The Atlantic Acknowledges That Secularism is Hurting America. The Church Should Take Note
Secularism is hurting America.
For people of faith, especially those belonging to the Religious Right of past prominence, this notion is easy to concede. But it was The Atlantic that made the assertion most recently.
“The culture war over religious morality has faded; in its place is something much worse,” writes Atlantic contributing editor Peter Beinart under the title “Breaking Faith.” Appearing in the left-leaning magazine’s April issue, the piece argues that while the secularism some scholars have long hoped for in America has arrived, political discourse is worse off for it.
“More and More Vicious”
Beinart begins by noting that Americans’ movement away from religious affiliation grew substantially over the past decade, especially among millennials. As more and more people rejected organized religion, “Some observers predicted that this new secularism would ease cultural conflict, as the country settled into a near-consensus on issues such as gay marriage,” Beinart writes.
Lack of religion has contributed to greater hostility between the Right and the Left, driving both sides to more divisive extremes.
But the opposite happened. Beinart suggests that lack of religion has contributed to greater hostility between the Right and the Left, driving the growing amount of religious “nones” on each side to more divisive extremes.
For instance, Beinart attributes the rise of the alt-right, which prefers nationalism (sometimes of the racist variety) over compassion and is generally “suspicious of Christianity” to a decrease of religious faith on the political Right. He attributes the contentious nature of Black Lives Matter, which has taken a much less conciliatory approach to racial justice than the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to a decrease of faith among black Americans.
“When you combine [BLM’s] post-Christian perspective with the post-Christian perspective growing inside the GOP, it’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious,” Beinart writes.
The Trend Toward Secularism is Growing
If generational tendencies are any clue, this shift away from religion will only continue, since it’s even more prominent among millennials, who are now the largest living generation.
The student-led publication Study Breaks dealt with this topic Monday. Payton Ramey, a student at University of Central Florida, wrote about “Why Millennials Are Less Religious Than Their Parents.”
Self-identifying as a “none” who “never really had a place in the church,” Ramey asserts that individualism and encouragement to question authority contributed to millennials’ rejection of religion. She writes:
It’s undeniable that today’s generation is more accepting and open-minded than the previous generations. As such, it’s hard for millennials to accept all aspects of a religious identity when certain beliefs contradict with previously held ideals.
That doesn’t mean that millennials aren’t spiritual, Ramey adds. She claims spirituality jibes better with millennials than traditional religion because “it’s dynamic and is expressed in a multitude of ways and, much like self-expression, changes throughout the course of one’s life.”
Acknowledging that organized religion could make a “comeback” someday, Ramey ends her well-sourced article with this revealing statement about Generation Y: “[R]ight now, individuality and religion are at a great disconnect, leading young adults to look elsewhere for a spiritual connection.”
Why it Matters for the Church
These two articles provide candid insights regarding the waning influence of organized religion in America. Now what?
First, this trend toward secularism and its effects on society is something of which the Church must be aware. I think it’s something that many in America, especially the religious, have long been sensing — but resources like Breinart’s frank analysis and Ramey’s glimpse into the secular millennial’s mind will prove valuable as we attempt to articulate what’s happening around us. (Breinart isn’t the first to write about the adverse effects of secularization on society; read this short booklet from the religious freedom non-profit First Liberty Institute for more on the topic.)
As widening ideological divides exacerbate political wounds, the Church can point to a better way: Jesus.
Second, the Church should recognize this trend as a crucial opportunity to shine the light of Christ among a grappling society. As widening ideological divides exacerbate political wounds, the Church can point to a better way: Jesus.
It’s true that authentic Christianity will be met with hatred and critics until the end of time. But those who follow Christ can still set an attractive example to the world with sacrificial love for our neighbors — something every Christian and church body sometimes (or often) fails to do.
Further, sincere faith in Jesus informed by God’s Word is the only answer to the spiritual void that so many people, particularly millennials, experience. As Ramey stated, today’s young adults are seeking “spiritual connection” but have a hard time reconciling religion with their own individuality. What the Church can and must show this spiritually starved generation is that a relationship with Jesus — not the religious subculture many of them were raised in — is the only way one’s identity and purpose can be truly fulfilled. At the same time, a “spiritual but not religious” Jesus found outside the Body of Christ is likely to be one of the individual’s own making, not the real Jesus of history.
Most Importantly: Rise Above the Din
Discussions of how to best engage culture are nothing new for America’s Christians. As recent events involving the nation’s largest Protestant denomination indicate, those discussions have grown increasingly heated in the past year. But while we as American Christians consider our approach to a more secularized society, it is vital that we heed Beinart’s words:
For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.
The Church shouldn’t be contributing to that kind of conflict. We must rise above the din.