Beyond Belief? Secularity and Scholarly Darlings

Paul Harvey

Nathan Schneider, "Beyond Belief: Research in Religion Goes After a New Target, The Secular," takes up a topic we've discussed here some before: the new scholarly research into secularity. We hit this topic before in covering Phil Zuckerman's new book Society Without God, and also in looking at the rise of the "nones" in surveys such as ARIS (that is, those answering "no religion" in surveys about personal religiosity). Recent commentors have noted that most of the growth of the nones took place from 1990 to 2001, and growth has leveled off since then, so the media hype about the recent study has been (surprise) as much hype as substance. Nonetheless, careful studies of un-belief are overdue and welcomed. Schneider surveys a variety of recent studies, the most interesting of which suggest how the boundary between being religious and irreligious is far more permeable than generally assumed:

Phil Zuckerman's study in Scandinavia, in fact, suggests that these distinctions aren't as clear as one might expect. His interviews show the extent to which, even in the absence of traditional supernatural beliefs, the subjects' religious heritage provides them with moral guideposts and cultural habits. Not believing in God doesn't stop most Danes and Swedes from considering themselves Christians.

Religions, we are beginning to learn, can be better understood by paying attention to what irreligion looks like. Probe irreligion, and you encounter not only new insights about how it works in people's lives, but also echoes of the very religions it defines itself against.

Before getting too comfortable with their apparent newfound status, however, the new secularists still have to contend with some fundamental realities, including the (still) remarkably high rates of religiosity in America. In short, other ways of looking at the evidence suggest that we're about as close to being "post-Christian" as we are to being "post-racial." Stephen Prothero addresses this in "Post-Christian: Not Even Close," where he suggests:

What the rise of the "nones" shows us is not how American Christianity is declining but how it is changing. The data tell us that Christians are increasingly likely to describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious, that they are increasingly wary of labels and institutions, and that they identify their faith less and less with "organized religion" and more and more with the personal power of Jesus himself.

What the data do not tell us is that the United States is becoming "post-Christian." If you meet a random American walking down the street, the odds are only one in 62 that he or she will self-identify as atheist or agnostic. . . . Meanwhile, Christianity remains, for good or for ill, a vital political force, not just on the right but also on the left, and the Christian Bible remains the scripture of American politics, invoked thousands of times a year on the floor of the U.S. Congress.

Over the past two decades, I have taught the "Christian America" debate to hundreds of students in my Religious Studies courses. When we finish our discussion, I call the question. My Christian students almost invariably describe the United States as a multicultural nation of religions, but my Jewish students tell me you have to be blind (or Christian) not to see that this is a Christian country. Here Christmas, not Passover, is a national holiday, and the only question about our presidents' religious affiliation seems to be from which Christian denomination they will come.

Prothero and others (including some posts here) have pointed out that the real news of the ARIS survey is the the shift of Catholicism from Northeast to Southwest, and the continuing decline of mainstream Protestantism and rise of evangelical faiths (born-agains now constituting 34% of Americans).

All of which makes me think of the protagonist in my favorite Elvis Costello song "Beyond Belief," from his Imperial Bedroom:

History repeats the old conceits
The glib replies, the same defeats
Keep your finger on important issues
With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues . . .

I've got a feeling
I'm going to get a lot of grief
Once this seemed so appealing,
Now I am beyond belief.


Derek said…
In British Columbia, the "no religion" group had already reached 35% by 2001:
deg said…
Some similar points made by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (authors of The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America) over at The Times, in the midst of an article on Ned Flanders and global evangelicalism. See here.
Chrissy said…
A book I've recently got my hands on, by M.A. Curtis, called Dominance & Delusion outlines a totally unique way of looking at religion.
M.E.Martin said…
Paul, I love your quoting Imperial Bedroom! Thanks for the reminder. Grief be gone. Interesting line re: "not believing in God doesn't stop most Danes and Swedes from considering themselves Christians." I'm fascinated by the way our cultural perceptions grow and change, or don't. "Moral" and "spiritual," for instance - "spiritual" and "religious." What would Joseph Campbell say? Look up Ethical Values and Moral Values. I'm learning to appreciate the difference!
Paul Harvey said…
Margaret -- yeah, who can forget Imperial Bedroom, best heard on your 1970s vintage all-in-one stereo and record player in the college apt. Good times, except for when the RA Grinch came in and stole Christmas.
I still belong to a church but I stopped attending services after someone lead the congregation in pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States. The guy who did this did it two times, both during his morning children’s sermon. I had warned after he pulled that stunt one time that I would leave if he did it again. I think that I have been back to the church once since the last incident.

The Christian right dominates my congregation which is a Disciples of Christ congregation. I don't think that most members subscribe to that nonsense but they tolerate it. Advocate of the right dominate class and small groups discussions. They are intolerant of disagreement with their points-of-view.