Secular Grace

The Christian share of America’s population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who don’t identify with any organized religion whatsoever is growing, according to an extensive new report by the Pew Research Center.

Moreover, these historically unprecedented changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and all demographic groups. The drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, but is occurring among Americans of all ages – the same trend is seen among Whites, Blacks, and the Latinx community; among college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.

I know, I know. The U.S. is still home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans — approximately seven in 10 – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith (though people do fib a lot on church attendance in questionnaires). But the major new survey by Pew of more than 35,000 Americans finds that the percentage of adults ages 18 and older who describe themselves as Christians (including evangelicals) has dropped by nearly 8 percentage points in just seven years – while during the same period, from 2007 to 2014, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular, jumped more than six points.

There are a number of reasons: the U.S. population is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, which means, among other good things, that non-Hispanic Whites now account for smaller shares of evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics. Religious intermarriage is also rising and linked with the growth of the unaffiliated population. Though many U.S. religious groups are aging, the unaffiliated are comparatively young and getting younger on average overtime. Overall, Christians have lost the most ground, in their relative share of the US population, and also in absolute numbers.

The intensifying rash of sexual misconduct by evangelical preachers is one major cause, because evangelical women are beginning to Have Had It. Riffling through some of the many headlines scattered across my desk: Southern Baptist leader Ronnie Floyd, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, resigns after an internal fight over sex abuse. The SBC has been rocked by reports of hundreds of sexual abuse cases revealed in a 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle. The president of the Arkansas Baptist state convention — also resigned, same reason — served on Donald Trump’s Advisory Council before the 2016 election (he succeeded Southern Baptist pastor Frank Paige, who also had resigned in 2018 over a “morally questionable relationship”). There is a headline here on Ravi Zacharias, who died last year after having tried to weather an avalanche of accusations on his “sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape.” He was one of the most revered evangelists in the country and had founded a global organization–before literally hundreds of women came forward with their allegations. What is wrong with you guys?

That’s the question evangelical women like Beth Allison Barr are asking. She’s been using historical analysis to challenge contemporary claims of “complementarianism,” the concept that although men and women have equal value in their god’s eyes, the Bible describes different roles at home and in the church, thus the notions of biblical manhood and biblical womanhood. Barr is fiftyish, a conservative evangelical Christian, but also the author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood, How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth–a bestseller. She is very popular. Nor is she alone. There is Mormon Women for Ethical Government, a group that started from a few women friends and within several weeks had over 4000 members from across the political spectrum. Founder Sharlee Mullins Glenn, an author, teacher, and founder of the group, says, “There were thousands of other women of faith like myself who felt compelled to act — to push back against fear and hate and take a stand.” Their motto: We will not be complicit by being complacent. So we have scandals emanating from the guys, and women, as a cultural and religious force, rising up and saying No More.

Still, religious apologists blame television for the drop in religiosity, or fault commuting, suburban sprawl, the two-career family, and changes in sexual morality, accusing even the Supreme Court! For example, if the Court had not prohibited states from subsidizing religious schools, private religious schools would be even more numerous than they are today, and religious communities might be stronger; or if the Court had not eliminated public school prayer (as forbidden by the Constitution!), students might be more devout.

I think we can more sensibly attribute the change to dramatic increases in the proportion of Americans receiving college educations; remember that religion and education were once highly intertwined in the United States and are now two distinct societal systems. I would add that other changes have been brought about by wars, the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, strong backlash against the religious right and the Republican evangelical alliance, as well as the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals, conservative religions’ anti-gay agenda, and of course demographic shifts.

The upshot: In the early 1970s, only one in 20 Americans claimed “none” as their religion. Today it’s closer to one in three.

Mind you, we’re not talking about dictatorships forcibly destroying religion, which always produces a backlash. Rather, secular societies who engage in voluntary drift from religion — perhaps outgrowing it? — countries like Japan, the Scandinavian nations, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Australia, etc., uphold and respect religious freedom, and their citizens tend to be better educated, more prosperous, and live safer and more secure lives; women hold paying jobs, more people wait to get married and have kids– all of which, especially in combination, decrease religiosity. These are among the healthiest, wealthiest, and safest places in the world. Secular citizens, when compared to their religious peers, are more likely to understand and respect the scientific method, to get vaccinated, to endorse sex education for the young, and to support women’s reproductive rights, universal healthcare, environmental protections, death with dignity, gun safety legislation, and treating drug abuse as a medical rather than criminal problem.

Keep in mind that among advanced western industrial societies only in the United States has there appeared a religious fundamentalist movement of societal importance. That came smack up against what the United States at its deepest core represents: Humanity’s historically first model of the separation of church and state.

Colette, the great French writer, gave us a wonderful sentence, among many: “I do not necessarily respect what I do not understand.”

For me, religion falls into that category. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and about the ways I try in this blog, and on my podcast, “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” to include observant women of faith, out of respect for them as women, and for fear of seeming—or being—judgmental. But judgment itself shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater of judgementalism. I’ve been clear about my own apostate European Jewish background, and about my affirmation of both the background and the apostasy. I’ve been clear, too, about certain types of sexual abuse perpetrated on me by clergy in my childhood – check out my blog “Me Too” of October 16, 2017. And I’ve been clear about having a “spiritual” bent (geez, I’m a poet, after all!) but nothing remotely like a “religious” tendency. Representatives of the Freedom from Religion Foundation have regularly guested on the podcast, as well as female rabbis, priests, nuns, ministers, imams, and Buddhist monks. I have generally tried to follow the rules of Elizabeth Tudor I of England, who famously said, “I have no desire to gaze into men’s souls,” during her attempt to curb the Protestant zealotry of her counselor Sir Francis Walsingham in his religious persecutions of Catholics. To put it another way, I’ve made no secret of my own quite contented god-free spirituality – which takes joy in the miracle of the Crab Nebula but can’t stomach the idea of an old guy with a white beard ruling over every detail of our existence from his perch on a golden throne.

Consequently, I’ve decided to lean harder on my free-thinking status. After all, etymologically speaking, a-theist merely means someone who is opposed to the notion of a deity, not the reality of a wondrous universe. A-gnostic simply breaks down to describe someone who doesn’t claim to know absolutely everything about absolutely everything – a rather sensible position. Freethinker, Oooh, that’s a great one. I’ll also embrace the state of irreligiosity, and reaffirm my opposition to all systems, religious as well as political (as if there were a difference) that are hierarchical, patriarchal, supremacist, misogynistic, suppressive, and violent. That is, in fact, the history of religion, scrawled in bright blood across the ages. And although yes, it has also produced millennia of great art, music, and literature (as well as some fabulous rebellious women saints), that doesn’t wash away the blood. It just proves the irrepressible intrepidity of the artistic spirit.

I’m deeply grateful to the Framers of our Constitution for their basic premise requiring this country, for the first time in history, to separate church and state. I’m grateful to science for providing us with answers–that is, so long as we continue to seek them. I’m grateful to those evangelical women and men, to those Christians, and the youth in particular, who are leaving their churches in droves, and to the previously observant communities who are doing the same across all religious systems. Perhaps my naming of this state of being as Secular Grace will gain traction and be used in a self revelatory manner that might be recognized as neither rejecting nor exclusionary, but actually welcoming.

So, if you choose, come on in — the water’s fine. And it’s not baptismal.