In God We Trusted

The root of all evil

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It’s Christmas Eve now (well, by the time you read this). Thank you for being so willing to support my fledgling substack project, this week I've been releasing a set of year-end posts. These are five reads about the state as I see it of five sectors I follow. Might have been perfect for raising the level of chitchat at a normal year's run of December parties. In 2020, I hope they'll edify if it's not your field and that you'll let me know what I'm missing if it's your bailiwick I'm reflecting on. Here are the earlier posts:

Thank you for reading, for subscribing, and for forwarding to friends who you think might enjoy. A quick administrative note: I'll be adjusting my Substack price levels upward in the new year so now is a great time to grab a paid subscription if you've been considering. Or to use Substack's gift option while the prices are lowest. Cheers!

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The turning tide

Sometimes cultural change is very visible. In the first half of the 1960's the commonplace practice of wearing hats for men went into sharp decline. Some blame the influence of President John F. Kennedy, whose sartorial affect marked a sharp break with that of Dwight D. Eisenhower. But it seems more likely that Kennedy’s choices reflected deeper cultural currents. His example was the outcome, not the cause.

Sometimes though, it’s harder to even “see” change. Archaeologists and historians focus on material remains and texts to trace cultural evolution, but they lack access to the inner lives of the common people. In The Fate of Rome Kyle Harper asserts that after the Plague of Cyprian in the 250’s pagan temples fell into disrepair. Implied is that there was a crisis of faith in the middle of the 3rd century A.D., preparing the rise of Christianity as the Roman religion. But on some level we’ll never know, because we missed the chance to send survey takers and ethnographers into the urban slums of late imperial Rome.

The evolution of cultural forms and beliefs is like a vast roiling ocean. Though always in motion underneath the surface, you only detect its kinetic power when the surface is disturbed and a gathering wave is hurtling toward you. By the early 1960's America was already ripe for change. The conditions for a revolution in mores were in place. But people going about their business during that time did not see the changes coming. Only the chaos of the second half of the 1960’s alerted them that the world they’d known their whole lives was going to change irrevocably. Between 1965 and 1970 the number of murders and rapes in the USA increased by 50%. Robberies doubled. The United States Supreme Court liberalized its interpretation of obscenity in 1966, allowing localities to define local standards, while in 1967 Denmark became the first country to legalize pornography. The clean-shaven look that had been dominant for decades became “square” in the space of a few years, and the short hairstyles which were expected of men since the early 19th century had to compete with longer fashions. In 1967 laws against interracial marriage in the United States were banned.

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A most Christian president and a crusading nation

The early 2000’s in the United States would prove a similar calm before the storm. George W. Bush, an avowed born-again Christian, who named Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher in a Republican primary debate, was president. The conflict with militant radical Islam after 9/11 had clear religious overtones, with a resurgent Christian West opposed to the threat of Islamic terrorism and Muslim immigration into Europe. I recall talking to people who believed that there was a “religious revival” going on in the United States. But what did the data say? 

The actual fact is that the dawning century was witnessing substantial secularization in the United States. As late as 2009 I attempted to correct a New York Times columnist’s contention that America was not secularizing, that its exceptionalism compared to Europe in regards to religion still endured. In that same year, two journalists at The Economist published God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. A decade on, the premise of the book is clearly wrong. Though there are important nations, such as China and Russia, where religion is making a comeback with the retreat of orthodox Marxism, the first few decades of the 21st century have witnessed a major recession of religion in the United States and indications of the same in the Islamic world. Overall God is in retreat in the two zones where he has been politically most salient.

When Samuel P. Huntington wrote Who Are We? Challenges to America’s National Identity in 2004 he proposed that it would be Protestant Christianity which assimilated and bonded new immigrants to native-born US populations. He was drawing here upon research from the 1990’s by Barry Kosmin at CUNY that Asian Americans and people from Latin America were beginning to convert in large numbers to American Protestantism. Which is reasonable in light of the fact that we are a Protestant nation by origin.

Or at least we were. Huntington wrote at the beginning of a period when the religious identity of the United States began to undergo a radical and serious shift. We needn’t speculate about this. Since the early 1970’s the General Social Survey (GSS) has been asking Americans a raft of very specific questions, and collecting their demographic variables. What percentage of Americans are Protestant? Ask the GSS.

The variable RELIG asks for religious identity, while the variable YEAR divides those responses by when the respondents were surveyed. The chart below makes plain where we were and where we are:

The blue bars are those who identify as Protestants. The green bars are those with “No Religion.” By the end of the first Bush term, fewer than 50% of Americans were reporting they were Protestant, for the first time in the history of this nation. In the three decades since 1990 those who report “No religion” have more than doubled, from fewer than 10% to more than 20% of Americans.

Huntington was writing at a time when the data, if he had had access, would have made it clear that the Protestant America he presumed immigrants would assimilate to was dying of disbelief and defection.

Using the GOD variable in GSS also records a decline in belief in God overall, though this is much more modest:

But, since the 1980’s those who admit to being atheists have gone from 1% of the population to 5%. There has been some reduction in the number of people who “know” that God exists, and an increase in those who believe in a “Higher Power” instead. The decline of organized religion is feeding both spiritualism and atheism.

Perhaps more telling than belief is attendance. The ATTENDS variable tells us how many people admit to never going to church within a calendar year:

The trend again is clear. Between 1970 and the end of the 1980’s a steady 10-15% of Americans didn’t go to church all year. Today that figure is between 25-30%.

From the perspective of age, the secularization of the younger age cohorts is remarkable. Below is religious identity partitioned by generation using the COHORT variable (millennials are born in 1981 and later):

Nearly as many among the younger generations have “No Religion” as are Protestant. These statistics bear more resemblance to Europe than the United States itself just 40 years ago. 30% of people in the United Kingdom of all ages claim “no religion.” In Germany, the figure is 28%. These rates are similar to the current proportions for younger Americans. American exceptionalism in regards to religion will continue to wane as we lose our older generations. 

What about the patterns in relation to education? Using the DEGREE variable and focusing on millennials you see a different trend:

There isn’t much difference on most variables. There is a perception by some populist conservatives that it is highly educated cosmopolitans who are detached from religion. But among younger Americans, the secularization trend cuts across all demographics and is broad-based. 

And, there is evidence that less educated younger Americans are actually less attached to religious institutions than those who have college degrees. Even though less educated young Americans are more certain that God exists (48% vs. 38%), they are somewhat more likely to go a full year without attending church (31% vs. 27%). This recapitulates patterns familiar in some European nations, where the working class and underclass are most alienated from institutions like organized religion. This, despite not necessarily being more atheist.

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Two nations divided by God

This pattern hasn’t escaped the notice of commentators. Charles Murray in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, reports the decline of religion among working-class whites. Anyone who has done ethnography among working-class British whites knows that lack of church attachment is typical in that class, with religious attendance being seen as a bourgeois affectation. The same pattern now seems to be emerging in the American data.

Why did this happen in the last generation? How could the cultural elites fail to notice for so long? In American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us the authors argue that the politicization of religion with the rise of the Christian Right is the key to understanding the change. As American Christianity became more and more identified with right-wing politics, nominally Christian liberals began to leave religion altogether, which produced a feedback loop so that the Christians who remained were more conservative. American Grace even reports that when conservative people join a church that is more politically moderate or apolitical, they tend to change the politics of the church. The church does not change them.

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America’s empty pews

In the era around 2005-2010, when “New Atheism” was at its peak with bestsellers like The God Delusion and God is Not Great, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would moot the idea of a world without God. Though God is still with us, the 2010’s witnessed a massive rise in secularism. Or at least disaffection from the traditional religions of the United States. Barack Obama and Donald Trump were both arguably the most secular American presidents since Kennedy. Trump’s 2016 victory occurred in part through increased support from less religious white working-class voters. The normative Christianity at the heart of the American republic might well and truly be gone when even the head of the more religiously conservative party is only nominally Christian.

In 2000 we had a president whose whole identity revolved around Christianity. In 2020 we have a president whose basic nature is at odds with core Christian values of humility and charity.

The visions of a critically rationalist body politic ushered in through the collapse of Christianity ending up remaining dreams unfulfilled. The United States is now more, not less, polarized due to politics. The subordination of religion to politics in the wake of religion’s collapse as a public force in America has not resulted in the rise of individual conscience. If anything it’s cleared the way for new forms of collective group-think, hastened on the wings of instantaneous social media technology. The social media endorphin machine now substitutes for the God of the church pew, as we like and share articles that arouse tribal passions.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the collapse of religion among white liberals in the past few decades has allowed their passions to be channeled in other directions. Some time in the middle of the last decade white liberals in the United States began to be more worried about racism than non-whites were. Little accident then that this movement has been termed the “Great Awokening” in explicit analogy to the “Great Awakening.” One religious-style revival in American history recalls another. The social gospel has been replaced by social justice.

Much of American history, going back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations in the 19th century, alludes to the pious nature of the populace, at least in comparison to more jaded and secular Europeans. The 21st century seems to herald an end to this exceptionalism, as large swaths of American society finally become as secular as their consumer-society economics would predict. 

You can run into the marketplace screaming that “God is dead!” But the declaration does not dictate reality. Officially atheistic societies under communism killed God in the public square, only to see him reborn in personality cults, with dictators like Joseph Stalin and Kim Il Sung assuming an almost divine aura for their people. Nothing so traumatic has happened in the United States. No churches were torn down, no priests persecuted. Rather, the youth are moving on, and faith is fading, having exhausted itself. 

But in the place of old sureties, no consensus of cold critical-rationalist individualists is emerging to declare “let us calculate.” Dawkins averred that religion was the root of all evil in his 2006 documentary of that name. But with the collapse of the authority of traditional religion in the United States, we don’t yet see a utopian society governed by the considerations of reason. Rather, new collective hysterias rise to take the place of religion. From conspiracy theories like QAnon to theories-of-everything like “systemic racism,” people crave grand meta-narratives. The impulse to belong, to perform, to show one’s devotion, remains. Who is the most pious of them all? Who is the most woke? 

The death of the godly nation that Europeans saw the United States as has not meant the rebirth of something fundamentally different. The nature of the people remains the same. Instead of apocalyptic street prophets, we now have unhinged YouTube celebrities. Rather than epistemological humility the human mind still prizes the certainty of beliefs that must not be questioned. Unseen forces, from George Soros to the Koch brothers dominate the demon-haunted minds of post-religious Americans, becoming our modern-day myths. Ultimately the faith in rationality was just that, another faith. Reason is a far less powerful motivator for human action than faith, whether we label it religious or not.

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Thank you again for reading, for subscribing and for forwarding to friends who you think might enjoy. A quick administrative note: I'll be adjusting my Substack price levels upward in the new year so now is a great time to grab a paid subscription if you've been considering. Or to use Substack's gift option while the prices are lowest. Cheers! 

Give a gift subscription