OUR NATIONAL RELIGION

29 April 2021

 Last month, I read Jon Meacham’s “American Gospel (Random House, New York, 2006). I had read all, or parts of it, when it was first published, but it hadn’t made any particular impression on me, then. This time was different.

   “American Gospel” is a survey of what part “religion” played in the establishment and progression of our nation – what the “founding fathers” were thinking when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and how the various American presidents and other leaders and policy shapers reconciled their religious views (“Church”) with their civic responsibilities (“State”). There is a lot of interesting information.

   Meacham tries to write “pure history,” not making any judgements on the motives or the sincerity of any person that he discusses. As I said, it’s interesting, but also appalling, disheartening, and all kinds of other words that don’t sound good as religious describers. And while he doesn’t judge the people, their individual beliefs or acts, he does come to two general conclusions: one, the United States has, and has always had, a National Religion; and two, it’s good we have it because religious people tend to be more “moral” than non-religious ones. I have trouble with both those conclusions.

*  *  *

   It’s true that early European settlers in North America talked a lot about Providence, and The Creator, and such. Where they came from, everybody acknowledged “God” – sometimes when they truly believed in “him;” sometimes because (before rascals like Charles Darwin started talking about evolution, and offered alternative beliefs) Providence was all they had to believe in; and often because their wellbeing (and sometimes their lives) were at stake if they didn’t “believe” (at least, outwardly) what the Church and the Government told them to believe.

   In the beginning, there was great variation in what “belief” meant to the individual new “Americans.” Probably, most thought that there was something unexplainable about life that apparently could not be rationally discovered. Some went farther to think of Someone/Something actually creating the world they lived in, but not necessarily still “involved.”  Some thought of a Creator who still had a hand on what was going on, and could influence (and could be convinced to influence) the course of events. Finally, there were the true religionists who believed that God was actually present, and cared about them personally.

   Today’s beliefs concerning Divine Activity probably aren’t much different than in colonial times. In recent polls, about three-quarters of Americans surveyed said that they “believe in God” – i.e., in a supernatural, non-scientific entity involved in the creation of the world – although if you asked the question in slightly different ways, the percentages ranged from 87 to 64.[1] About half of those surveyed expressed belief in an active, personal God, who has a hand in current affairs, both individual and societal. The other half thought of “God” as just somebody/something Out There, of unexplainable authority and action.

   In Gallup-type polls, less than 5 percent to around 15 percent were sure – or pretty sure – that there is no “God”, past or present. There, again, it depends a lot of what questions are asked, and how they are asked.  Non-belief in God is highly stigmatized in the United States (probably part of the reason that almost all members of Congress are “believers” – belief is good for getting votes, non-belief may be a career ender or career non-starter). This might lead “many atheists to refrain from outing themselves even in anonymous polls.”  Taking that into account, the actual number of atheists and other doubtful citizens may be closer to a quarter of the population.[2]

   Even if three-quarters of the American population were “believers,” it still begs the question of what they believe. The range of Religion in the United States runs from a passive understanding of a Theosophical “great total reality,” to White Supremacists and Qanon believers storming the Nation’s capitol carrying signs that read “Jesus Saves” and “Christ is King.” To broaden the field even more, in several cases, the courts have ruled that a “religion,” under the Constitution, does not even require that “God” be involved.[3] Even without this last confusion, is there anything in the thousands of “religions” practiced by thousands of individual denominations, congregations, cults, sects, etc., etc., that would bring them together as something that could be recognizable as a National Religion?

   The American Dream – an idea dating back to 1931 that any American can aspire to happiness and prosperity – is highlighted in a current television commercial: There isn’t one American Dream, it proclaims; there are 328 million American Dreams (the population of the United States). Similarly, although certain “christian” teachings have been inserted into our presumed guiding principles,  there isn’t one National Religion. There may not be 328 million National Religions, but there are a gang of them, some of them being ones that most of us would not like to claim as even being “American.” The establishers of our Constitution could have done better in formulating some of our National objectives and beliefs, but on one subject they were absolutely clear and pretty much united: people were free to believe whatever they wanted religiously, but the Nation was not going to get involved with, or take sides in, the many arguments about what was the One True Religion.

*   *   *

“When researchers ask people to report on their own behaviors and attitudes, religious individuals claim to be more altruistic, compassionate, honest, civic and charitable than nonreligious ones. Even among twins, more religious siblings describe themselves are being more generous. But when we look at actual behavior, these differences are nowhere to be found.”[4]

 

   One doesn’t have to look too far to begin questioning Meacham’s second premise – that it is good to have Religion because religious people are more moral than non-religious. Take any group of people – members of Congress, clergy and other religious leaders, business people, Presidents, the rest of us “average Americans” – and take any crime or perceived “sin” – fraud, murder, child or spousal abuse, corporate crime, adultery – and I bet you can think of both religious and non-religious people you know about (and, actually, know) who are found in both groupings. In fact, the religious who are “criminals” or “sinners” sometimes appear to be worse than the non-religious because their hypocrisy stands out so clearly when they are “caught.”

   Through the centuries, The Church has viewed atheists and other non-believers as without principles, with no moral code. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

   “[There are many Biblical quotes] stating that atheists are simply no good. Do the findings of contemporary social science support this Biblical assertion? The clear answer is no. Atheism and secularity have many positive correlates, such as higher levels of education and verbal ability, lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism, and homophobia, greater support of women’s equality, child-rearing that promotes independent thinking and an absence of corporal punishment, etc. At the societal level, with the important exception of suicide, states and nations with a higher proportion of secular people fare markedly better than those with a higher proportion of religious people.”[5]

   More specifically:

   “When compared to various religious groups – nonreligious Americans are the most politically tolerant, supporting the extension of civil liberties to dissident groups.”

   “Secular individuals are much more supportive of gender equality than religious people, less likely to endorse conservatively traditional views concerning women’s roles, and when compared with various religious denominations, possess the most egalitarian outlook of all concerning women’s rights… Additional polls reveal that abortion rights are more likely to be supported by the secular than the religious.”

   “When compared with the religious, non-religious people are far more accepting of homosexuality and supportive of gay rights and gay marriage, and are far less likely to be homophobic or harbor negative attitudes towards homosexuals.”[6]

   “Secular adults watch more X-rated movies than religious adults, but when it comes to paying for on-line pornography, states with more secular populations have lower consumption rates than states with more religious populations. In fact, one of the most religious states in the country, Utah, actually leads the nation in on-line pay-for-porn consumption.”

   “Teenagers who take religion-inspired ‘virginity pledges’ are just as likely to engage in pre-marital sex as teenagers who don’t take such pledges, but it is the non-pledges who are more likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease when they have sex, which helps explain why STD (sexually transmitted disease) infection rates and teen pregnancy rates are lower in more secular nations compared with more religious nations .”

  “When it comes to underage alcohol consumption or illegal drug use, secular people do break the law more than religious people. But when it comes to more serious or violent crimes, (we find that) America’s bulging prisons are not full of atheists; only 0.2 percent of prisoners in the USA are atheists – a major underrepresentation… Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is deep and widespread… within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon. Furthermore, although there are some notable exceptions, rates of most violent crimes tend to be lower in the less religious states and higher in the most religious states…  Of the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries, and of the eight cities within the United States that make the safest-city list, nearly all are located in the least religious regions of the country.”

*  *  *

    Is the conclusion valid that America is better for having religious people in it, and worse for having non-religious ones? In many respects, the reverse seems to be truer. Whether we consider “morality,” ethics, or civic standards, on the great playground of the United States, “believers” often do not play well with others. They want to have everything “their way,” even if their way is absolutely alien to those of us who don’t “believe,” and who find it impossible to give their religious ideas any more credit than we would give to folklore or legends.

  On the playground of childhood, if a kid doesn’t like how the game is played, he may take his ball and go home. In America, the religious (especially the “christians”) prefer to change the game, so it is played their way, even if the rest don’t want to, or if the changes make no sense. They attempt to do this working for laws that would make their parochial beliefs the law for all of us, and by helping get judges appointed who will support their narrow viewpoints. When they succeed, - as they sometimes do - it takes our nation steps away from democracy and steps toward theocracy.

   In the United States, under our Constitution, all people are free to believe (or not believe) and act on (or not act on) whatever they want, as long as it is legal and doesn’t infringe on the legal or constitutional rights of others. I don’t know how all the religions of the world react to that, but I do know what  “christians” should do. Their prophet, Jesus, made it very clear: tell everybody what you think, and try to persuade them to believe the same as you do. If they won’t, your job is finished, and you should shake the dust off your feet, and move on (Matthew 10.14).

   Maybe there’s a God. Maybe there’s a Heaven, a Hell, a Judgement, reincarnation – who knows? Nobody does if there is something else, and nobody will until after the fact. If we choose to ignore the religious beliefs, that’s our problem. In the meantime, wouldn’t it be nice if the religious people would work together with the secular to make our present situation  - which we can know, and can control - better for everybody?

 ------------------------

[1] Hrynowski, Z. 2010. How many Americans believe in God? The Short Answer, 8 November 2019. Gallup Polls.

   In a 2018 Gallup Poll, the question of whether or not someone “believed in God” was asked three different ways. If asked straightforwardly, “do you believe in God?,” 87 percent of respondents said yes. When asked to pick believe, probably, or no, the percentage of those who still firmly said yes fell to 79 percent. When asked to choose between convinced God exists, God probably exists, and God doesn’t exist, the number opting for a definite “yes, God exists” dropped to 64 percent.

[2] Gervais, W. M., and M. B. Najle. 2018. How many atheists are there? Social Psychological and Personality Science 9(1):3-10.

   “We used the unmatched count technique and Bayesian estimation to indirectly estimate atheist prevalence in two nationally representative samples of 2,000 U.S. adults apiece. Widely cited telephone polls (e.g., Gallup, Pew) suggest U.S. atheist prevalence of only 3–11%. In contrast, our most credible indirect estimate is 26% (albeit with considerable estimate and method uncertainty). Our data and model predict that atheist prevalence exceeds 11% with greater than .99 probability and exceeds 20% with roughly .8 probability.”

[3] Davis, D. H. 2005. Is atheism a religion? Recent judicial perspectives on the Constitutional meaning of “religion.” Journal of Church and State 47(4):707-723.

[4] Xygalatas, D. 2017. Are religious people more moral? The Conversation, 23 October 2017.

[5] Zuckerman, P. 2009. Atheism, secularity, and well-being: how the findings of social science counter negative stereotypes and assumptions. Sociology Compass 3(6):949-971.

 This paper is not just Zuckerman’s opinion. He includes 10 full pages of references, pulled from a wide variety of professionally refereed sources. I read through a number of them, not taking for granted that Zuckerman interpreted the findings correctly. The quotes that follow were abstracted from Zuckerman’s paper. There are many more specifics given.

[6] Because it is religious people and institutions that decide what is “moral” and “sinful,” some might take the above statements as “proof” that non-believers are worse people than believers. Perhaps they need to be reminded that those “sins” involve rights  guaranteed by our Constitution.


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