I am related to some of them and know others. But they’re not the ones getting the press. They are doing what they always did, getting along with their neighbors and minding their own business.

We know that society does not collapse because religion is missing. Europe is proof of that. Less religious countries also have less crime. But those are fact, not belief. And we all know the power of belief.

The NRA has been selling the fact that Democrats are coming to take your guns for decades. It has never happened, but they’re still convinced it’s going to happen. That belief, and not the fact of there being no plans to do so, is what drives their decision-making paradigm.

Liberals and progressives have to be aware of the power of religion, of the power it still wields in our country. We have to be aware of it because if we expect everybody to behave rationally – an expectation the Founding Fathers shared – we are going to be disappointed. And we’re going to lose some battles and wonder what the hell just happened.

The conservative Christian culture war makes no sense on a purely factual basis. The Religious Right has decided that of all the prohibitions in the Bible, the obscure and debatable opposition to homosexuality is the only thing that the Bible’s authors – and God – cared about. Not shaving, not clothes of more than one fabric, not foods – but gay people.

Blame belief once again, because belief is to blame. Many of us would be hard-pressed to see a downside to losing this sort of religion. I think it is beyond contestation that we’d be better off without religion that stigmatizes everything outside itself as the Other – an Other to be coerced into living by the dictates of a zealous religious minority and, failing that, to be reduced to second-class citizen status – modern helots.

The Founding Fathers knew that it did not matter if we all shared the same religion, or if we were religious at all, at least in the conventional sense of what constitutes religious (i.e. going to church every Sunday). There are a growing number of people out there who would, despite lack of church membership, insists they are plenty religious – and they ought to know. That won’t stop people like Rick Santorum from saying that mainline Protestants, by refusing to participate in culture war waged by their conservative brethren, are serving Satan.

This country was founded on the idea of diversity and pluralism of belief, including the lack of belief. That people are worried about the loss of religion is a reflection of belief, not fact. Conservative religionists of all types can tell their flocks to panic not over their beliefs but over their beliefs not being shared. What the rest of us need to be doing is showing them that there is no cause for panic over beliefs, but rather over facts when they go ignored.

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