Heather Mac Donald of SecularRight.org looks past the up and down ticks of contemporary Gallup polls that gauge respondants’ self-reported religiosity, and looks instead at the larger historical trends, which show that religion in the Western world is in a slow, but thoroughly detectable decline:
Who’s still for hair shirts and flagellation? Does the dispute over when baptismal regeneration takes place seem compelling enough that one can imagine Britain’s Privy Council addressing it, as it did in 1850? How about spending virtually all day in church on Sunday, being instructed about the fires of hell? I’ve never heard a theocon argue for reinstatement of Sunday blue laws, which would torpedo our retail sector, or even voluntary compliance with the Sabbath; could it be that the good of the economy trumps the clear commandments of God?
The religious superstructure of centuries past has been dismantled. Rising in its place is a remake of religion “in the image of mass-consumer capitalism,” according to a sociologist of American religion at the University of Notre Dame. That remake offers up easily digestible bits like the “5 Minute Theologian” and “7 Minutes With God.” Only a quarter of Americans attend church weekly. Yet moral chaos has not broken out; society has grown more prosperous as secularism expands. Empathy with others, an awareness of the necessity of the Golden Rule, survive the radical transformation of religious belief, it turns out. Perhaps because a moral sense is the foundation, not the result, of religious ethics.
My only quarrel with her analysis is that the product being sold is not always so banal as “7 Minutes with God.”
Mirroring the capitalist economy, religion also sells its products to specific audiences.
If you are an anti-gay, anti-feminist authoritarian, for example, you can find an authoritarian religious product to match your “inclinations.”
And religion matches itself to its times.
Let’s hope our times remain relatively prosperous, and we don’t enter “Great Depression 2.0” or experience a massive Islamic fundamentalist terrorist incident in the United States.
If we do, I think that Western Christianity’s capability for real virulence—though relatively dormant now and chastened by the Enlightenment—will once again come to the fore, and what seems “dismantled” could reassemble as a driving support for political authoritarianism.
One need only look at the video clips of the ever so hip Pastor Mark Driscoll (of the Seattle mega-cult, “Mars Hill”) on YouTube to realize what a religious authoritarian is capable of doing—and how much more such an authoritarian is capable of pulling off if times turn seriously dark.
As Richard Nixon taught us, it’s never too late for a comeback.