The Public Face of Religion in America

By Carl M. Cannon

For 30 years, Alaska Airlines gave passengers little prayer cards with their meals. One favorite among the inspiring messages was a verse from the 107th psalm: "Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; His love endures forever."

Gradually, the commercial airlines stopped serving hot meals. On Alaska Airlines they've stopped handing out prayer cards, too. Most passengers liked them, but a minority complained.

This wasn't a First Amendment battle, but the capitulation reflects the changing public face of religion in America.

Simply put: atheism and agnosticism are on the rise. Secularists are growing more vocal in the United States and western Europe, and increasingly insistent they not be force-fed a diet of someone else's faith. Unaware of the irony, many prominent atheists have become passionate proselytizers.

A spate of books by in-your-face atheists have made several unbelievers, notably Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, into best-selling authors and stars of the lecture circuit. This un-holy trinity is part of a larger trend. From his platform as talk show host on HBO, left-leaning social commentator Bill Maher openly ridicules organized religion. After a nuanced portrayal of a religious man in "Tree of Life," movie star Brad Pitt explains that off-screen he veers between agnosticism and atheism and that as a boy growing up in a Southern Baptist household he found Christianity "stifling." And so it goes.

Meanwhile, research in the relatively new discipline of "neuro-theology" by pioneering clinicians such as University of Pennsylvania professor Andrew Newberg suggests to some that spiritual rapture is really just the tickling of the pleasure centers in the brain.

All this activity is having an effect. Since 1990, the percentage of Americans who say they identify with no religion has doubled to 13 percent of the population. These numbers are even higher among the young, many of whom equate Christianity with political conservatism.

"By some key measures, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans," reports the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in a study of so-called Millennials. "Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents' and grandparents' generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation...are unaffiliated with any particular faith."

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has warned of a prevalent "post-Christian narrative," particularly in the Northeast region of the United States, that he believes threatens the very fabric of American society.

In this environment, a Newsweek article proclaims "the end of Christian America." Writing in the Washington Post, secularist Gregory S. Paul gloats that atheism in western countries has "evolved." Atheists, Paul claimed, are at the vanguard of "a forward-looking movement that has the wind at its back." He acknowledges that the United States has been a "religious anomaly in the Western world," but insists that is changing, too. Atheism, he proclaims, is making "major gains while Christianity withers."

Is the portrait of religion in the United States really this linear? In a word or two: Probably not.

For starters, if 13 percent of Americans identify with no religious tradition -- "Nones" in the parlance of the field -- this means that 87 percent of the citizenry do consider themselves part of a faith community. That's a super-majority rarely found in U.S. civic life. Moreover, the most comprehensive study of American religion, the American Religious Identification Survey, found in 2008 that even among the "Nones" atheism is somewhat rare.

"Regarding belief in the divine, most Nones are neither atheists nor theists but rather agnostics and deists (59 percent) and perhaps best described as skeptics," the survey found. Likewise, a Pew study done the following year reveals that only about one-fourth of non-believers actually are certain enough to apply the word "atheist" to describe themselves.

Michael Cromartie, vice president of a Washington-based think tank called the Ethics and Public Policy Center, points out that all the atheistic best-sellers of the last decade put together don't come close to the 25 million hardback copies of California pastor Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life." Nor is Warren unique. "Books by evangelical authors are selling like hot cakes," Cromartie notes. "Authors like Tim Keller, Philip Yancey, Eric Metaxas, N.T. Wright - and, of course, C.S. Lewis -- are always selling."

What's actually happening in the field of religion is that Americans are racing off in several different directions at once. It's true that the ranks of atheists and agnostics are growing, but it's also true that within Christianity, the staid, mainstream denominations are stagnating while evangelical congregations are exploding.

This burgeoning activity takes place in every venue from storefront congregations bursting with immigrants to sprawling suburban mega-churches. One of the most famous of the latter, Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, is in California, arguably the most culturally liberal state in the nation. A little over a year ago, Californians rejected gay marriage in a statewide referendum that united in opposition African American clergymen, conservative evangelicals, and Mormon elders. Speaking of which, a practicing Mormon is poised to become the Republican Party's presidential nominee.

And even among that 13 percent cohort of non-believers, transformations are taking place. For one, several cataclysmic events of the past decade caused secularists to take a hard look at their own relative lack of charitable works. When the tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, Rick Warren happened to be emailing a pastor from a satellite church in Sri Lanka, who felt the earthquake and asked Warren to "pray for us" -- because he knew it meant a tsunami was coming.

Warren did more than that; he fired off instant email communications asking his extended church family to gear up to donate money, medicine, food, and monetary aid to the tsunami's victims -- before the tidal wave had even reached shore. This is not an isolated example. Several studies have shown that Christians in this country donate at a greater rate -- even to secular charities -- than non-believers. Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell found a six-in-10 chance that an American who never attends church worship services will give money to a secular charity, while the percentage for religious people is eight in 10.

But the 2004 Christmastime tsunami moved more than tectonic plates below the ocean floor. It motivated many "secular humanists" to contemplate the implications of the second word in that description. "There has been an absolute sea change," Dale McGowan, executive director of the Georgia-based Foundation Beyond Belief, told Religion News Service. "Boom, the beginning of 2005 was when these organizations started because our members called up and said, ‘What can we do for these people?' Giving has really become much more of a front-and-center concern for our community."

That's an example of how inter-faith dialogue -- that is to say, communications between those of faith and those without faith -- can influence each other. And despite the results of the 2010 California referendum, it's happening on the issue of gay marriage, with young people leading the way. Consider this: evangelical Christians under the age of 25 are more in favor of gay marriage than are New Deal Democrats over the age of 65.

On the personal level, the everyday interactions between Americans of faith and Americans who are non-believers is almost never as stark as it is on the Bill Maher show. Christianity may not be Brad Pitt's cup of tea, but he's the opposite of intolerant. In an interview with Parade magazine, the actor speaks with sensitivity and subtlety about why he turned away from the church, while acknowledging that, for most people, "religion works."

And while politically motivated commentators on the left and the right like to rail on about "the war on science" or "the war on religion," a more accurate way of looking at the age-old argument between science and religion is that in the 21st century, there is a historic cross-pollination taking place, which does not always cut in predictable ways.

When a Pentecostal pastor named Scott McDermott submitted himself to Professor Newberg's brain imaging experiments, he informed Newberg that he prayed at least two hours a day for 25 years. Asked by NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty what effect that might have on the human brain, the researcher replied, "The more you focus on something -- whether that's math or auto racing or football or God -- the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain."

But that wasn't McDermott's reaction.

After undergoing the procedure in Newberg's lab -- he was injected with a dye that shows the location and intensity of brain activity -- McDermott's faith was, if anything, strengthened. "The first thing that got me was I could hear God's voice," the pastor said. "And it so enamored me -- I mean, it changed me dramatically. I couldn't wait to pray!"

His take on neuro-theology? "I think we're wired for the supernatural. I think we're meant to sense a world beyond our five senses: Come on! Taste and see that God really is good."

Sometimes, the religion-science dialogue results in conversions -- not always in science's favor. Ard Louis, a professor of theoretical physics at Oxford University, recently told a group of journalists at an Ethics and Public Policy Center seminar in Miami that a friend of his, a biologist, was inadvertently steered on his faith journey by atheist Richard Dawkins.

This scientist, who had been agnostic, read Dawkins's book The Blind Watchmaker and was nonplussed by Dawkins's anger at organized religion. "Why is this guy so cheesed off?" he thought, adding that he was motivated to "read the other side."

He did -- and became a Christian.

Despite over-heated political rhetoric fueled by incendiary bloggers, partisan cable television formats, and opinionated radio talk show hosts, the one-on-one discourse on religion in this country is usually done with mutual respect. The best example might be the touching, if unlikely, friendship that Christopher Hitchens developed in the last years of his life with Francis S. Collins. Hitchens was a gifted writer and polemicist, author of god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything; Collins is a committed follower of Jesus Christ, author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

But Collins is also a world renowned scientist -- he was director of the Human Genome Project -- and the two men developed a mutual respect while opposing each other in formal debates on religion. They also developed a mutual affection, which deepened when Hitchens' was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer in June 2010.

"And the thing to note about stage four," Hitchens noted dryly, "is that there is no stage five." But the writer was determined to fight his disease, and he found a committed ally in Francis Collins, who helped devise an aggressive plan to fight it by drawing on his own research and identifying a gene mutation in Hitchens' cancer that doctors believed might lend itself to experimental drug treatment.

Christopher Hitchens lost that fight. He died six weeks ago. Among the many eulogies was one penned by Francis Collins, who wrote that he had been praying for his friend, adding sadly, "But the great voice finally fell silent on December 15."

After medical school, life and death issues faced by his patients prompted Francis Collins to search for answers to deeper questions. As a graduate student in chemistry in the 1970s, he had been an atheist who saw no reason to probe for truths that transcended the boundaries of math and physics. But asked by a terminally ill patient about his own beliefs, Collins undertook his own faith journey. Among his questions: Why are the physical constants in the universe so finely tuned to allow the possibility of complex life forms? From where do human beings derive their moral sense? What happens after people die?

Ultimately, Collins learned of a body of scholarship beyond science, making the acquaintance of thinkers ranging from C.S. Lewis to G.K. Chesterton, who observed, "Atheism is the most daring of all dogmas, for it is the assertion of a universal negative."

At the end of his quest Francis Collins was a Christian, although he's the first to concede that one can't arrive at that place from a purely empirical standpoint. "Faith is reason plus revelation," he has written. "Ultimately, a leap of faith is required."

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Editor of RealClearPolitics and author of the Morning Note, from which this piece has been adapted.

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