Many Americans have watched the presidential debates that have taken place so far as the election approaches and the media doubles down on political programming. But one debate, that of the role of religion in public life and the health of religious identity in America, has also attracted attention.
Recently, a study by Pew Research Center showed that the number of US adults who believe in a god, pray daily, attend religious services, and find religion to be important to their lives is shrinking. This is in keeping with a multi-year trend which has shown not only the rise in atheism and an irreligious identity but also a greater willingness among religious Americans to vote for atheist candidates for public office.
But with this rise in nontheism and acceptance of nonreligious values has come a blowback from religious academics. Scholars from the Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Texas hosted an event today at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, titled “The End of Religion? An Essential Corrective to the Secularization Myth.”
As one would expect from such an inflammatory title, the event was less scientific than it was anecdotal. In fact, nearly the entire event focused on personal stories or contentions of existing surveys rather than the introduction of any studies showing a growing religious identity within America.
One presenter, Professor Philip Jenkins, even attempted to dispute the growing secularism of Europe by noting that while church membership and personal religious belief had declined within the continent, the revival of medieval pilgrimage paths which he had witnessed in Europe was surely proof that religion was making a comeback in Europe. The only example Jenkins had of a European country with a growing religious population was Russia, a country which has seen a corresponding rise in homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism.
Others seeking to ignore the negative trend for religion within America tried instead to focus on the international religious landscape. Professor Rodney Stark went so far as to pronounce that religion is at its global height, claiming over 90 percent of Nigerians regularly attend church services and there are more than 20,000 men in the seminary in South America. He even referenced a report performed by the Chinese government in 2007 showing that in China there are at least thirty million Christians—a conservative number, according to Stark.
These numbers are somehow made to counteract the fact that just 63 percent of the global population are religious, which is an all-time low. But these figures shouldn’t be trusted according to Professor Byron Johnson, who feels as though the media and the surveying institutions are inherently biased against religious institutions. Claiming at the event that the media is “too focused on the rise of the nones” and only reports on the decline of religion instead of the aspects of the survey that reflect positively on religious belief, Johnson made a point of casting doubt on scientific studies that he simply doesn’t like because of his ideological positions. Never mind the fact that most of the media reports on the decline of religious identity in America come from Christian news sources, a fact which he readily acknowledged at the event.
But perhaps the strangest and most desperate parts of the event focused on religion’s supposed benefits on personal health and the role religion should have in public life according to the founding fathers.
Dr. Jeff Levin, an epidemiologist by training and professor at Baylor, spent his presentation focusing not only on the health of religion in America, but also on how religious belief can lead to better personal health. According to Dr. Levin, religion tends to exhibit a positive influence on human wellbeing by boosting mental health with feelings of happiness and can prevent depression. He even claimed that it can help lower the risk of alcoholism and reduce suicidal tendencies. This section of the event felt remarkably out of place, as it resembled almost an outright appeal for religious belief. It seemed as though the presenter was saying, “Religion may be dying out in America and across the world, but if you come back to the church you can live a longer, healthier life.”
Just as strange as this tasteless health-based appeal for religious belief was Professor Thomas Kidd’s perspective on the founding fathers and secularism. While admitting that a large number of the founders were deists, religious skeptics, and secularists, Kidd also asserted that they supported a relatively robust role for religion in public life. But rather than reference documents supporting this position, Kidd instead focused on personal stories. Noting Jefferson’s strong belief in a “wall of separation,” Kidd also noted that Jefferson on occasion would attend religious services in the US Congress. Never mind the fact that all sessions of Congress are opened with prayer—or the fact that Jefferson as a delegate from Virginia to the US Congress would have already been present in the congressional chambers as part of his duties; to Kidd, this was definitive proof of Jefferson’s support for religious activities in government buildings.
The feeling I got from the event was that of open panic: panic about the declining role of religion in America and around the world, panic about the rising tide of governmental secularism, and panic that the media was no longer a defender of religious ideas or institutions. The result of this panic, at least for many of the presenters, was the adoption of the “ostrich defense,” that of sticking one’s head in the sand and ignoring reality. If polls show religion is on the decline, the polls must be faulty or the media must be misinterpreting them. If the number of religiously unaffiliated is on the rise, this must be because religious people are simply leaving religious institutions while keeping their beliefs, not because more people are becoming atheistic or agnostic.
While it was a bit disappointing to see academics behave in such an unscholarly manner, the message that secularists and nontheists could take away from the event was comforting: religion may never go away completely, but at least for now it appears to be fading into the background of society and the human mind.