03/06/2006 02:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Outsourcing God

It's hard to explain why America cannot do without God. We are among the most secular societies on earth. If you are not a church-goer, you can pass every day of the year, not excepting Christmas and Easter, without thinking about God, believing in God, or praying to God, and you will still have a perfectly happy life. In other countries where church attendance is extremely low, such as the Scandinavian countries where attendance is around 8-10%, people are happy, productive, and moral. The punishment of a wrathful God has not struck them.

The U.S. has suffered a sharp drop in regular church attendance over the last few decades, along with Europe, and mainline denominations continue to decline. Fundamentalism has increased, but still the number of "unchurched" (people who haven't attended in the past few months) is rising steadily.

Despite this trend, 53% of Americans consider religion to be very important in their lives. This compares with 16% in Britain, 14% in France and 13% in Germany. It helps explain why our foreign policy, for example, has been morality-based since before WW I: we see ourselves as the most godly people on earth, and in fact no other country with comparable development comes near the U.S. in church-going.

What makes this so strange is that most people, despite their belief in God, have outsourced him. He has become a pious duty, like caring for the dying, that is left to other people. No state university or prominent private college teaches creationism. Staple ideas of the religious right, such as the right to life, the Second Coming, the existence of Satan, and the rise of the Anti-Christ have not the slightest intellectual respectability in these colleges. "Family values" would be laughed out of any psychology or sociology department. The wrath of God is not taught as a basis for ethics, social reward, or natural disasters.

The vast majority outsource faith to the minority who seem to think it is a matter of life and death. The right's religious fixations percolate at a level of society that has almost nothing to do with science, technology, Wall Street, medicine, law, or any of the other preoccupations of modern American life. Only one field, politics, has been susceptible to religious fervor. When Pres. Bush told the annual anti-abortion rally in Washington that they were serving "an noble cause," one heard echoes of politicians pandering to Prohibition 80 years ago--abortion is ultimately a social curiosity of our time, as Prohibition was back then. Nowhere else in the world is it a vital issue, and even here, where everyone must pretend that abortion is all-important to get elected, few sensible women would deny themselves an abortion should their need be truly great.

One can only wonder, in this landscape of religious strangeness, what face God will wear next. It's not possible to exist without love, truth, higher morality, a sense of justice, empathy, and common humanity. God has stood for all these things. Therefore, one must assume that God is evolving somewhere, waiting to uphold the next stage of human consciousness. We can't outsource Him forever, and the fundamentalists who have kidnapped Him for the time being do not represent the spiritual fulfillment that each of us, in one way or another, is yearning for.