Religion in the United States isn’t doing so hot; study after study finds “unaffiliated” to be the fastest-growing religious belief here, especially among young people like (technically, sorta) myself. And there’s been plenty of hand-wringing about it too, on site after site. But I’ve never seen an honest attempt to understand just why this happened, from a religious or specifically Christian point of view: what went wrong? This is puzzling to me, because in retrospect, it seems rather obvious. We asked for this.
Before I continue, let me point out that most of the so-called Nones are not atheists; indeed, we still dislike atheists quite strongly in this country, and I believe the influence of Dawkins and his ilk has been exaggerated a great deal in the media (who, after all, profit from controversy). Rather, the Nones tend to be SBNR, Spiritual-but-not-religious–an identifier best tackled in a separate post–or else some sort of agnostic, or something else nebulous but typically inclined more towards the supernatural than away.
Now that that’s out of the way, I think there are two different major factors in play here, but both of them ultimately spring from the Sexual Revolution. I wasn’t alive at the time, so this is all my rather tenuous postmortem, mind you. I have not read exhaustively on the subject, because most of what I can find on the subject at my library tends to be more shrill, paranoid or triumphalist than thoughtful. I speak in generalities here, and probably too harshly; apologies in advance for that. But it seems that, at some point after 1960, the most devout Christians in American society began deliberately cutting themselves off from the broader culture, to protect their children from its noxious influences.
This desire was understandable, given the turmoil of the times, but in the end suicidal, because we see the result today: American society now tends to be split into two separate spheres, a specifically “Christian” one and another for everyone else. This holds true across almost all segments of society; we have “Christian” books, “Christian” music, “Christian” colleges, “Christian” newspapers and magazines, even “Christian” dating services.
(I put “Christian” in quotes because the point of these services is not immediately theological–yes, there’s theology too, but it’s more of a quarantine than anything else. A “Christian” romance novel, for example, is still a romance novel. It just has all the explicitly sinful stuff trimmed out, and everyone involved goes to church, and so on. It doesn’t actually challenge the secular culture’s conception of love, only slaps a coat of Jesus-paint on top.)
All this is really quite strange, because according to those same polls and studies, we’re still a majority-Christian nation. Honest. Not very active or enthusiastic, but most of us still identify as Catholics or Presbyterians or Evangelicals or what-have-you. So the dominant culture should be, by definition, Christian. But because we walled ourselves off–because we stopped trying to engage the broader culture in the name of shielding our children–we effectively surrendered the field. Or so it seems to me. Today, despite being a majority-Christian country, pretty much every influential institution in this country is either indifferent to traditional religion, or outright hostile.
The media? Routinely clueless, when it’s not biased. Higher education is mostly hostile, in part because of creationism but also because all the really devout scholars either go to explicitly religious institutions or else shut their mouths for fear of seeming weird. As for popular culture, it just flat-out hates us. Madonna made casual, pointless blasphemy acceptable around the time I was born; now it’s played-out, a given. Most TV shows popular with the under-thirty crowd will only mention the subject in tasteless gags about pedophile priests. Hollywood isn’t quite that edgy, but if you see a conventionally religious character in a non-“Christian” movie, chances are he’s a Machiavellian villain trying to control a flock of gullible idiots.
If we want to hear the other side of the story, we can go out of our way to find it, if we like. There’s probably a Christian bookstore near where we live. But if we go to the trouble, and when we get there, what do we find? The same stuff, only kind of lame, because as I said, the point of these things is to sanitize above all else. Not to inform, or challenge, or do whatever the thing’s intended purpose is, but to present a Christian worldview purged of unclean influences.
Consider, for example, a “Christian” children’s book. These are something of an exception, because they do tend to promote actual belief, but at the expense of everything else. A typical specimen involves either a straightforward retelling of a Bible story, with emphasis on the moral over the entertainment value, or else (far worse) a story about a demographically typical little boy or girl Learning an Important Lesson. In essence, these are books about watching somebody else get lectured, which is the one thing more boring than being lectured directly.
A typical youngster, presented with both this and a secular (not anti-religious, just not “Christian”) book, such as Green Eggs and Ham, will start to Learn the Important Lesson that there are two kinds of stuff in the world: Normal Stuff, which is exciting and inviting and entertaining, and God’s Stuff, which pretty well sucks. One the one hand, you have Sam-I-Am racing around smashing up boats and cars in his lunatic quest to get this guy to try a bizarre food, all done in captivating rhyme. On the other, you have tearful Little Billy being told by his Grandpa that God still loves him when he’s naughty. How terribly exciting.
There are, thankfully, counterexamples. Lewis and Tolkien–but they’ve been dead some time now. J.K. Rowling, when “Christians” aren’t too busy banning her books for witchcraft to read them and realize the last book is basically Harry Potter and the Passion of Christ. But none of these are explicitly “Christian.” The undertones are there, and they’re real, and they get readers asking important questions without underestimating them. And the same is true, I’m sure, in many other media. But we’ll never notice them as long as Christians are supposed to do “Christian” things, and “Christian” things are by turns timidly prosaic or furiously pietistic. Keep that up for another forty years, and see what you get.
(I haven’t forgotten the second reason; that’s for another post)