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
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.