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Opiate of the Masses?

January 23, 2012
S. Michael Craven
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Ever since Karl Marx penned his denunciatory statement on religion in 1843 (paraphrased above), secularists, social progressives, and other opponents of religion have worked to convince us that religious faith is an outdated relic of the past whose inexplicable (in their view) existence remains only by means of a stubborn, unenlightened, and uneducated lower class.

Indeed, there appears to be an abundance of data supporting the claim that religious belief in America is—generally speaking—in a state of free fall. In 2009, ABC News, citing a recent study by the American Religious Identity Survey, reported, “In one of the most dramatic shifts, 15 percent of Americans now say they have no religion—a figure that’s almost doubled in 18 years. Americans with no religious preference are now larger than all other major religious groups except Catholics and Baptists” (Dan Harris, “America Is Becoming Less Christian, Less Religious, “ March 9, 2009, ABC News).

Greg Paul, writing in the Washington Post last year, argued, “As the survey results come in, as the irreligious best-sellers sell, and as the scientific analysis gets published, it is increasingly clear that Western atheism has evolved into a forward-looking movement that has the wind at its back, is behind the success of the best run societies yet seen in human history, and is challenging religion as the better basis of morality” (Greg Paul, “Atheism on the upswing in America,” Washington Post, 9/20/2011). Despite the staggering display of historical and cultural ignorance represented by the latter part of that statement, Mr. Paul summarizes what I think many would like us to believe: “To be religious is to be stupid!”  

As for atheism, somewhere between 2 and 9 percent of Americans describe themselves as atheists (this broad range is due to the difficulty some have in defining the term). Apparently many self-described atheists don’t quite understand atheism. According to a 2008 Pew Research poll, 21 percent of atheists said they “believed in God.” Regardless, the number of those who claim to be atheists remains relatively static. 

In reality, religion in America is not so much in decline as it is in a state of transition and change. New Age spirituality—as nebulous as it is—may be growing but so is the Catholic church. Increasing numbers of younger Christians—those most often considered to be the target of the modern seeker-sensitive church—are migrating instead to more traditional ecclesiastic forms such as that found within Presbyterian, Anglican, and Orthodox churches. Anecdotally, I have observed an increasing desire among young Christians in particular for more intellectual and theologically rigorous faith expressions.

There is no doubt that Christianity, as it has come to be understood in America, has been in decline. That may not be a bad thing. Frankly, I think the potential demise of culturalized, politicized, and Americanized forms of Christianity represents a hopeful trend! While Marx suggested that religion serves to dull and subdue attention to real life, I would say that false forms of religion do worse by offering a spiritual placebo, which only provides surface satisfaction with the “divine” rather than true reconciliation and intimacy with the Creator.

In the wake of this cultural upheaval, the Christian community that seems to be emerging (I mean nothing by that term!) may be smaller than, say, fifty years ago but it is arguably becoming more theologically astute and biblically faithful. Perhaps a remnant?

As for the growing category of “no religious preference,” the evidence seems to suggest that more and more Americans are simply wandering through life oblivious to the larger questions, pleased to be ignorant and satisfied with the superficial.

In contrast to the idea that religion persists due largely to ignorance, research conducted in 2011 by University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox found that since the 1970s, it is the least educated who dominate the rapidly growing category of those having “no religious preference.” Whereas among the most educated, religious faith remains relatively stable at about 46 percent, reporting at least monthly church attendance. This is only down from 51 percent forty years ago, which, when taken alongside population growth, represents an increase in the number of churchgoers among the most educated. 

Philip Schwadel, associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, also challenges the scholarly contention that increases in education necessarily leads to declines in religious participation, belief, and affiliation. His research confirms that more education does not decrease the odds that an American will believe in God or the afterlife. In fact, his research revealed that more education “positively affects” religious participation and the role of religion (including devotional activities) in daily life.

Barry A. Kosmin, who serves as director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture and as professor in the Public Policy and Law program at Trinity College, presented a paper at the 2010 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion he called “Religion and the Intelligentsia: Post-graduate Educated Americans 1990–2008.” Contrary to the notion that intellectual elites and atheism go hand in hand, he found “the elite today look more like their parents than their professors.” His findings include:

• While 82 percent of all Americans said in 2008 that they believe in a personal God or a high power, so did 85 percent of elites.

• Elites share the majority’s doubts about evolution although they are still more likely to support it, with 48 percent saying humans evolved from earlier species of animals, compared to 38 percent of the nation overall.

• Elites have high levels of household membership in a house of worship: 63 percent say they belong compared to 54 percent of overall. 

Perhaps the growing indifference to religion in America is not so much the product of enlightenment as it is the result of ignorance that is so easily facilitated by vain pursuits, intellectual indifference and mindless amusement. Rather than Christianity, which engages heart, mind, soul and strength—the whole person—perhaps a hedonistic secularism, which encourages people to either ignore or sleepwalk through life’s most important questions is the true “opiate of the masses!” 

© 2012 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : gregory moats  

January 23, 2012 10:23 AM

thanks again, Michael, for such thoughtful insights and accessible scholarly language. while using terms like,"perhaps a remnant?" can be fighting words for some, I do not read exclusivity or extra biblical insights into them on your part. just a plausible fact.

as an adolescent,prone to trouble finding me all too often, I found myself facing the judgement seat of my father. as I "logically" presented my defence, his response to my high mindedness on more than one occasion was, "son, you are SO smart, you're STUPID!" he then rested his case...

Response from : Martin Van Dyk  

January 23, 2012 4:57 PM

Interesting topic....however, all Christians must be aware that no person person.... on earth may/can indicate that s/he does not have a religion. Each person on earth has a religion.

Regarding North America: Has there been a change? Yes. The focus has shifted, Each person has a religion readily indicating what is being worshiped.

Neutrality is null and void. To believe that one does not have a religion is believing a lie.

Each person readily clarifies his/her "focus of life" via personal lifestyles, desires and commitments.

Response from : Matt Edwards  

January 25, 2012 12:34 PM

Great stuff again, Michael. Like you, I am actually hopeful about the possibilities of the Church in America with the emptying of many of the individual churches in our country. In the excellent documentary, "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers" the filmmaker (Dan Merchant) asks several non-churchgoers what their perspective is on Christians. Many of them say things like "judgmental" or "condescending" or "closed-minded". But when he asks these same people to describe Jesus, they used words like "compassionate", "forgiving", and "loving". Why is that?

I once heard a speaker ask the question, "If you claim to be in the same family as Jesus, can others see the family resemblance?" Sadly, most of the country (and the world) see very little in common between the Jesus of Scripture and the modern Church in America. People have recognized the Church for what is has become - a self-sustaining organization that does very little except meet at 11:00 A.M. on Sundays to get worked up emotionally during singing and to listen to a man talk for 30 minutes. And that is pretty much it. So if that kind of group is breaking apart, I will shed very few tears. What I would love to see take its place is a group of people who out of love and a desire to serve the Lord want to take to the streets and make a difference in the world - to comfort the grieving, to fellowship with the lonely, to care for the sick, to provide for the poor, to love the abadoned, to champion the cause of the weak, and to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near! I am hopeful that in the next twenty years that the words "Jesus Christ" will once again be words of hope and encouragement rather than just some exclamation of anger or frustration.

Response from : Kathy Lang  

January 26, 2012 12:59 PM

I go to church today because I need to hear the Word of God and worship Him with others and recieve the benefits in order to be a better mom, wife, friend and citizen. My mother took me and my 8 siblings to church every Sunday and we prayed together, before dinner and sometimes at night before and often for sich friends and family. When I became a young adult and hormones changed the way I felt and looked at life, I went through a rebellious bout and my life reflected my rebellion, it became unbearable. I went back to church and what happened was I changed, not God. I grew up and realized my limitations, my ignorance and my need for God's love and forgiveness. I recieved God's grace. I beleive that most people who don't go to church today have not made that transition. They have not grown up spiritually and found humility. The affluence, not by hard work and discipline, but by a bloated and irresponsible society have enabled so many to maintain this state of spiritual and emotional immaturity. I pray for them and I love them.

Response from : Greg  

January 28, 2012 2:44 PM

Excellent analysis.
My wife is a native of communist China. Here, as in Russia, a minority of atheistic elites manipulated the masses with envy and resentment, and so their numbers and mob thinking overruled even the most intelligent who where now subject to a corrupt government. Our model may be as keepers of the light like the exiles in Babylon, but these Jews had a profound effect on their captors and the Jews survived to make a nation again.
At least this thinking gives me hope that God is using the current situation as he did the roads that Rome built.

Response from : Laurie Trlak  

August 25, 2012 4:57 PM

I have often observed that people who identify themselves as atheists avoid the really tough questions, all the while pretending to be so much more intelligent than those of us poor rubes who still believe and practice what we believe. Most of the educated people I know (and I know quite a few) are people of faith.


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