Culture & Society

Preparing for the Challenge of a Secular America

Religious belief is in decline, so we need to think about other sources of values and meaning

Image Credit: Neil Webb/Debut Art

One of the underappreciated stories of the past 30 years is the collapse of religious belief in America. We are becoming a secular nation, and this is transforming our politics in ways we haven’t fully grasped or responded to yet.

This struck me recently when I saw a Pew Research Center survey with a headline proclaiming, “Americans Have Positive Views About Religion’s Role in Society.” But do they really? Pew says, “More than half of the public believes that churches and religious organizations do more good than harm in American society.” But it’s just barely more than half: 55%. In my youth, this would have been a slam-dunk of a question, with the number somewhere north of 80%. It would not have been almost a coin flip.

This follows other polls showing that a record number of Americans are “religiously unaffiliated.” This includes not only outright atheists, though there are more of us than ever before, but also people whose religious beliefs can be described as “nothing in particular.” These “nones” now outnumber evangelical Christians.

The numbers have been trending this way for decades and show no sign of slowing down; lack of religious belief is even more pronounced among the young. This explains a lot about the apocalyptic attitude of today’s conservatives. The alarm over “wokeness” and the fear that their ideas are becoming unwelcome in polite society are partly a response to a genuine increase in intolerance and censoriousness. But it is also driven by the fear that religious believers, once a culturally dominant force who could think of themselves as the “moral majority,” are becoming a minority.

The Function of Religion

As an unbeliever myself, I would be happy to just sit back and say “welcome” to all the new “nones,” but I must admit that this cultural shift poses a real challenge. Traditional religion served a function, providing its adherents with a worldview and a sense of meaning and purpose in life. If that is fading, we’re going to need something else to perform the same function. If America is being secularized, we had better learn how to deal with it.

The challenge of secularization can be understood by considering how many of America’s great social and political reform movements had, at least in part, a religious inspiration and help from religious organizations. It’s no coincidence that the most prominent leader of the civil rights movement was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or that his Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written to justify his protest movement in response to local clergymen.

Before that, there was the Social Gospel, the temperance movement and the abolitionists. Even the American Revolution could be viewed as a social upheaval with religious origins. As John Adams wrote in a letter, the “real American Revolution” was “in the minds and hearts of the people,” which included “a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”

As religious belief fades, it is the social and political causes—global warming, “anti-racism,” contemporary notions about gender—that seem to be oozing in to fill the gap, taking on the role of secular religions. It is not for nothing that “woke” ideas on race have been described as a new religion, with its own version of original sin and its own rituals of purification and devotion. Certainly, the urge to punish blasphemers is taken as seriously as in any previous religion.

Politics Is No Substitute

Yet this is a palpably inadequate substitute. In this new religion of social justice, devotion tends to be practiced on social media rather than among neighbors in real communities, which is part of what makes it so dogmatic and intolerant. And the new religion is shallow, focused on political activism at the expense of any deeper or fuller needs of life—those of work or family or personal introspection. Religious belief offered, at least in theory, a whole view of life in which any particular political cause was one small part. These new secular creeds take a political cause and attempt to substitute it for a whole view of life. But this ends up doing only the narrow, concrete and superficial things that politics can do. It polices our language rather than improving our lives.

We can see this on the left, but under the surface, the same thing is also happening on the right. The rallying of evangelicals behind Donald Trump could be viewed as a religious movement finding expression in politics—the last charge of the old Moral Majority, with a less-than-upright figurehead. But it is not clear how much of a religious movement this really is.

As David French argues, the Trump era has witnessed “the transformation of white Evangelicalism into a primarily political movement,” a “God-and-country branding exercise”:

[T]he percentage of white Americans identifying as Evangelical grew from 25 to 29% between 2016 and 2020, powered mainly by the fact that 16% of Trump supporters who didn’t identify as Evangelical in 2016 started considering themselves Evangelical by 2020….

[W]hat seems to be happening…isn’t so much the growth of white Evangelicalism as a religious movement, but rather the near-culmination of the decades-long transformation of white Evangelicalism from a mainly religious movement into a Republican political cause.

Why do I say the transformation is political and not religious? A key metric here is church attendance. An increasing number of self-described Evangelicals go to church rarely or not at all…. [N]on church-attending Evangelicals are heavily weighted towards Republicans.

There isn’t a meaningful branch of Evangelical orthodoxy that is truly church-optional.

This is not a case of a religious movement leading to political activism, but of political activism hollowing out a religious movement and offering itself as an alternative source of meaning.

So, if even the evangelical Christians are secularizing themselves, what is to be done? Where can we look for secular sources of meaning?

The Morality of the Enlightenment

A genuine religious revival is probably not in the cards, but maybe we can go back to America’s founding for a lead to our secular future. In his letter, Adams directed our attention to Jonathan Mayhew, a Boston preacher he described as a “transcendent genius” who “threw all the weight of his great fame into the scale of his country in 1761 and maintained it there with zeal and ardor till his death, in 1766.”

Mayhew was a preacher of what was called “natural religion,” an attempt to fuse Enlightenment philosophy with Christian theology, and it was clear which of those elements was dominant. I have often heard it said that the chief failure of the Enlightenment is that it searched for but never developed a secular morality. Yet my study of Enlightenment figures such as Mayhew has convinced me that they did in fact develop a secular moral philosophy. It was hugely influential, particularly in America, where it shaped our uniquely individualist culture and provided the foundation of our form of government. It’s just that nobody saw it as secular because it was presented under the aegis of theology.

The basic argument, as presented by Mayhew in an influential sermon, goes like this:

We find, by experience, that we are all capable of being happy or miserable to a great degree. Pain and pleasure, at least, are private and personal things. And even they that arrogate to themselves the right of judging for us do not pretend to feel for us also. Now if it be of any importance for us to be happy for ourselves, it is of importance to judge for ourselves also; for this is absolutely necessary, in order to our finding the path that leads to happiness.

In this view, God created us with the ability to feel happiness or misery. He also gave us the faculty of using reason to select the right path toward happiness and prosperity, so he must have intended for us to use that faculty for that purpose. As John Locke put it a century before Mayhew, God gave the earth “to the use of the industrious and rational (and labor was to be his title to it).” You can see how much sense this would have made in the frontier culture of America.

Yet belief in God is not necessary to arrive at these conclusions. As Mayhew admitted, “Virtue, then, is what we are under obligation to practice, without the consideration of the being of a God, or of a future state [after death, just because of] its apparent tendency to make mankind happy at present.” This is an outlook that has had a long afterlife in American culture. Decades later, Tocqueville would observe that “preachers in America are continually coming down to earth. Indeed, they find it difficult to take their eyes off it. The better to touch their hearers, they are forever pointing out how religious beliefs favor freedom and public order, and it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.”

Self-interest and Sociality

This influence persists to the present day, and not just in the prosperity gospel of the megachurches. In his new book, “Rationality,” Steven Pinker provides a brief sketch of a secular ethics in this Enlightenment tradition, based on “self-interest” and “sociality.” Self-interest motivates us to act to achieve our own happiness, while sociality—the benefits of acting in cooperation with others—leads us to adopt universal and impartial rules that everyone benefits from following.

Ayn Rand made the most thorough case for such a secular morality. She argued that the basic requirements of human life give rise to the commands of morality:

Reality confronts man with a great many “musts,” but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: “You must, if—” and the “if” stands for a man’s choice: “—if you want to achieve a certain goal.” You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think—if you want to know what to do—if you want to know what goals to achieve—if you want to know how to achieve them.

This was the basis for her argument for a culture of achievement in which the embrace of productive work solves our contemporary “meaning crisis.”

The Implicit Creed

These arguments provided by philosophers merely give substance and definition to the implicit secular morality most of us already live by, whether we think it through in those terms or not. Most of us accept that we have to work and should try to find meaning and value in our work. Most of us accept and live by reasonable rules that allow us to pursue prosperity in cooperation and companionship with others. Most of us want to be happy and use our best judgment to figure out how.

If we need to prepare for a secular future, we have a good foundation to work with. The unspoken creed by which most of us live certainly gives us something more satisfying to live for than the social media pile-ons, the symbolic and artificial conflicts, or the rallying around figureheads that is offered by the political creeds trying to fill the empty spiritual spaces in a secularizing society.

Our implicit creed needs more thinking and analysis. It needs to be made more explicit. But it can serve the function that religion has traditionally fulfilled. It has already been doing so since before the founding of this country.

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