05/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Secular Life in Post-Christian America

Less than five years after Christian America's greatest political achievement -- the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004 -- Newsweek magazine announces "The Decline and Fall of Christian America" on its April 13 cover. The issue's lead article is "The End of Christian America" by Jon Meacham.

These stories, and there have been many, begin with the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey that was released in March. That survey showed a rapid increase in secularization in America, doubling since 1990 and a drop in all kinds of religious affiliation. That report brought into sharp focus changes that, in retrospect, were obvious.

But, actually, the story is both less and more momentous than the headline. It is less momentous because even with the doubling of secularists since 1990, only 15% of respondents in ARIS identified as secular. That means that America is still a very religious country and even a very Christian one. Nor will that change any time soon. (Meacham acknowledges this in the article.)

The story is more momentous, however, because growing secularization at some point reaches a cultural tipping point. At that point, and for the first time, large numbers of people begin to reach adulthood without religious training.

Of course there have always been atheists, in America and everywhere. But until recently, almost all atheists have been grounded in traditional religious teaching. They have been in the position of the Atheist relative in Woody Allen's film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, arguing against God at the family Seder. This is true as well of the leading atheist writers of today. They have all been shaped by religion.

In the near future, this will cease to be true. Today, we are still a Judeo-Christian culture with a sizeable secular representation. Tomorrow, we will become a secular culture with a sizeable Judeo-Christian representation.

This is not likely to mean that other religious traditions will step into the cultural vacuum. Interest in Buddhism, for example, has been spurred by religiously trained Christians and Jews who are looking for something else. That Buddhist growth may lessen in a secular culture.

As I have argued on this blog and in my book Hallowed Secularism, the easy assumption that secular culture will be healthy without religion may prove to be false. Secularists have an unwarranted confidence in themselves and in a new cultural formation. In contrast, I think raising children without religion is quite difficult.

Let me take a specific example. Daniel Dennett came to the New School in New York City in March and told an audience that they should all repeat to defenders of religion that "people can be good without religion." Dennett presumably exults in the decline of Christianity.

But religion by and large does not claim that it makes people good. Instead, religion, and especially Christianity, begins with the proclamation that people are not good. We lie, we cheat, we steal, we cheat on our spouses and we allow a billion people in the world to live on a dollar a day.

Which is more realistic about human nature, Dennett or the classic Christian view? And what, and for that matter how, will you teach your children the truth about such matters?

Undoubtedly, the decline of religion is inevitable in a scientific culture. Something, however, must replace religion's wisdom and insight. I assume that whatever that something turns out to be, it will have to borrow from the best of what religion has to offer if it wants to be successful in promoting human flourishing.

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