To the hurrahs of atheists everywhere reports of the decline of religion in America was fantastic news. Finally America was moving beyond the myths of regressive religious societies to the secular age predicted for generations by our enlightened cultural elites. If only. David Aikman in The Wall Street Journal laments what appears to be a moving away from religion, but he may be missing something.
At one level, this is a victory for religious pluralism—or, to use the politically correct term, diversity. At another, when one in five Americans has no religious affiliation, it is a commentary on the diminished importance of the moral underpinnings that characterized the United States for most of its existence.
He points out that America’s founders, be they skeptics or Deists, understood the importance of the strong moral underpinnings religion, specifically Christianity, played in the success of the America experiment. This is no less true today than it was then. Aikman gets to the heart of why this has changed and why there is hope for those who believe secularism isn’t the inevitable Nirvana it’s predicted up to be:
It is hard to believe today, when a secular orthodoxy clanks its way peevishly through academe, the media and popular culture, that it was broadly accepted by most Americans throughout the 19th century that America was at heart Christian—not in any formal or legal sense, but in the values and morality that most people wanted to observe.
This is exactly why the inexorable secularist march to victory is a hollow one: It is not that Americans are somehow in some objectively unavoidable way moving away from religious belief, but rather that those who control the professions that dominate cultural influence believe this and propagate it in their work. Americans don’t live in some vacuum devoid of cultural influence; every day Americans in their classrooms, what they watch on TV and in movies, in what media they read to inform themselves are indoctrinated in the assumptions of secularism. It’s kind of surprising that religion in America has held up as strongly as it has considering the almost half century liberal secularist hegemony in American culture.
The power of culture in terms of religious belief comes from what are known as plausibility structures, basically what seems true to us, not what is or is not true. Why is it that in much or all of the Muslim world religion is anything but withering away? Culture. If you grow up in Saudi Arabia, the God of Islam is ubiquitous; there is no separation of church and state, there is no freedom of conscious, no religious liberty. If you grow up in Manhattan, God might seem like little more than Santa Clause for grownups. That is why as important as politics is, the battle for the soul, so to speak, of our country is the culture; unless Europe, both politically and culturally, is your hope for America’s future.
Indeed, to the modern liberal, secularist through and through be they personally religious or not, desacralized welfare state Europe is their dream, the forward march of history. Unfortunately for them, this is a Marxist inspired belief grounded in nothing but progressive wish fulfillment. Human nature always seems to get in the way of overly educated elites who hate that there is such a thing as a human nature, predictable and not silly putty malleable.
One of the most predictable things about human nature is that in the face of an inexplicably vast universe, human suffering and joy, goodness, beauty and truth, love and loss, is the search for meaning beyond our material confines. The materialist answer which secular elites find so enthralling is empty and ridiculous to the vast swath of humanity that embraces religious faith of one kind or another. In spite of almost 50 years of secular cultural indoctrination, a large majority of the American people refuse to walk into the good atheist night.