There is one thing that is not allowed in American national politics – and that is atheism. “In God We Trust” is on the currency; and the number of congressional members who avow no faith at all are about as plentiful as those who are openly gay (none in the Senate; five in the House).As more Americans identify as godless, it will become safer to challenge these manifestations of the irrationalist status quo.
Americans are losing faith, though; and those who have it are moving out of established churches. The nonreligious are now the third biggest grouping in the US, after Catholics and Baptists, according to the just-released American Religious Identification Survey. The bulk of this shift occurred in the 1990s, when they jumped from 8% to 14% of the population – but they have consolidated in the past decade to 15%.Every loss in faith is a gain for reality-based perspectives.
It is impossible to know where this is heading, but the latest survey is a reminder to exercise a little scepticism when you hear of America’s religious exceptionalism. Yes, America is far more devout than most of western Europe; but it is not immune to the broader crises facing established religion in the West. The days when America’s leading intellectuals contained a strong cadre of serious Christians are over. There is no Thomas Merton in our day; no Reinhold Niebuhr, Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor. In the arguments spawned by the new atheist wave, the Christian respondents have been underwhelming. As one evangelical noted in The Christian Science Monitor last week, “being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence”.It is hard to muster more whelming arguments in defense of an ethically and intellectually incoherent tradition. That apologists are balking at the task of wedging their deity into increasing narrow gaps just shows that not even apologists are entirely resistant to reality-based thinking.
What one yearns for is a resuscitation of a via media in American religious life – the role that the established Protestant churches once played. Or at least an understanding that religion must absorb and explain the new facts of modernity: the deepening of the Darwinian consensus in the sciences, the irrefutable scriptural scholarship that makes biblical literalism intellectually contemptible, the shifting shape of family life, the new reality of openly gay people, the fact of gender equality in the secular world. It seems to me that American Christianity, despite so many resources, has ignored its intellectual responsibility. And atheists, if this continues much longer, will continue to pick up that slack.The cost of admission at any church is that one leave intellectual responsibility at the door.