There is no question that more Americans are becoming more secular. That does not mean that America is “losing its faith” (if you consider faith a good thing) but simply that religion is an animating force for fewer Americans than it was even a decade ago. Believers are whistling in the dark when they dismiss studies showing that the proportion of “unchurched” Americans has more than doubled during the past decade and suggest that these people are not rejecting the supernatural but simply moving toward a more “personal” form of faith.
That only a small percentage of Americans are willing to call themselves atheists or agnostics is irrelevant, given the stigma applied to both groups in American culture. If you don’t go to religious services, participate in religious rituals, and seek a religious education for yourself or your children, the chances are good that you do not consider religion important at all. People who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” are like people who say they place great importance on reading but never go to the library, buy a book, or read a book online. Who is going to come right out and tell a pollster, “I hate books and I’m proud of it?”
All studies, including the newest one conducted by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College and last year’s Pew Forum report on America’s religious landscape, point in the same direction — toward a growing cultural divide. While more Americans are abandoning religion altogether, the minority (mainly right-wing Protestant Christians) that believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible has held steady at about one-third of the population. The dropouts from religion are primarily Catholics, mainstream Protestants, and non-Orthodox Jews.
The decline of American-born Catholics is most startling. The Pew Forum found that although about one-third of Americans were raised as Catholics, only one-fourth now consider themselves Catholics. Were it not for immigration from Latin America, Catholicism here would be as lifeless as it is in most of “secular Europe.” Given the erosion of the Catholic faith as previous groups of immigrants became more educated and assimilated, I wouldn’t count on the newest generation of Hispanic immigrants to save the institutional church in the U.S.
As an atheist, I am pleased by any decline in religiosity among Americans. As someone who values cultural literacy, however, the decline of religious education (which necessarily accompanies decline in church membership) gives me pause. In what is supposedly the most religious nation in the developed world, more than half of American adults cannot name the four gospels or Genesis as the first book of the Bible. (This of course suggests that religion wasn’t doing such a good job of educating people about their traditions.) Nevertheless, it is impossible to understand literature and culture without knowing something about religion, and if more people prefer the malls and video games to services and Sunday School, that will only contribute to the general dumbing down of American culture. Stephen Prothero, in his 2007 book Religious Literacy, proposed that public schools offer courses in the history of religion. But I can’t imagine that our schools, which aren’t doing such a great job of teaching reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, are likely to do a better job of teaching about the history of religion.
I recently went to a traditional Jewish funeral, and when the rabbi began to lead the mourners’ Kaddish, it was clear that almost none of the attendees under the age of 40 had the slightest idea of how to recite this traditional Jewish prayer for the dead in Hebrew. There is something profoundly sad about the loss of ancient knowledge, even though I find nothing sad about the loss of belief in the supernatural. As an atheist who was raised a Catholic, I suppose it might be said that I have had the best (or the worst, if you think that becoming an atheist is a horrible fate) of both worlds: I was forced to learn about religion — and not only Catholicism, because when that didn’t make sense to me, I then studied other religions to see if they made more sense. My religious education led me to the conclusion that no religion could stand up to serious intellectual and scientific scrutiny. But I’m not the least bit sorry about having received the religious education in the first place. I do feel sorry for people who haven’t been exposed to the soaring beauty of the psalms, who don’t know what they’re looking at when they see a painting of “Rest On The Flight Into Egypt,” who can’t say Kaddish for their grandfather.
Can religious history be taught and learned without religious belief? I don’t know, but it’s a subject that every atheist who values learning and culture ought to think about.