In 1971, John Lennon asked us to Imagine a world without religion. Turns out, a good chunk of us would rather not.
American pollsters have been seeing an increase in the country's "nones" for years now: About one-fifth of Americans say they have no religious preference, up from about 15% who said the same just five years ago. But according to a recent study by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, many Americans see the decline of religion as a bad thing. And that includes a surprising chunk of nones.
Actually, all of Pew's numbers are pretty interesting—even if some of them make perfect sense. I, for one, am not too surprised that about half of Americans (48%) believe that the country's rise in secularism is a "bad thing." We're still a very religious country: Even with the rise of the nones, 80% of us are at least nominally affiliated with a religion of some kind. And it stands to reason that most of those affiliated would see some sort of tangible benefit to having faith.
But drill down to how the "unaffiliated" answered, and things grow more curious. While 24 percent believe that the erosion of religion is good (perhaps agreeing with the late Christopher Hitchens that "religion poisons everything"), nearly as many—19 percent—say it's bad.
The numbers are almost as surprising for my own demographic block—that of "white evangelical protestants.” While a gigantic 78 percent of them say that they're bummed by the country's growing secularization, 4 percent say they're kinda happy about it. Granted, that's not a huge number, but still. Why would evangelical Christians—a demographic prone to handing out Bibles and shouting from street corners and, sometimes, baptizing children against their parents will—be happy about our country's growing secularization? Do we just want there to always be a steady supply of people to heed our Baptist church altar calls? Do we love our Luis Palau crusades that much?
The whole study left Hemant Mehta of Patheos' Friendly Atheist blog a little perplexed. "I don’t know what’s weirder," he writes. "That there are evangelical Christians out there who are happy that more people are becoming non-religious… or that there are a lot of unaffiliated people who are upset by it."
But on further reflection, maybe those numbers aren't so weird after all.
First, the "nones." These are people who don't have a religious affiliation, but that doesn't mean they're happy about it. Maybe there are lots of people who'd like to believe in something but can't. They'd like to have faith, but they haven't found a compelling reason to go there. I know folks like this. I also know atheists or agnostics who reject religion, but they appreciate all the good that religion can do. Faith-based groups are behind some of the world's most beneficial charitable efforts. Religion can foster a tremendous sense of responsibility to the poor and needy. And even when we leave altruism out of it, churches can be great places to meet people and find community. Even if God's not in the picture, the Church (with all due respect to Mr. Hitchens) is responsible for a great deal of good in the world.
As far as those 4 percent of evangelical Christians who think a more secular culture is a good thing, maybe I can help answer. In a way, I think I might be in that 4 percent.
Don't misunderstand me. I think religion is a really, really good force in the world. I'd like for everyone to see not just how beneficial, but how beautiful and how real it can be.
But at the same time, I think that when Christianity goes unchallenged, it can get soft and even a little mean. We can take the beauty of the faith for granted. And then when we are challenged, we sometimes lose the knack to express our own views with kindness and thoughtfulness. "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another," the biblical proverb says, and I think there's some truth to that when it comes to faith, as well. I like to talk about this stuff. I like to be challenged some. I think it's healthy. Whether we're Christian or atheists or Muslims or Buddhists, we should know what we believe and why. We should know why it matters to us. Why it's important. Do you agree?