This is what organized religion means for most people. This is what would happen if God actually answered people’s prayers. The response would be even worse if Jesus came back in the flesh. There is a reason he was crucified the first time. Some things never change.
I’m always looking for historical background that puts our present situation in new light. We often don’t realize, for example, how different was the world before and after the Second World War. The 1940s and 1950s was a strange time.
There was a brief moment around the mid-century when the number of marriages shot up and people married younger. So, when we compare marriage rates now to those in the post-war period, we get a skewed perspective because that post-war period was extremely abnormal by historical standards (Ana Swanson, 144 years of marriage and divorce in the United States, in one chart). It’s true that marriage rates never returned to the level of that brief marriage (and birth) boom following the war, but then again marriage rates weren’t ever that high earlier either.
In the 1990s, during the height of the culture wars when family values were supposedly under attack, the marriage rate was about the same as it was from before the Civil War and into the early 1900s, the period I’ve referred to as the crisis of identity. In the decades immediately before that starting around 1970, the marriage rate had been even higher than what was seen in the late 19th century (there isn’t dependable earlier data). Nor is it that premarital sex has become normalized over time, as young people have always had sex: “leaving out the even lower teen sex rate of GenZ, there isn’t a massive difference between the teen sex rates of Millennials and that of Boomers and Silents” (Rates of Young Sluts).
As another example from this past century, “In 1920, 43 percent of Americans were members of a church; by 1960, that figure had jumped to 63 percent” (Alex Morris, False Idol — Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump). Think about that. Most Americans, in the early 1900s, were some combination of unchurched and non-religious or otherwise religiously uninvolved and disinterested. A similar pattern was seen in the colonial era when many people lived in communities that lacked a church. Church membership didn’t begin to rise until the 1800s and apparently declined again with mass urbanization and early industrialization.
By the way, that is closely associated with the issue of marriage. Consider early America when premarital sex was so common that a large percentage of women got married after pregnancy and many of those marriages were common law, meaning that couples were simply living together and likely often involving serial monogamy. Moral norms were an informal affair that, if and when enforced, came from neighbors and not religious authority figures. Those moral norms were generous enough to allow the commonality of bastards and single parents, although some of that was explained by other issues such as rape and spousal death.
Many early Americans rarely saw a minister, outside of itinerant preachers who occasionally passed by. This is partly why formal marriages were less common. “Historians of American religion have long noted that the colonies did not exude universal piety. There was a general agreement that in the colonial period no more than 10-20 percent of the population actually belonged to a church” (Roger Finke & Rodney Stark, The Churching of America). This was at a time when many governments had state religions and so churches were associated with oppressiveness, as seen with the rise of non-Christian and non-conventional views (agnosticism, atheism, deism, universalism, unitarianism, secularism, etc) during the revolutionary period.
And don’t get me started on abortion, in how maybe as high as one in five or six pregnancies were aborted right before the American Civil War. That might be related to why fertility rates have been steadily dropping for centuries: “Extending the analysis back further, the White fertility rate declined from 7.04 in 1800 to 5.42 in 1850, to 3.56 in 1900, and 2.98 in 1950. Thus, the White fertility declined for nearly all of American history but may have bottomed out in the 1980s. Black fertility has also been declining for well over 150 years, but it may very well continue to do so in the coming decades” (Ideas and Data, Sex, Marriage, and Children: Trends Among Millennial Women). That downward trend probably began during the height of the enclosure movement and British colonization during the 17th century.
Are we to blame commie liberal hippies traveling back in time to cause the decline of America practically before the country was even founded? Nostalgia is a fantasy and, interestingly, it is also a disease. The world is getting worse in some ways, but the main problems we face are real world crises such as climate change, not namby pamby cultural paranoia and fear-mongering of sensitive snowflakes. The fate of humanity does not rest on promoting the birth rate of native-born American WASPs nor on the hope that theocracy will save us. If we want to worry about doom, we should be looking at whether the rate of moral panic is experiencing an uptick, something that often precedes the rise of totalitarian ideologies and authoritarian mass violence.
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Central to the moral panic of the culture wars has been “family values.” This has been held up by an idealized standard of middle-to-upper class respectability and responsibility embodied in WASP nuclear families. What relationship does the normative ideal have to do with the lived realty across American history? See below for a historical analysis.
“Family Values”: The Uses and Abuses of American Family History
by Elaine Tyler May
“Family Values” and Historical Scholarship
How did this national preoccupation emerge, and what does it mean for American political life? First, let us examine the phrase that is most frequently invoked in political debates: “family values.” In the political landscape that has emerged in recent decades, “family values” is a phrase that connotes specific positions on particular issues, and it has highly charged policy implications. It involves a constellation of issues. Under the banner of “family values” we find opposition to legal abortion; support for prayer in schools; opposition to civil rights for gays and lesbians; support for censorship of the arts, movies and popular culture; welfare reform; opposition to gun control; the “war on drugs.” These measures are usually found on the conservative agenda, although liberals have increasingly championed some of them in their efforts to jump on the “family values” bandwagon. Many of these issues have nothing to do with families—but they all have to do with values. And they all inspire fierce passions and heated debates.
It is also clear that “family values” is a term often used as a code and marker of race and class. For example, poor black single mothers, and educated white professional women, are both likely to be blamed for society’s ills as a result of their alleged defiance of “family values.” Presumably, a mother on welfare who goes out and gets a job demonstrates good family values; one who stays home with her kids does not. Yet an educated middle-class woman who goes out and gets a job demonstrates bad family values; one who stays home with her kids does not. The rules change according to racial and class position, as well as marital status. The gender, class, and sexual expectations also change over time. In the 1930s, for example, welfare payments were made to poor mothers to enable them to stay home with their children. Now mothers on welfare are required to hold jobs (Gordon 1994).
Scholars have only recently begun to examine these issues through the lens of history. What used to be called the “new” social history gave rise to flourishing scholarship on the working class, women, gender and sexuality, racial minorities and race relations, immigrants and ethnic groups, family history, and gay and lesbian history. That rich body of scholarship has altered the way history is studied and taught today. The new history expands our understanding of the American past, making it far richer and more complete than it ever was before. But it has also led to criticism that American history has now become so fragmented and particularized that there is no longer any unified understanding of the past that offers to Americans a cohesive view of their national history. This criticism often stems from a desire to replace the new complex multicultural and diverse history with a dominant narrative grounded in the stories and deeds of powerful leaders, returning to a traditional unified narrative that was partial, biased, and left out most Americans (Bender 2002). Nevertheless, these criticisms challenge scholars to bring together aspects of history that are usually studied in isolation from each other. Much of social history has left politics in the background, or left it out altogether. In recent years, several historians have done important work that takes a new look at American politics with the contributions of social history providing the foundation for their scholarship (Coontz 1992; Kerber 1998). Feminists were the first to proclaim that the “personal is political,” and scholars studying women, sexuality, gender, and the family have kept that insight at the center of their scholarship. For a pioneering example of feminist scholarship that used this…
We know from the work of these scholars that there was never a “traditional” American family. There has been as much diversity and changes in American families as in any other aspect of national life. But the power of the myth continues. In fact, misperceptions of the American family may be more relevant to current political debates than the reality of American families (Coontz; May 1999). For example, many Americans are surprised to learn that contrary to common assumptions, the Puritans did not condemn premarital sex or out-of wedlock pregnancy (provided the young couple intended to marry); or that abortion was legal during much of the XIXth century; or that the alleged “golden age” of the 1950s’ white middle-class family was marred by rampant alcohol and drug abuse among suburban housewives, and high rates of sexual activity among teenagers (many of whom were married); or that rates of voluntary childlessness were higher a century ago than they are today. Many people believe that American nuclear families were strong, stable and self-reliant until the 1960s, when they began to unravel (Coontz; Stacey).
Scholars eager to set the record straight argue that the family has always been a changing institution, and that claims of its demise are highly exaggerated. They have put great effort into demonstrating that there never was a “traditional” self-sufficient nuclear family to match the mythical ideal. For a forceful and thorough debunking of myths of the American… This scholarship is powerful and important. But it does not ask or answer a fundamental question: if change is a constant in the history of the American family, why during certain times—but not all times—do politicians and leaders warn that family decline portends the nation’s doom? I would like to suggest that anxieties about the family emerge at times when national identity, as defined and understood by the American middle class, appears to be threatened—by immigrants, radicals, “communists,” racial or sexual minorities, or feminists. […]
From the founding of the nation, then, the American family had a well-defined political role. Attached to that role were certain assumptions about the structure of the family, its functions, and the specific responsibilities of its members. In the first century of the Republic, gender roles within middle-class families carried civic meanings. As towns and cities grew, most urban households lost their function as centers of production. Instead of working at home, men left to work in the public arena while women remained in the domestic sphere. Men became breadwinners, while women took on the elevated stature of moral guardians and nurturers. Women’s responsibilities included instilling virtue in their families and raising children to be responsible and productive future citizens. The democratic family would be nuclear in structure, freed from undue influence from the older generation, and grounded in these distinct gender roles that were believed to be “natural” —at least for white European-Americans (Ryan 1981).
In the political culture that developed from these expectations, the family had a major responsibility for the well-being of society. The responsibility of the society for the well-being of the family was less well articulated, and defined mostly in the negative. The government was to leave the family alone, not intrude into it, and not provide for it. The family was, presumably, self-sufficient. Politics was the arena where white men, acting as democratic citizens, shaped public policies. The family was the place where white women, spared the corrupting influences of public life, would instill self-sufficiency and virtue into the citizenry.
From the beginning, however, the reality of family life defied those definitions and strained against the normative ideal. The vast majority of Americans lived on farms, or in households that required the productive labor of all adult members of the family. The prevailing middle-class norm in the XIXth century that defined “separate spheres” for men and women never pertained to these families, nor did it reflect the experiences of African-Americans, either during or after slavery. Only the most privileged white Protestant women in the towns and cities had the resources that allowed them to devote themselves full-time to nurturing their families and rearing future citizens. Their leisure time for moral uplift depended upon the labors of other women—African-American slaves, immigrant household servants, and working-class women who toiled in factories—to provide the goods and services that would enable privileged white women to pursue their role as society’s moral guardians. And it was those very women, affluent and educated, who first rebelled against their constrained domestic roles, arguing that the system of coverture denied them their rights as citizens. For examples and analysis, see two classic works in the field:…
At the same time, when social problems developed that appeared to threaten social order, often the family was blamed—particularly those families, or individuals, whose behavior did not conform to the normative family ideal. The family came to be seen as the source or cause of social problems as well as the potential solution or cure. In other words, bad families eroded American society, and good families would restore it. Good families were the key to social order and national progress. Good families were those that conformed to the ideal of the so-called “traditional” American family, a family form that seemed to flourish among the white Protestant middle class in the XIXth century, and allegedly reached its twentieth-century apex, or “golden age,” in the 1950s. Here we find the source of the mythic nuclear family ideal.
A Historical Perspective
The founders of the nation assumed that the white middle-class family, nurtured by women in the private arena protected from the corruptions of commerce and public life, would produce virtuous citizens and provide the foundation for public order. The responsibility of the government was essentially to leave the family alone—not to intervene with either material support or regulation. Marriage laws established heterosexual monogamy as the foundation for families, prohibited unions across racial lines, and determined marital possibilities for immigrants (Cott 2000). Once established, the family was expected to serve its members and the society without government interference. However, by the late XIXth century, observers began to realize that not all families could be counted upon to promote the interests of the white Protestant status quo. Several dramatic developments—the end of slavery and the migration North of thousands of African-Americans, the influx of immigrants, the political activism of middle-class women, the declining birthrate of native-born Protestant Americans, the political power of Irish Catholics in northern cities—made it clear that the government could no longer remain aloof and expect families to take care of the nation. At the turn of the XXth century, the Anglo-Saxon middle class faced major challenges to its hegemonic definition of national identity.
In response, political leaders during the Progressive Era boldly altered the relationship between the family and the state. Progressive reformers no longer assumed that the family would, without support or intervention from the government, maintain civic virtue and social order. President Theodore Roosevelt was the first national leader to articulate a new dimension to the public/private bargain. In his first campaign for the presidency, he brought the family into the center of national political debates. It has remained there ever since.
First, everyone can be skeptical of science, including of course scientists themselves — after all, scientists are skeptics by profession. But skepticism pushed toward extreme denialism is mostly limited to the political right, some scientific issues standing out (e.g., climate change). And general distrust of science is broadly and consistently found only among religious conservatives.
This is a point that was made by Chris Mooney in his research showing that there is no equivalent on the political left — as far as I know, not even among the religious left. For example, the smart idiot effect is primarily found on the political right, such that knowledge really does matter to those on the political left (research shows that liberals, unlike conservatives, will more likely change their mind when they learn new info).
The role religion plays is in magnifying this difference between ideological tendencies.
Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection
by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Robbie M. Sutton, & Romy van der Lee
To sum up the current findings, in four studies, both political conservatism and religiosity independently predict science skepticism and rejection. Climate skepticism was consistently predicted by political conservatism, vaccine skepticism was consistently predicted by religiosity, and GM food skepticism was consistently predicted by low faith in science and knowledge of science. General low faith in science and unwillingness to support science in turn were primarily associated with religiosity, in particular religious conservatism. Thus, different forms of science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, although the case could be made that these are generally grounded in conservatism.
Study: Conservatives’ Trust In Science At Record Low
by Eyder Peralta
While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.
Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.
“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”
Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974. […]
Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.
Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor’s degrees expressed distrust in science.
I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions. […]
Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.
Here is the second point, which is more positive.
Religious conservatives are a shrinking and aging demographic, as liberal and left-wing views and labels continually take hold. So, as their numbers decrease and their influence lessens, we Americans might finally be able to have rational public debate about science that leads to pragmatic implementation of scientific knowledge.
The old guard of reactionaries are losing their grip on power, even within the once strong bastions of right-wing religiosity. But like an injured and dying wild animal, they will make a lot of noise and still can be dangerous. The reactionaries will become more reactionary, as we have recently seen. This moment of conflict shall pass, as it always does. Like it or not, change will happen and indeed it already is happening.
There is one possible explanation for this change. Science denialism is a hard attitude to maintain over time, even with the backfire effect. It turns out that even conservatives do change their opinions based on expert knowledge, even if it takes longer. So, despite the evidence showing no short term change with policies, we should expect that a political shift will continue happen across the generations.
Knowledge does matter. But it requires immense repetition and patience. Also, keep in mind that, as knowledge matters even more for the political left, the power of knowledge will increase as the general population moves further left. This might be related to the fact that the average American is increasingly better educated — admittedly, Americans aren’t all that well educated in comparison to some countries, but in comparison to the state of education in the past there has been a dramatic improvement.
However you wish to explain it, the religious and non-religious alike are becoming more liberal and progressive, even more open to social democracy and democratic socialism. There is no evidence that this shift has stopped or reversed. Conservatism will remain a movement in the future, but it will probably look more like the present Democratic Party than the present Republican Party. As the political parties have gone far right, the American public has moved so far left as to be outside of the mainstream spectrum of partisan politics.
We are beginning to see the results.
70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars
Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church
by Emma Green
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.
“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics. […]
Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.
Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War
by Jonathan Merritt
Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.
In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama were invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.
Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”
Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.
By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.
For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.
“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” said Leonard. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “
Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.
As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”
Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.
The divide between the religious and the rest of the population is smaller than it seems. That is because media likes to play up conflict. To demonstrate the actual views of the religious in the United States, consider a hot button issue like abortion:
- “As an example of the complexity, data shows that there isn’t even an anti-abortion consensus among Christians, only one Christian demographic showing a strong majority [White Evangelical Protestants].” (Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life)
- “[A]long with most doctors, most church-going Catholics support public option and so are in agreement with most Americans in general. Even more interesting is the fact that the church-going Catholics even support a national plan that includes funding for abortion.” (Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info))
- “[M]ost Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.” (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues)
Whatever ideological and political conflicts we might have in the future, it won’t be a continuation of the culture wars we have known up to this point. Nor will it likely conform to battle of ideologies as seen during the Cold War. The entire frame of debate will be different and, barring unforeseen events, most likely far to the left.
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As an additional point, there is another shift that is happening. There is a reason why there feels to be a growing antagonism, even though it’s not ideological per se.
The fact of the matter is “religious nones” (atheists, agnostics, religiously non-identifying, religiously indifferent, etc) is growing faster than any religious group. Mainline Christians have been losing membership for decades and now so are Evangelicals. This is getting to the point where young Americans are evenly split between the religious and non-religious. That means the religious majority will quickly disappear.
This isn’t motivated by overt ideology or it doesn’t seem to be, since it is a shift happening in many other countries as well. But it puts pressure on ideology and can get expressed or manipulated through ideological rhetoric. So, we might see increasing conflict between ideologies, maybe in new forms that could create a new left vs right.
Younger people are less religious than older ones in many countries, especially in the U.S. and Europe
by Stephanie Kramer & Dalia Fahmy
In the U.S., the age gap is considerable: 43% of people under age 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60% of adults ages 40 and over.
If nothing else, this contributes to a generational conflict. There is a reason much of right-wing media has viewers that are on average older. This is why many older Americans are still fighting the culture wars, if only in their own minds.
But Americans in general, including most young Evangelicals, have lost interest in politicized religion. Christianity simply won’t play the same kind of central role in coming decades. Religion will remain an issue, but even Republicans will have to deal with the fact that even the young on the political right are less religious and less socially conservative.
When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.”
~ Kurt Andersen
The 18th century captures the American imagination, for reasons that are obvious and less so. It was a pivotal point and many were aware of it at the time. Over the preceding centuries, Feudalism slowly declined for numerous reasons. The most obvious force of change was the enclosure movement that evicted peasants from their land, their homes, and their communities.
This created a teeming population of landless peasants who were homeless, unemployed, and often starving. This sent waves of refugees heading for the cities and later the colonies. It was a direct attack on the rights of commoners (what the American colonists referred to as the rights of Englishmen). With the loss of Feudalism, there was the loss the Church’s traditional role and intimate participation in the daily lives of communities (see Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich). There also was the compounding impact of the Renaissance, Peasants’ Revolt, Reformation, English Civil War, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and expanding colonial imperialism.
Yet, even as the early revolutionary era came to a close, much of the ancient world or the immediate sense of its loss was still fresh in living memory, at least for the older generations. Post-Reformation religious war went hand in hand with political and economic radicalism with early signs of class war, populism, and communism showing up as Feudalism waned, from the Peasants’ Revolt to the English Civil War. Immediately preceding the American Revolution, there was the First Great Awakening which kept alive the earlier radicalism while pushing it to further extremes, this being the initial motivation for the separation of church and state since the religious dissenters were being excluded and oppressed by Anglican state power.
Yet most Americans at the time weren’t formally religious. There were few ministers in the colonies, especially in rural areas. Americans had low rates of church attendance, with rates not increasing until the 19th century (see The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark). It was precisely this lack of formal religion that fed into a new rabid free-for-all where anyone’s religiosity was as good as another’s, where anyone could become a preacher and start their own sect or turn to whatever ideology they preferred, religious or anti-religious. This is how the influences of Reformation and Enlightenment melded together, creating a force greater than either alone.
Even so, the First Great Awakening didn’t directly impact many Americans. Those who heard the fiery preachers of the time were a small part of the population, although in certain cities it led to great tumult. The effect was uneven, some places unaware a change was happening. It was a slow build up of unrest as the American colonies moved toward revolution. It wasn’t so much religion itself but broader cultural shifts. The radical religious were getting louder but so were the radical irreligious. Both hereticism and secularism became virulent, sometimes flowing together as a single force, but not always.
Also, none of it fit into clear class lines. The upper class were filled with unitarians, universalists, deists, and secularists — this was seen in the founding generation but began to take hold earlier such as with Thomas Morton and Roger Williams. But some of the most heretical anti-Christians emerged from the working class, the most famous being Thomas Paine but included several other influential figures. The growing rift was not even so much between Christianity and atheism, rather more between establishment power and the challenges of dissent. On either side of the divide, many voices found themselves formed into a new alignment, voices that otherwise would have been antagonistic.
As with our present moment, the era preceding revolution was a struggle between the contented and the restless, with the former becoming more authoritarian and the latter more radicalized. That schism is a wound that has never healed. The American soul remains fractured. The caricature of culture war spectacle won’t save us. It’s not about religion. The American Founders didn’t forget about God. It wasn’t the issue that mattered then nor that matters now. Religiosity and heresy, even when they take center stage, are always expressions of or proxies for something else.
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Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire:
A 500-Year History
by Kurt Andersen
Meanwhile, in the Eighteenth-Century Reality-Based Community
THE TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD PHENOM GEORGE WHITEFIELD arrived in America for the first time just before All Saints’ Day, Halloween 1739. The first major stop on his all-colonies tour was Philadelphia. Crowds equal to half the inhabitants of the city gathered to see each performance. Among them was the not-so-religious young printer and publisher Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin was astonished by how Whitefield could “bring men to tears by pronouncing Mesopotamia, ” and “how much they admired and respected him, notwithstanding his common Abuse of them, by assuring them they were naturally half Beasts and half Devils.” The publisher introduced himself on the spot and signed up to print a four-volume set of Whitefield’s journals and sermons, which became an enormous bestseller. But Franklin’s only awakening during the Great Awakening was to the profits available by pandering to American religionists. Over the next three years, he published an evangelical book almost monthly. With Whitefield himself, Franklin wrote, he formed “no religious Connection.”
Franklin and his fellow Founders’ conceptions of God tended toward the vague and impersonal, a Creator who created and then got out of the way. The “enthusiasts” of the era—channelers of the Holy Spirit, elaborate decoders of the divine plan, proselytizers—were not their people. John Adams fretted in a letter to Jefferson that his son John Quincy might “retire…to study prophecies to the end of his life.” Adams wrote to a Dutch friend that the Bible consists of “millions of fables, tales, legends,” and that Christianity had “prostituted” all the arts “to the sordid and detestable purposes of superstition and fraud.” George Washington “is an unbeliever,” Jefferson once reckoned, and only “has divines constantly about him because he thinks it right to keep up appearances.” Jefferson himself kept up appearances by attending church but instructed his seventeen-year-old nephew to “question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” He considered religions “all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies,” including “our particular superstition,” Christianity. One winter in the White House, President Jefferson performed an extraordinary act of revisionism: he cut up two copies of the New Testament, removing all references to miracles, including Christ’s resurrection, and called the reassembled result The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth . “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” Franklin wrote just before he died, “I have…some doubts as to his Divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon…and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”
When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.”
Yet ordinary American people were apparently still much more religious than the English. In 1775 Edmund Burke warned his fellow members of Parliament that the X factor driving the incipient colonial rebellion was exactly that, the uppity Americans’ peculiar ultra-Protestant zeal. For them, Burke said, religion “is in no way worn out or impaired.”
Thus none of the Founders called himself an atheist. Yet by the standards of devout American Christians, then and certainly now, most were blasphemers. In other words, they were men of the Enlightenment, good-humored seculars who mainly chose reason and science to try to understand the nature of existence, the purposes of life, the shape of truth. Jefferson said Bacon, Locke, and Newton were “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.” Franklin, close friends with the Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire, * was called “the modern Prometheus” by the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and Adams was friends with the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose 1748 essay “Of Miracles” was meant to be “an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion.” America’s political founders had far more in common with their European peers than with the superstar theologians barnstorming America to encourage superstitious delusion. “The motto of enlightenment,” Kant wrote the year after America won its war of independence, “is… Sapere aude! ” or Dare to know. “Have courage to use your own understanding!”
For three centuries, the Protestant Reformation and the emerging Enlightenment were strange bedfellows, symbiotically driving the radical idea of freedom of thought, each paving the way for the success of the other. Protestants decided they could reject the Vatican and start their own religion, and they continued rejecting the authority and doctrines of each new set of Protestant bosses and started their own new religions again and again. Enlightenment thinkers took freedom of thought a step further, deciding that people were also free to put supernatural belief and religious doctrine on the back burner or reject them altogether.
But the Enlightenment part of this shift in thinking was a double-edged sword. The Enlightenment liberated people to believe anything whatsoever about every aspect of existence—true, false, good, bad, sane, insane, plausible, implausible, brilliant, stupid, impossible. Its optimistic creators and enthusiasts ever since have assumed that in the long run, thanks to an efficient marketplace of ideas, reason would win. The Age of Reason had led to the Enlightenment, smart rationalists and empiricists were behind both, so…right?
No. “The familiar and often unquestioned claim that the Enlightenment was a movement concerned exclusively with enthralling reason over the passions and all other forms of human feeling or attachment, is…simply false,” writes the UCLA historian Anthony Pagden in The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters . “The Enlightenment was as much about rejecting the claims of reason and of rational choice as it was about upholding them.” The Enlightenment gave license to the freedom of all thought, in and outside religion, the absurd and untrue as well as the sensible and true. Especially in America. At the end of the 1700s, with the Enlightenment triumphant, science ascendant, and tolerance required, craziness was newly free to show itself. “Alchemy, astrology…occult Freemasonry, magnetic healing, prophetic visions, the conjuring of spirits, usually thought sidelined by natural scientists a hundred years earlier,” all revived, the Oxford historian Keith Thomas explains, their promoters and followers “implicitly following Kant’s injunction to think for themselves. It was only in an atmosphere of enlightened tolerance that such unorthodox cults could have been openly practiced.”
Kant himself saw the conundrum the Enlightenment faced. “Human reason,” he wrote in The Critique of Pure Reason, “has this peculiar fate, that in one species of its knowledge”—the spiritual, the existential, the meaning of life—“it is burdened by questions which…it is not able to ignore, but which…it is also not able to answer.” Americans had the peculiar fate of believing they could and must answer those religious questions the same way mathematicians and historians and natural philosophers answered theirs.
* “As long as there are fools and rascals,” Voltaire wrote in 1767, “there will be religions. [And Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd…religion
As with culture, the sin of the American North is different than the sin of the American South. I would go so far as to say the culture and the sin are aspects of the same thing.
To criticize the sin of one culture isn’t to excuse the sin of the other culture. It’s just to say they aren’t identical. It’s not helpful to make a criticism that doesn’t apply. Teasing out the specific differences is important.
I see a problem in trying to unite separate cultures into a single culture. This is what has been attempted in America for centuries. I don’t think it has been entirely successful and it isn’t clear that it ever will be successful. Cultures don’t change easily, even when politics is used to try to force basic conformity. The underlying separate cultures remain along with their respective sins, but only a patina of commonality is created, an unhappy compromise at that.
This is an argument, related to my thoughts on secession, that I want to follow. I don’t know how much I support this argument or rather how much the evidence supports it. Let me make the case, anyhow.
Between the North and South, I see several areas that demonstrate the distinctness of each region. The most basic of these is the raw data on social problems (poverty, economic inequality, violent crime, obesity, high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, etc) and on more neutral social conditions (union membership, gun ownership, religiosity, etc). The more complicated aspect more directly or obviously involves culture (ethnic immigration patterns, political traditions, economic patterns, etc). All of these factors overlap in various ways or can be interpreted as being interconnected, the question being do the correlations indicate a causal relationship.
I’ve already discussed much of this in my other writings and so I’ll keep it brief by using key examples. Let me begin by pointing out two common misconceptions — the divide between North and South is (1) a divide between urban and rural and/or (2) a divide between areas with and without a large white majority.
One example that truly hits home this regional difference is that of violent crime. The South overall has higher rates of violent crime than the North overall. Is it because the South is more rural? No. The rural North doesn’t have equivalent high rates of violent crime. Is it because the South is more racially diverse? No. The white majority rural South has higher rates of violent crime than is even found in the multiracial urban North. Heck, the majority white rural South even has more violent crime than the urban South, and so for certain blacks can’t be blamed. Even more specifically, most of the violent crime in the rural South is white on white crime.
The only thing that makes the rural South distinct is it’s heavy concentration of Scots-Irish population. I’d point out that the Scots-Irish have a very distinct culture that has become a point of pride for many white Southerners, especially in Appalachia. The fighting tradition of the Scots-Irish also has become identified with the Lost Cause worldview, and along with a fierce independent streak this has made the Scots-Irish culture symbolic of the entire Southern identity.
Another example is religiosity. This stood out to me when I was reading Chuck Thompson’s Better Off Without ‘Em, stated with dramatic flair (Kindle Location 322):
“It’s not just the overwhelming percentage of believers in the South, it’s the attitudes they bring to—or from—their religiosity. In 2009, a Pew Forum “Importance of Religion” study measured a number of variables (frequency of prayer, absolute belief in God, and so forth) to determine the degree of religious fervor in all fifty states.
“Led by Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, nine of the top ten most religious states were southern. Oklahoma ruined Dixie’s perfect record by sneaking in at number seven. Of all southern states, only D.C.-infected Virginia and Semitic Florida finished just outside the top fifteen, edged out by such powerful fanatics as the Mormons of Utah and the pious enigmas of Kansas. The bottom half of the list presented a representative cross section of the rest of the country: Michigan, New Mexico, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Montana, New York, California, Maine, and, cordially sharing most hellbound honors, New Hampshire and Vermont.
“Not only is the South the place where 50 percent of American evangelicals live, it’s also the region from which the national movement draws its ideas and through which most of its fame and profit are harvested. Rabid believers are disproportionately southern—with around a third of the national population (counting Texas), the South accounts for 55 percent of the “electronic church” audience.
“Nearly every important evangelical figure of the past century has come from the South (Californian Rick Warren being an exception). A recent Trinity Broadcast Network program touting the national influence of southern Christianity proclaimed that Virginia was the most important state for “birthing national leaders on the religious front.””
This passage caught my attention because Iowa was listed as one of the least religious states, according to Pew. Iowa is below the national average for stated importance of religion, belief in God and frequency of prayer, although 1% above the national average of stated church attendance. On all the measures, Iowa is 20-30% below the most religious states.
That says a lot. Iowa is similar to the Southern states in many ways. Iowa has many working class people, especially farmers and those in the agricultural business. Iowa is mostly rural, and like the rural South mostly white. Along with these, another factor correlated to higher religiosity rates is an older population and Iowa has one of the most aging populations in the country.
The only clear difference between people in the rural North and the rural South is ethnicity.
The North had more settlers from Northern Europe. One of the differences with Northern Europeans such as Germans was that they were very skilled farmers who were used to high quality soil. They knew what high quality soil looked like which is why they chose to settle in the American North and, once settled, they knew how to cultivate the soil to maintain its viability.
The South had two agricultural traditions. They had the slave-based plantation model that came from Barbados and they had the yeoman subsistence model that came from the Scots-Irish. Both the plantation tobacco farming and the subsistence slash-and-burn ended up depleting the soil which wasn’t as rich to begin with.
This relates to an economic difference. Plantation farming and subsistence farming helped create an economy in the South that was less like modern capitalism. The plantation owners were so vastly wealthy that they didn’t build their own local industry, choosing instead to buy products shipped in from elsewhere. As an aside, the wealth of plantation owners wasn’t capitalist wealth (i.e., wasn’t fungible capital) because plantation owners tended to be heavily in debt as their wealth was invested in their land and their slaves. The subsistence farmers never harvested enough crops to make much in the way of profit, fungible or otherwise; and, as Joe Bageant points out, many of the small Southern farming communities were mostly cashless societies where people bartered and kept store tabs.
Modern industrialized capitalism was only strongly established in the South with Reconstruction following the Civil War. In being introduced, capitalism built upon the framework of the economic system already established in the South. This meant that capitalism incorporated the plantation mentality and the class-based rigidity. There were high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the Antebellum South and there are still high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the South today.
In one sense, you can blame the North for forcing modern industrialized capitalism onto the South. It’s possible that, if the South had successfully seceded, Southerners might have transitioned into a better kind of economic system… then again, maybe not. It’s not like capitalism wasn’t already beginning to gain footholds in the South prior to Reconstruction. It would be surprising if a Confederate South could have avoided capitalism’s ascent. Anyway, it wasn’t the North that forced onto the South a poverty-based, union-busting form of capitalism.
However, the South has always had its own native tradition of liberalism/leftism, not to mention reform-minded populism. It seems to me that, because of the effects of the Civil War, the Southern Left has been stunted and never given a chance to grow to its full potential. Many Southerns have come to think of liberalism/leftism as an ideology imported from the North and forced upon them by the federal government. Maybe the sin of the South has grown worse, or at least not lessened, because what Southerners perceived as non-Southern solutions being forced on them.
Whatever is the case, these are differences that make a difference. More than a century of political change following the Civil War hasn’t fundamentally changed this social reality.
The sin of the South was a caste-based society, later becoming a class-based society, that was built on slavery and the working poor. The sin of the North, on the other hand, was capitalism that was (and still is) brutal in its own way. There weren’t as many slaves in the North, but places like New York used a capitalist economy to profit off the slave trade. Northern capitalism has endless problems and I’m no fan of capitalism in general. Nonetheless, the sin of the North isn’t the same as the sin of the South.
This distinction seems important to my understanding, however one may wish to interpret it.
We are a united country, and that is what Abraham Lincoln was centrally concerned about. Even slavery for Lincoln was mixed up with maintaining the Union for he thought slavery would continue to undermine the country. Lincoln worried that, if secession were to happen, America would become balkanized like Europe. Instead of one big war, there would be endless small wars. I can see Lincoln’s perspective, but I think he put too much faith in the utopian ideal of unity.
The federal government could end slavery through force. What the rest of the country can’t do for the South is to solve it’s problems. We can send federal funds to deal with the worst issues of poverty and such, but the problem is structurally a part of the entire Southern society. Poverty doesn’t exist in such rates in the South because of a lack of wealth. The South’s economy is booming and yet the poverty persists. This is a problem of Southern culture and there may be little that Northern culture can do, besides exacerbating the problem by enabling those who are contributing to it.
By the way, the guilty parties would include some Northern corporations that go to the South to take advantage of weak regulatory enforcement and oppressive anti-union laws, the same reason corporations build factories in Mexico and China. This is corporatism, not free market capitalism. We shouldn’t allow American corporations to participate in social and economic oppression at home any more than we should allow it abroad.
Indeed, Northern culture has its own problems and contributes to the problems of others. Northerners have even sought solutions for those Northern problems. For example, a Northern city was the only place in the entire country that ever had a socialist government (i.e., the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists). Maybe the reason socialism couldn’t take hold in the North was partly because the South was so rabidly anti-socialist. Also, it is the anti-union South that has helped undermine the Northern unions by using unfair practices to lure corporations to build in the South.
The collusion of Northern capitalism and Southern aristocracy is a toxic mix.
I’m beginning to wonder if the North and the South have been getting in each other’s way and each bringing out the worse in the other. The culture of each region has its respective sin, but it also has the seed of potential for solving its own problems. Before public debate can ensue, there first has to be public awareness of the facts, conditions and cultures involved. Let’s be clear about the situation as it is, and then we can work from there.
After finishing this post, I realized I had forgotten one of my central points. I’ll just add it here at the end as an additional note.
Building up to the Civil War, both Northerners and Southerners were lobbing criticisms at one another.
In the North, slavery had been losing support for a long time prior to the Civil War. New immigrants were mostly coming to the North during this time and many went Westward to the frontier territories. These new immigrants didn’t want slavery to be expanded because they saw it as unfair competiion for Yeoman farmers.
White Southerners, however, had their own ideas about personal freedom. They saw the growing industrialization of the North as a menace to the Southern way of life, and it wasn’t only the aristocracy that felt this way. Many lower class whites countered the criticisms of slavery with their own allegations of Northern wage slavery where whites would simply be brought down to the level of menial labor.
Both sides made accurate criticisms. The average person wasn’t being offered a tremendous amount of freedom by either system. I’m sure Marx’s support of the Northern cause was mixed with much concern about the wage slavery of industrialized capitalism.
In America, religion is considered important.
However, this religiosity is more about individual salvation than helping those in need.
From this individualistic worldview, Americans believe individuals control their own lives.
This individualism is extended to national isolationism where we believe in only helping our own country.
This individualism goes beyond moral principles and touches on a sense of selfish entitlement to interfere with others, even though we show little desire to actually help them.
American’s love individualism in all forms and have faith that individuals can solve their own problems (a convenient rationalization for a country that causes so much misery around the world and allows so much misery to continue in its own borders). Despite this individualism, actual data shows individual Americans have one of the lowest rates of social mobility in the developed world.
Last night, I was listening to Coast to Coast AM. The host mentioned a study in passing which caught my interest. The study was about the impact of NDEs on spirituality and religion. He said the results of NDE experiencers was the opposite of those church attenders who never had an NDE. After their NDE, experiencers were increasingly interested in spirituality and yet their church attendance decreased. On the other hand, non-experiencers over time (as they aged?) became less interested in spirituality all the while attending church more often.
I tried to find this study, but was unable to find it. NDEs is the topic of tonight’s show on Coast to Coast Am. The guest is Pin van Lommel who has written about the topic, but I don’t know if the study is discussed in one of his books. I did find other research which was related. In the following paper, I found a description of research showing that belief in the paranormal is negatively related to religious participation.
There are mixed findings and opinions from research on the relationship between religion and paranormal beliefs. National surveys in Canada and Iceland found that religious interests or beliefs were associated with belief in the paranormal (Haraldsson, 1981; Orenstein, 2002). These results are supported by other studies (see Thalbourne & Houtkooper, 2002). However, a national survey in the U.S. found that the correlations between religious and paranormal beliefs were largely nonsignificant (Rice, 2003). Various other studies found no relationship or mixed results between religion and belief in the paranormal (reviewed in Irwin, 1993; see also Orenstein, 2002; Rice, 2003).
These inconsistencies apparently reflect the fact that certain measures of religion are related to psi beliefs and others are not. Orenstein (2002) reported that belief in the paranormal was positively related to religious faith but negatively related to religious participation in a representative national survey in Canada. For those who had high religious belief but low church attendance, 78% scored high on 6 paranormal belief questions. For those who had high religious belief and high church attendance, 24% scored high on paranormal beliefs. For those who had low religious belief and low church attendance, 11% scored high on paranormal beliefs.
So, what does that mean? My guess is that this connects to Ernest Hartmann’s research on boundary types. Thick boundary types would prefer organized religion because it’s clearly defined in its social structure and in its belief system. However, thin boundary types prefer more open-endedness and inconclusiveness which goes against most organized religion, especially of the highly organized variety such as the Catholic Church. Research shows that thin boundary types are more open to non-ordinary experiences (i.e., spiritual, paranormal; et cetera). An NDE, by definition, is a thin boundary experience in that it’s a very personal experience of thin boundary between life and death.
Even if you don’t believe in religion or the paranormal, I think this type of research is interesting in what it says about human nature. A thick boundary person simply is less comfortable with spirituality and the paranormal. If the thick boundary person is religious, they’re more likely to label the non-ordinary as evil or at least consider it highly suspect. If a thick boundary person isn’t religious, they’re likely to deem claims of non-ordinary experiences as false or meaningless or else to rationalize them away merely brain malfunctions. In this way, the religious fundamentalist and the atheistic fundamentalist would find themselves in similar opposition to the spiritual believer and paranormal experiencer.
A quick websearch gave some data showing a high correlation between self-claimed church attendance and belief in bibilical literalism. And 1/3 of Americans claim to take the Bible literally.
But that is all in the context that apparently around half of the people claiming to attend church are lying and the fact that Americans know very little about what is actually in the Bible.
So, “literalism” as used here is a highly subjective term. Going by an ABC poll, Americans are more likely to consider certain parts of the Bible literal than other parts.
Replying to dezzy037:
Regardless of how many of us feel about religion. It is true that the morality of this nation is declining. And history HAS shown that this leads to the destruction of nations, empires, world powers, etc.
Prove your claim of declining morality with cited data. The data I’ve seen shows no general trend of declining morality. Some factors associated with morality are improving and some are declining, but there is no overall pattern.
And prove a causal (not mere correlation) that history HAS shown this leads to destruction. Of course, when a culture is in decline, morality would be in decline by definition. That doesn’t prove causation nor does it explain the specific causal relationship.
Take the Roman Empire as an example. As Roman culture became increasingly Christianized, it also was growing weaker from within despite Christians having absolute control. When Rome was sacked, it was ruled by Christians and the German tribes who sacked it were also Christians.
– – –
Let me share specific statistics. From the Wikipedia article on Crime in the United States:
Since 1964, the U.S. crime rate has increased by as much as 350%, and over 11 million crimes were reported in the year 2007 alone. Crime in the United States has fluctuated considerably over the course of the last half-century, rising significantly in the late 1960s and 1970s, peaking in the 1980s and then decreasing considerably in the 1990s.
So, almost in direct correspondence crime rates increased massively right after “In God We Trust” became our national motto, and it was declared as such right in the middle of the Baby Boom. The Baby Boomers grew up bottle fed on this post-war patriotic religiosity. How did it affect them? From the Wikipedia article on Baby Boom Generation:
In 1993, Time magazine reported on the religious affiliations of baby boomers, stating that about 42% of baby boomers were dropouts from formal religion, a third had never strayed from church, and one-fourth of boomers were returning to religious practice. The boomers returning to religion were “usually less tied to tradition and less dependable as church members than the loyalists. They are also more liberal, which deepens rifts over issues like abortion and homosexuality.”
Now, compare that to Generation X that followed. Generation X grew up with less overt religiosity. As older GenXers were coming into positions of power during the 90s, they began influencing society and they helped the technological boom. What else happened? Crime began to decrease for the first time since “In God We Trust” became our national motto. Our national allegiance to God led to almost a half century of sky-rocketing crime. There is no correlation between religious moralizing done by conservative Christians and actual moral behavior. From religioustolerance.org:
“There is consensus that the overall U.S. divorce rate had a brief spurt after WW2, followed by a decline, then started rising in the 1960s and even more quickly in the 1970s, then leveled off [in the] 1980s and [has since] declined slightly.”
Those are general statistics and there are many factors to consider. Still, like crime, divorce rates increased after “In God We Trust” became our national motto.
The slogan: “The family that prays together, stays together” is well known. There has been much anecdotal evidence that has led to “unsubstantiated claims that the divorce rate for Christians who attended church regularly, pray together or who meet other conditions is only 1 or 2 percent“. 8 Emphasis ours]. Dr. Tom Ellis, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council on the Family said that for “…born-again Christian couples who marry…in the church after having received premarital counseling…and attend church regularly and pray daily together…” experience only 1 divorce out of nearly 39,000 marriages — or 0.00256 percent. 9A recent study by the Barna Research Group throws extreme doubt on these estimates. Barna released the results of their poll about divorce on 1999-DEC-21. 1 They had interviewed 3,854 adults from the 48 contiguous states. The margin of error is ±2 percentage points. The survey found:
11% of the adult population is currently divorced. 25% of adults have had at least one divorce during their lifetime. Divorce rates among conservative Christians were significantly higher than for other faith groups, and much higher than Atheists and Agnostics experience.
George Barna, president and founder of Barna Research Group, commented: “While it may be alarming to discover that born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing. But the research also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families. The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband and wife, but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages.
According to Divorce Magazine, divorce rates peaked in 1981 and are presently at the lowest they’ve been in a long time. Not only are divorce rates the highest following the post-war patriotic religiosity but highest amongst conservative Christians who preach family values. More from religioustolerance.org:
Barna’s results verified findings of earlier polls: that conservative Protestant Christians, on average, have the highest divorce rate, while mainline Christians have a much lower rate. They found some new information as well: that atheists and agnostics have the lowest divorce rate of all. George Barna commented that the results raise “questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families.” The data challenge “the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriage.“ Donald Hughes, author of The Divorce Reality, said:
“In the churches, people have a superstitious view that Christianity will keep them from divorce, but they are subject to the same problems as everyone else, and they include a lack of relationship skills. …Just being born again is not a rabbit’s foot.”
Hughes claim that 90% of divorces among born-again couples occur after they have been “saved.”
Furthermore, atheists and agnostics have the lowest divorce rate of all!
|Age group||% have been divorced|
|Baby boomers (33 to 52 years of age)||34%|
|Builders (53 to 72 years of age)||37%|
|Seniors (above 72 years of age)||18%|
Many seniors were married in the late 40’s or early 50’s at a time when divorce rates were much lower than they are today.
People specifically married prior to the Congressional declaration of “In God We Trust” have the lowest divorce rates and it has only begun to decrease again in recent years.What about teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases? From the Wikipedia article on Teen pregnancy:
In the United States the topic of sex education is the subject of much contentious debate. Some schools provide “abstinence-only” education and virginity pledges are increasingly popular. A 2004 study by Yale and Columbia Universities found that fully 88 percent of those who pledge abstinence have premarital sex anyway.
The conservative Christian belief in teaching abstinence and nothing but abstinence is a complete failure, just as much of a failure as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. Schools with abstinence only programs have the highest rates of pregnancy and STDs. Of course, some of this is caused by the sexual revolution and sexuality in the media, but my point is that it was the patriotic religiosity that preceeded the sexual revolution and contributed to the social atmosphere that led to the it. But how does this compare to other countries? From the Wikipedia article on Adolescent sexuality in the United States:
The United States is the most conservatively religious industrial nation and yet has one of the highest rates of certain immoral behaviors. Obviously, righteous moralizing is far from helpful.
The percentage of teenagers who report they are currently sexually active has also been dropping since 1991. In 1997, only 37% of females and 33% of males who reported ever having had sexual intercourse said that they had sex in the past 3 months. By 2005, the overall percentage of teenagers reporting that they were currently sexually active was down to 33.9%.
So, the generations following the Boomers were raised with less traditional Christian values. Atheism, agnosticism, and “religious nones” have been increasing with the post-Boomer generations. Directly correlated with this are the rates of decreasing extra-marital sexual behavior among teens. The ironic fact is that, even though abstinence had recently been increasing, abstinence only sex education has been far from proven effective. From the Wikipedia article on Abstinence-only sex education:
Abstinence-only education has been criticized in official statements by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the Society for Adolescent Medicine, the American College Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association, which all maintain that sex education needs to be comprehensive to be effective.The AMA “urges schools to implement comprehensive… sexuality education programs that… include an integrated strategy for making condoms available to students and for providing both factual information and skill-building related to reproductive biology, sexual abstinence, sexual responsibility, contraceptives including condoms, alternatives in birth control, and other issues aimed at prevention of pregnancy and sexual transmission of diseases… [and] opposes the sole use of abstinence-only education…”The American Academy of Pediatrics states that “Abstinence-only programs have not demonstrated successful outcomes with regard to delayed initiation of sexual activity or use of safer sex practices… Programs that encourage abstinence as the best option for adolescents, but offer a discussion of HIV prevention and contraception as the best approach for adolescents who are sexually active, have been shown to delay the initiation of sexual activity and increase the proportion of sexually active adolescents who reported using birth control.”On August 4, 2007, the British Medical Journal published an editorial concluding that there is “no evidence” that abstinence-only sex education programs “reduce risky sexual behaviours, incidence of sexually transmitted infections, or pregnancy” in “high income countries”.A comprehensive review of 115 program evaluations published in November 2007 by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that two-thirds of sex education programs focusing on both abstinence and contraception had a positive effect on teen sexual behavior. The same study found no strong evidence that abstinence-only programs delayed the initiation of sex, hastened the return to abstinence, or reduced the number of sexual partners. According to the study author:
“Even though there does not exist strong evidence that any particular abstinence program is effective at delaying sex or reducing sexual behavior, one should not conclude that all abstinence programs are ineffective. After all, programs are diverse, fewer than 10 rigorous studies of these programs have been carried out, and studies of two programs have provided modestly encouraging results. In sum, studies of abstinence programs have not produced sufficient evidence to justify their widespread dissemination.”
Joycelyn Elders, former Surgeon General of the United States, is a notable critic of abstinence-only sex education. She was among the interviewees Penn & Teller included in their Bullshit! episode on the subject.Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that abstinence-only sex education leads to the opposite of the intended results by spreading ignorance regarding sexually transmitted diseases and the proper use of contraceptives to prevent both infections and pregnancy.
These are just trends and it’s hard to know which correlations may or may not imply causation. The data isn’t always clear and much more study is needed to understand which programs work best, but my basic point remains true. Simply put, religious moral claims have no basis in real-world scientifically proven facts. From the Wikipedia article on Sex education:
Abstinence-only sex education tells teenagers that they should be sexually abstinent until marriage and does not provide information about contraception. In the Kaiser study, 34% of high-school principals said their school’s main message was abstinence-only.The difference between these two approaches, and their impact on teen behavior, remains a controversial subject. In the U.S., teenage birth rates had been dropping since 1991, but a 2007 report showed 3% increase from 2005 to 2006. From 1991 to 2005, the percentage of teens reporting that they had ever had sex or were currently sexually active showed small declines. However, the U.S. still has the highest teen birth rate and one of the highest rates of STIs among teens in the industrialized world. Public opinion polls conducted over the years have found that the vast majority of Americans favor broader sex education programs over those that teach only abstinence, although abstinence educators recently published poll data with the opposite conclusion.Proponents of comprehensive sex education, which include the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the Society for Adolescent Medicine and the American College Health Association, argue that sexual behavior after puberty is a given, and it is therefore crucial to provide information about the risks and how they can be minimized; they also claim that denying teens such factual information leads to unwanted pregnancies and STIs.On the other hand, proponents of abstinence-only sex education object to curricula that fail to teach their standard of moral behavior; they maintain that a morality based on sex only within the bounds of marriage is “healthy and constructive” and that value-free knowledge of the body may lead to immoral, unhealthy, and harmful practices. Within the last decade, the federal government has encouraged abstinence-only education by steering over a billion dollars to such programs.[…] In a meta-analysis, DiCenso et al. have compared comprehensive sex education programs with abstinence-only programs. Their review of several studies shows that abstinence-only programs did not reduce the likelihood of pregnancy of women who participated in the programs, but rather increased it.
The most significant fact here is that there is evidence that abstinence-only sex education may lead to increased teen sexual activity. The facts speak for themselves.
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Various studies in recent years have cast a grave doubt on the 40% value.
Public opinion polls generally do not report real opinions and events. They report only the information that the individuals choose to tell the pollsters. Quite often, their answers will be distorted by a phenomenon called “social desirability bias.” Pollees answer questions according to what they think they should be doing, rather than what they are doing. For example, a poll by Barna Research showed that 17% of American adults say that they tithe — i.e. they give 10 to 13% of their income to their church. Only 3% actually do. 9
The gap between what they do and what they say they do is closer in the case of religious attendance. It is “only” about 2 to 1.
If this study by Presser and Stinson is accurate, it would indicate a substantial drop in actual church attendance from the mid 1960s to the mid 1990s. Since the reported attendance has remained stuck at the magical 40% figure for decades, one might conclude that the rate of exaggeration of church attendance is increasing. Also, it would appear that polls are to be mistrusted. Nobody really knows what the percentage attendance is. To obtain accurate data, pollsters will have to abandon the comfortable task of polling opinion by phone and camp out in church, synagogue, and mosque parking lots so that they can count noses.
Tom Flynn, writing for the Free Inquiry magazine wrote:
“Some pollsters have refined their survey instruments after the 1993 Hadaway paper. Gallup changed its questions, but continued to report weekly churchgoing at over 40%. Yet when the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) redesigned its mammoth General Social Survey (GSS), church attendance figures declined sharply. For many years GSS data had supported Gallup’s; the redesigned 1996 GSS reported that only between 29 and 30.5% of Americans attended church in the last week, a figure similar to Presser and Stinson’s.”
“Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves wonder, “To what extent do these findings challenge the conventional wisdom that Americans are a very religious people?” At the least, they would seem to reinforce the claim that despite the rhetoric, active religious participation remains a minority interest in American life.” 2
The director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, Robert Wuthnow, said that the terrorists’ attacks have not changed the basic makeup of the U.S.:
- About one in four of American adults is devoutly religious;
- one in four is secular, and
- the remaining half is mildly interested about religion.
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Church attendance as established by surveys is one of the main factors alleged to illustrate the depth of religious feeling in America. Depending on which poll you consult, between 33 percent and 43 percent of Americans claim to attend church weekly. Using the low end of that range, we get a figure of around a hundred million people. Even cursory crack research, however, reveals that this might not be true, for the simple reason that there might not be enough seats in all churches in America to hold nearly as many people.
According to a study conducted for the Catholic Biblical Federation in 2008, 93 percent of Americans have at least one copy of the Bible at home. Twenty-seven percent of Americans surveyed believe that the Bible is “the actual word of God, which must be taken literally, word for word,” and 78 percent view its contents as true. Almost half of American respondents agree–either somewhat or completely–with the statement “The Bible should be studied at school,” and 56 percent have given a Bible as a gift at least once. In addition, a Harris poll conducted the same year showed that Americans overwhelmingly name the Bible as their favorite book.
One might deduct from these numbers that the Americans’ knowledge of the Bible is at least somewhat satisfactory. Nobody could like the Bible, let alone maintain that its contents are true, give it as a gift, or recommend that it be taught in schools, without possessing at least an elementary awareness of its teachings. In order to agree that the Bible contains the unerring pronouncements of God, which are to be taken literally, word for word, from beginning to end, one must necessarily be acquainted with what these pronouncements are.
Not so. According to polls, a mere half of Americans are able to name a single Gospel, and a majority are unfamiliar with the fact that Genesis is the first book of the Bible. Thomas, according to 22 percent of Americans, wrote one of the books, and Sodom and Gomorrah were married, if we are to listen to half of American high school seniors.
While a majority of Americans maintain that they use the ten biblical commandments as a life guide, 60 percent are unable to name more than four. Among adult and teen believers, “God helps those who help themselves” is the most widely-known verse in the Bible; only 38 percent of respondents correctly said that this was not a Bible quotation, while 42 percent thought it was, and 20 percent did not hazard a guess.
Sixteen percent of American Christians believe that the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ was born in Jerusalem, 8 percent in Nazareth, 6 percent abstained from responding, while the rest got it right. Twelve percent also attribute to Jesus the writing of a book of the Bible.
America seems to not be the solid bastion of Christianity that many claim it is or wish it were. In large numbers, Americans from all walks of life shun church and reduce their Bibles to the status of objects of decoration, while they maintain, perhaps in a bout of wishful thinking, that God, churches and religion rule their lives. People who believe Joan of Arc to have been Noah’s wife, as one in 10 Americans do, can not be said to have even a fleeting interest in their scripture. Americans are indeed religious; just how religious is a question that still needs investigating. In private, religious apathy piles thick behind the screen of public piety, and the famously robust American religiosity–taken for granted by many–seems to become a delusion of biblical proportions.
I was reading this article by the religious scholar D.M. Murdock.
She was writing about Gregory S. Paul. He is a respected paleontologist, but Murdock was writing about his analysis of data correlating religiosity and societal dysfunction. Here are two papers he wrote.
He considered multiple factors (from the first link):
Religiosity – “absolute belief in a supernatural creator deity (a superior measure of religious devotion than general belief in God because the latter includes partial doubters), Bible literalism (a proxy for the conservatism of mass faith), frequent attendance at religious services and frequency of prayer that measure religious activity, belief in an afterlife, agnostics and atheists, and acceptance of human descent from animals which is also a measure of creationist opinion”
Societal dysfunction – “homicide, incarceration, juvenile mortality, lifespan, adolescent and all age gonorrhea and syphilis infections, adolescent abortion, adolescent births, youth and all age suicide, fertility, marriage, marriage duration, divorce, life satisfaction, alcohol consumption, corruption, income, income disparity, poverty, employment, work hours and resource exploitation base”
There have been some critics of Paul’s analysis. Even though his analysis emphasizes correlation over causation, the authors of the following article seem to focus their criticism on the causation angle.
The authors say there is no clear relationship between either religion or secularism and moral behavior. This isn’t really much of a criticism as it still undermines the commonsense view that religion obviously supports morality, and so this criticism seems to support Paul’s general view or at least not be in direct conflict with it.
More interesting is the analysis of Gary F. Jensen who is also responding to Paul, but using a different criticsm.
Jensen concludes that it’s important which details one considers. Speaking about religiosity alone is too general, and so doesn’t allow clear and accurate conclusions. His research demonstrates that religious cultures that show dysfunction (e.g., United States) are those that emphasize negative religious convictions such as belief in the Devil and Hell. Religious cultures that emphasize a good God or a positive/peaceful relationship with the divine don’t have these high levels of societal dysfunction.