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Is religion only for the religious

31 August 2012

The Church in the US is becoming a minority interest, says Harriet Baber

HERE in the United States, it is the best and worst of times for religion.

It is the worst of times for "mainline" Christians. Religious belief is an embarrassment: admit to it, and people assume that you are a conservative Evangelical out to ruin everybody's fun. For Evangelicals, it is the best of times. But it will not get any better: flatlining at a quarter of the population, they are on the cusp of decline.

Evangelicals bought time for themselves by taking up the political cause of social conservatives; and an increasingly conservative Roman Catholic hierarchy joined the campaign. Both were convinced that modernity was an unnatural anomaly that would soon pass away.

Evangelicals fantasised about a return to an idealised US frontier, beyond the reach of government, where families took care of their own, and armed men protected their womenfolk. Senior Roman Catholic clergy imagined villages of wealthy peasants, who deferred to priests and sent their brightest lads to seminary.

Both looked to pre-modern cultures to maintain religious practice, convinced that secular liberals would die out because their feminist women refused to breed. Modernity - a failed experiment, they believed - would collapse, young immigrant breeding-stock would replace greying indigenous populations in affluent countries, and then it would be back to business as usual.

They were wrong. When workers and peasants achieve higher levels of material comfort and security, they embrace modernity, and, within a generation or two, secularism. However lavishly they breed, peasants, proles, and immigrants will not pass on their socially conservative values unless their children are also impoverished and marginalised.

Currently, most people in the Global South are still poor. Working-class Americans, separated from the secular upper-middle class by an economic abyss, with few opportunities to better themselves, are effectively living in the Global South, and so are still religious.

But the material conditions of life are improving worldwide. European secularism is not an anomaly, but the leading edge of a global trend that has now caught up the youngest generation of Americans, and also the populations of those developing countries that have seen social progress and economic improvement, such as Brazil. Worldwide, religion is in decline.

So, on the assumption that their religious product will soon be obsolete, Churches can degrade gracefully; or they can undertake the American Evangelical project - working to undermine government and other secular institutions that promote human well-being, and hence secularisation. Or they can supply goods and services that the secular world does not offer.

Only a minority of us are interested in those religious goods and services that only churches can provide - liturgy, sacred art, mysticism, and the quest for transcendence - although more might become interested if they knew what was possible. These things are all that the Church has to offer that cannot be be obtained cheaper and better from secular sources. They are "religion".

The Church is for the minority of us who are interested in religion, because churches have nothing else to offer that is not available elsewhere. So the Church may as well as accommodate us. Religion is for the religious, and it is the Church's job to give us what we want.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.


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