What's really hurting Christianity in America

In their new book, "American Grace," Robert D. Putman and David E. Campbell make two assertions about the decline of religious affiliation in the United States, which they summarize in their Oct. 17 Times Op-Ed article, "Walking away from the church." They correctly observe that Americans, especially the youngest generations, are rapidly losing a lot of their faith. The nonreligious are far and away the fastest-growing group, with nonbelievers having tripled as a portion of the general population since the 1960s and nonreligious twentysomethings doubling in just two decades. The Pew Research Center calculates that America is half as religious as the most pious nations and that about half of the population absolutely believes in a personal god. Church attendance is declining along with Christianity as a whole, and even major conservative denominations are losing ground, as are Bible literalists.

Where Putman and Campbell go off track is in their second claim: that aversion among young Americans to the religious right is the primary secularizing force, and that skeptical youth may flock back to the churches if the latter embrace a less strident tone. This is almost certainly incorrect.

Putman and Campbell ignore the transnational sociological fact that every single First World democracy has seen swift and dramatic declines in religiosity in recent decades. A 2006 Harris poll found that more than two-thirds of France's population qualify as nonbelievers, compared with a fifth of Americans. Because hard-right Christianity has never been a major force outside the United States, it cannot be a leading cause of Western secularization. So what is?

A growing body of research that I have contributed to has found that socioeconomic factors play the leading role. The higher the level of financial and economic security — as measured by the presence of universal healthcare and job security, plus lower rates of income disparity, poverty, lethal crime, incarceration, STD infections, abortion, teen pregnancy, divorce, illicit drug use and mental illness — the less religious a country is. It turns out then when the majority of a modern population is ensured a comfortable, safe and stable middle-class lifestyle, they lose interest in organized faith and soon lose their personal faith as well.

As America is the most socioeconomically Darwinist of the world's prosperous democracies — with loss of middle-class status due to a layoff or canceled health coverage being far more common than in Western Europe, Canada or Australia — it remains the most willing to seek the aid and protection of a deity.

Another factor behind Western secularism is the growth of the popular corporate-consumer culture. The religious right owned the mainstream culture until World War I, but the churches then ran into a great enemy. In the search for ever-greater profits, it is necessary for capital to do what it can to convert citizens from pious, frugal churchgoers into materialistic consumers whose lives center on acquiring the money and credit needed to satisfy their earthly desires. The need to materialize society is so compelling that most of the laws that kept people from spending their Sundays shopping have been repealed, and as a result only a fifth or less of Americans are in church on a given Sunday morning. The now dominant corporate-consumer culture has driven the religious right into a shrinking parallel culture that most young Westerners see as pathetically square (for similar reasons, young Americans are reluctant to become "tea partyers," and the tricorner hats do not help).

Although Putman and Campbell are not entirely wrong in blaming the polarization of American religion for pushing youthful disbelief in this country, they appear not to understand how the rise of the religious right among baby boomers bodes ill for American faith as the aging generation is replaced by their offspring. While the secularized counterculture portion of the 1960s generation rejected traditional religion, another portion angrily reacted by turning to the religious right. This bitter struggle continues to dominate the culture war, but most young Americans think that's just so 20th century. They are not going to continue their parents' and grandparents' tired old war because they do not see the point, and they are not interested enough in traditional piety to stem the secularization of the nation.

Putnam and Campbell also fail to acknowledge technology's role in creating a less pious America. Increasing use of consumer digital electronics is soaking up so much of young people's time and interest that they are decoupling from the social organizations that used to fill a person's life before TV and computers. Of course, organized religion is just the sort of social "club" that is vulnerable to this potent side effect of technology. The secularizing effect of digital technology is so potent that it threatens to overwhelm the reproductive superiority of conservative believers.

That a grand combination of secure prosperity, mass consumerism and advanced technology is deeply eroding Western faith means that there is not much that organized religion can do to stem, much less reverse, the losses. Nor is there any reason to think that a less politically strident form of Christianity will do any better than it already is. What is ironic is that the Republican political alliance of the religious right with corporate interests has been a deal with the capitalist devil, which has been laughing its way to the bank as religion fades in the West.

Gregory Paul is a scientist and author who has written extensively on the decline of religion in the West.

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