Not Quite Dead


Extinction is a cause of fear. Having evolved a certain level of self-aware consciousness, we fear becoming the next tyrannosaurus-rex or spinosaurus, or whatever the next top predator turns out to have been. We’re here to stay. So we like to think. Data have been known to interfere with comfort zones, however. Take religion, for example. America has always been a religiously diverse “country,” but many people suppose it has a Christian beginning. Moreover, the historically uninformed suppose that generic Christianity to have been Protestantism (which is not really a single religion) and white (which isn’t really a race). Now, it seems, that white Protestantism is slowly going extinct. An article in the Washington Post by John Sides contains an interview with Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones has written a book about the end of this particular hegemony.

Demographics tell the story. The powerful cultural force of the mainstream Protestant churches hasn’t disappeared, and really isn’t likely to become extinct. It has, however, diminished. As soon as we began to embrace technology this was a more or less inevitable trajectory for the human race. We made oceans smaller and came to see that we’d evolved different religions in different regions. And that Christianity wasn’t quite unique as we’d thought. “Orthodoxy” was actually a form of prejudice for a past that may never have been. We saw the writing on the wall and went on scribbling. Making claims the data don’t support.

One of the drivers—and this is a complex phenomenon—behind this shift has been the ossified positions of religions in the light of increased understanding. For example, most people see no problem with homosexuality. They believe shooting someone because of their race is wrong. Women, they radically suggest, should have the same rights as men. The hold-out positions on these issues have historically been religiously based. Just listen to the rhetoric of televangelists and see if it has changed. Meanwhile, the world moves on. Many religions are holding still. Or racing to see if their diminishing number of feet might make the world spin backwards after all.

Religion is a human invention. Many protect themselves by claiming direct revelation by a God who used to live in a glass ceiling above our heads. Trips to the moon, probes to Mars, and out of our solar system have proven that view false. If the view of something as basic as the universe was wrong, what else might’ve been a mistake? Jones’ new book will no doubt cause some panic. Extinction, at least not imminently, doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Protestantism seems to have reached a stasis. Religion still has an important function in society. When it takes the lead on issues of equality, we may begin to see a miracle.

2 thoughts on “Not Quite Dead

  1. I saw that book the other day. I was mildly curious.

    The topic is of great fear to many. The end of White Christian America! It almost sounds like the Apocalypse. I’m sure the Romans said the same thing when Paganism was on the wane, and yet the Roman Catholic Church that took over would conquer more of the world than the Romans ever did. Then the Protestant Reformation came along and Catholics surely saw threatening doom for Europe, but what followed was centuries of the probably most religious era in Europe. Religion never ends, not so far.

    There is another book about the other side the issue, when it began: The Churching of America, 1776-2005 by Finke and Stark. As I recall, both authors are Evangelicals. But the book is scholarly. They offer historical context. The main point they make is that America didn’t begin all that religious. Church attendance didn’t increase until after the country was founded, especially in the 1800s when it took off. Before that, religion had been primarily associated with government, as state churches had been the norm.

    It’s similar to a similar piece of data I’ve come across, I think elsewhere. Most marriages in early America happened after pregnancy, not before. And most early marriages weren’t formal affairs and legal institutions. If you were living with someone and said you were married, then for all intents and purposes you were married. The main factor in being married is that you were living together and maybe at some point jumped over a broom. Otherwise, few people particularly cared.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the culture wars are a distraction. I don’t think they are what they seem to be. It’s not really about religion or family values. Rather, it’s about how people imagine the world and about what is outside their imagination, maybe even outside their ability to imagine. The world is constant flux and that scares a lot of people.


    • Well put! As a biologist might say, these are issues that arise from too many people trying to live in a group. I hope to read this book eventually, and I’ll keep an eye out for Finke and Stark.


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