Is Religious Faith Being Supplanted by Secular Xenophobic Nationalism?

At Pray Tell we’re very interested in issues of faith and worship in increasingly secular societies. Hence this piece at The Atlantic, “Breaking Faith,” grabbed my attention.

Peter Beinart shows that the sharp decline in religious involvement in the U.S. in recent years has not led to the expected reign of tolerance, good will, and unity.

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

And this:

When conservatives disengaged from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.

Why? Beinart cites a theory put forth by others:

The most-committed members of a church are more likely than those who are casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices.

Many topics are treated Beinart’s piece – Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, with lots of data and statistics. His conclusion is strong:

For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ‘70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial war that has followed is worse.

This is alarming stuff. What is going on in with people today??

But I find Beinart’s piece oddly consoling. It reaffirms just how important my and our religious faith and worship is for the life of the world.

The two sides here are not, as they too often appear to be, ‘good, open-minded, loving seculars’ on one side, and ‘judgmental, intolerant, controlling religious types’ on the other. The life and worship of the church contribute mightily to the formation of collective societal values of love, inclusion, and justice. We have something crucial to offer that secularism is lacking.

Come, let us worship. Our world needs it!

Anyway – go read Beinart. Tell us what you think.



  1. When I encountered this article a few days ago, it literally kept me awake that night. (I’m an editor – when I use “literally” I literally mean literally.)

    It wasn’t because I had previously assumed that people who stopped attending church automatically become more tolerant – too many contrary examples among people I know and am related to by blood. Certainly I knew that religions have caused or have been part of some of the most horrific acts in human history. It’s also been a long time since I thought that being a religious person was the only way to go through life ethically and lovingly. I knew that the Bible (both testaments) and Q’uran contain some of the highest percentages of violent language in all of human literature.

    What kept me awake was a sense of despair – of what can I/we do in the face of all this? Where do I place blame without the scapegoat of intolerant religions? Did God truly create us (“wire” us to use the neuroscientist’s term) this way? Why aren’t the usual maxims (Mother Teresa: God doesn’t expect us to be successful, only faithful.) working?

    I found myself wondering if those who left “intolerant” denominations/religions actually left because some message of tolerance had been preached? (I wished the gatherers of the data had asked that question as well.) If the message of love and tolerance wasn’t accepted inside sanctuary walls, what hope is there for that message in the workplace, marketplace, or classroom?

    I’m a guy who likes solutions, with practical things to be done to achieve them. But I’m going to have to live for a bit in this unstable place, and realize that the world around us has nothing on the instability of the world in which Jesus of Nazareth lived. This is a small and lonely glimmer of hope for me, but it is hope nevertheless.

  2. I do very much think that too many (but obviously not all) progressives have been unaware of the be-careful-what-you-ask-for problem here, as summarized by Ross Douthat a while back along the lines of: if we don’t like the Religious Right, just wait until we see the Post-Religious Right. IF you’ve not spent patient time observing and engaging with this trend, you may well be shocked come time you do that, even after you sift out the poseur-provocateurs.

    It’s very difficult to truly see people when you don’t share assumptions with them; instead, they become caricatures. Especially metaphysical and epistemological assumptions. And too many people are not even able to fully delve into their own assumptions in a critical way. (Assumptions being rather hard to argue about.)

    This is a human issue, exacerbated among people who favor a conceptual frame (aka ideologues) – across the spectrum.

    I try to take this to be an opportunity for solidarity with Those People Over There – to be more mindful of what we have in common (especially including the less than nice parts – when I see something I dislike in another, it’s eventually an inventory item for examen of self, though it’s not about using other people for my own needs, rather the opposite).

  3. “The two sides here are not, as the too often appear to be, ‘good, open-minded, loving seculars’ on one side, and ‘judgmental, intolerant, controlling religious types’ on the other.”

    This is how Steven Dawkins, a scientist, and the late Christopher Hitchens characterize things. That is, they divide ‘open minded seculars’ from ‘intolerant religious types’. Stephen Pinker’s latest book implies the same thing by arguing that an increase in the scientific worldview and the resultant secular disenchantment with religion have resulted in a positive good for society–enlightenment rationality releases “the better angels of our nature” by overthrowing religious superstition. Umm, the very secular Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao and Hitler might suggest otherwise.

    In any case, it’s good to see things described in other categories, as in this article, even though it’s alarming. All of my secular friends see things according to the Dawkins perspective; it’s just assumed. They read the Atlantic. This might cause some re-thinking.

  4. Another interesting tidbit from the Beinart article:

    “according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college. And even within the white working class, those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress. ”

    If Christian churches are becoming comfy gathering places for prosperous two-parent families, then isn’t there something wrong with that picture?

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