America Without God
In his big (in several senses of the word) book A Secular Age, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor breaks down secularity into three types or meanings. I found this helpful. Maybe you will too?
Secular 1 is when religion is separated from the state. This has been the case in the U.S., legally speaking, from our inception, a.k.a. “separation of church and state.” This is contrast to various European countries of that era which had state-sanctioned churches. e.g. The Church of England. Also in contrast to parts of the world today, say Iran, where religion and state are merged.
Secular 2 is the loss of participation in religious institutions. In the U.S. this began in the 1960’s and has continued since, though of late the pace of disaffiliation from religious institutions seems to have been quickening. A lot of church renewal and leadership literature of the last 40 years has focused on “church growth,” meaning reversing membership/ participation declines.
Secular 3 is arguably Taylor’s real concern, and perhaps should be ours. It is the loss of transcendence, of a sense of that which surpasses, exceeds or is beyond visible material reality. Practically speaking, to live in the world of Secular 3 is to live in a world where it is much easier not to believe in God than to believe.
We seem, in America today, to be a mix of Secular 2 and 3.
I introduce Taylor’s schema as background to a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. “America Without God” in the April 2021 issue. Its author, Shadi Hamid, explores a question that has long been on my mind. What will we have lost, and what difference will it make, when the culturally once dominant ethos of American Protestantism is absent?
Of course, at least for some, such a vanishing has been hoped for and anticipated as liberation. For those who equate religion with superstition, or in Marx’s oft-quoted line “the opiate of the masses,” the end of religion couldn’t come soon enough. (One notes that these days “the opiate of the masses” seems to be actual opiates — an indication that our progress under advanced secularism may be an illusory).
One result of the vanishing of that Protestant culture and theological heritage — a world that Marilynne Robinson so movingly depicts in her Gilead trilogy of novels — is noted by Hamid.
” . . . if secularists hoped that declining religiosity would make for more rational politics, drained of faith’s inflaming passions, they are likely disappointed. As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.”
In other words, the vacuum created by Secular 3, gets filled by politics.
Just days after the 2016 election I was asked, in an interview, what I thought it all meant. I said, “Our politics has become too religious, and our religion too political.” Everything, in other words, was being politicized. The clarion cry, “The personal is political,” has come true — with mixed results.
Now those of you who know me and my work know that I’m not calling for a church that is apolitical. Not for a minute. Christian faith has manifold political implications, but an uncritical alliance with one party or one side in the culture wars is not among them.
There are many more possible consequences of Secular 3, of a world shorn of transcendence, of larger meaning and purpose, but for the time being one — in America, but not here alone — is to make everything political and to give to politics a kind of ultimacy it doesn’t deserve and cannot bear.
America without God may not be the nirvana that secularists have long anticipated. It may, instead, be a country where ultimacy, life and death, are at stake in each political act, affiliation and election. The problem here is an old one, idolatry. Worship of a false God. This always ends badly.