American Christianity In Critical Condition August 10, 2010

American Christianity In Critical Condition

William Lobdell, the author of Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace, uses Anne Rice‘s recent defection from “Christianity” (at least in name) as a starting point to discuss how American Christianity is in big trouble.

Pollsters — most notably evangelical George Barna — have reported repeatedly that they can find little measurable difference between the moral behavior of churchgoers and the rest of American society. Barna has found that born-again Christians are more likely to divorce (an act strongly condemned by Jesus) than atheists and agnostics, and are more likely to be racist than other Americans.

How to explain the Grand Canyon-sized gap between principles outlined in the Gospels and the behavior of believers? Christians typically, and rather lamely, respond that shortcomings of the followers of Jesus are simply evidence of man’s inherent sinfulness.

But if one adheres to the principle of Occam’s razor — that the simplest explanation is the most likely — there is another, more unsettling conclusion: that many people who call themselves Christian don’t really believe, deep down, in the tenets of their faith. In other words, their actions reveal their true beliefs.

That might explain why Roman Catholic bishops leave predator priests in ministry to prey on more unsuspecting children. Or why churches on Sunday mornings are said to be the most segregated places in America. It also would explain why most Catholic women use birth control even though the practice is considered a mortal sin.

Culturally, America is still a Christian nation. The majority of us still attend church at least occasionally, celebrate Christmas and Easter, and pepper our conversations with “God bless you” and “I’ll be praying for you.”

But judging by the behavior of most Christians, they’ve become secularists. And the sea of hypocrisy between Christian beliefs and actions is driving Americans away from the institutional church in record numbers.

Glad to read some good news today.

It’s easy to see why Anne Rice doesn’t want to be called a “Christian” anymore — who even knows what that means anymore? And why would anyone in her right mind want to be associated with its current “stars”?

Time after time, we see that religion doesn’t make people any better than atheists. Sometimes, it makes them worse.

Don’t let anyone get away with the argument that they’re on higher moral ground because of their faith.

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  • Agree with the basic tenet of the article, but I wonder if this is much different than at other times in American history. Is there a difference in the behavior gap, or just the number of people who are choosing to leave the church?

  • bernerbits

    A fellow atheist friend of mine said something along these lines. He said that religion is dying, the new generation of adults doesn’t care about religion like the old generation, and the reason they’ve been so vocal lately is because they’re raging against the dying of the light, as it were.

    It wouldn’t bug me in the slightest if the fundies all just went away, but I’m inclined to think that’s as naive as calling evolution a “Theory in Crisis”, honestly.

    I wouldn’t call this news so much as an opinion, though.

  • Archie

    Christians truly do “believe deep down.” But the problem is that belief is defined by personal experience (emotion, perception). If such belief is not based on externally verifiable evidence, then it’s quite possible to “truly believe” a moral principle one moment; then in the next moment “truly believe” a self-serving action is okay. Based upon a New Testament parable, Christians use the metaphor of “shifting sands” for a non-anchored life. Ironic. Their behavior is the “poster child” for such creed-action disconnect.

  • phira

    Eh, I think it’s a decent article, but stuff like this:

    “Culturally, America is still a Christian nation. The majority of us still attend church at least occasionally, celebrate Christmas and Easter, and pepper our conversations with “God bless you” and “I’ll be praying for you.””

    really bothers me.

  • In my opinion, the mainstream denominations will continue to slowly become more secular. Their membership numbers will also continue to drop off. The numbers of people not considering themselves religious will continue to rise. Unfortunately, the number of evangelical fundamentalists will also continue to rise in some kind of desperate effort to “save” their culture. The good news will be that the flux towards the secularists will still be greater than the flux towards the evangelicals. But the evangelicals will be here (and a political force) for quite some time to come.

  • Annie

    I think the conclusion is wrong when he says, “But judging by the behavior of most Christians, they’ve become secularists.”

    Indeed NOT. Judging by their behavior, they believe people are lousy rotten sinners (which is what their “faith” teaches), so they behave like sinners.

    People who are raised as secular humanists are more apt to behave morally, I think you will find.

  • todwith1d

    we’ll all be dead before Jesus goes the way of Zeus but it sure feels good to read those words…

  • Bill

    I second Annie – become secularists indeed. No, they are awful hypocrites.

  • Vas

    “Time after time, we see that religion doesn’t make people any better than atheists.”

    I thought atheists were people…
    I’m confused.

    So atheists are better than people,and if people get religion they are still not better than atheists, who are not people but something better than people?
    My head hurts.

  • Leigh

    This article brings up the point that religion in the United States is often a cultural construct rather than a moral code to be followed strictly. The “going through the motions” of being a Christian that makes us seculars so angry is the culture of Christianity, to be separated from the fundamental belief in and strict adherence to the teachings of Jesus. In many parts of the country (the southeast for example) one’s social life is often completely intertwined with the church one attends. You leave the church, you leave your social circle. That’s why we have the high number of ‘Sunday Christians’ in the US. Who would want to leave 90% of all of your friends behind because of a not-so-strict adherence to the teachings of the Bible when they’re not going to call you out on it anyways?

  • There was a great article in the Christian Science Monitor about the end of Evangelical Christianity and how it may die within a generation. We must be doing our work if CSM (no relation to FSM, ha ha)can admit to that.


  • Troglodyke

    I have long believed that the majority of people who call themselves Christian–especially the more highly-educated ones–do not actully believe the tenets of the faith. I used to scratch my head at how educated, otherwise intelligent people could actually believe a man died and was resurrected, a virgin bore a son, a father and son are the same person, god really cares who we sleep with, and in miracles. It just didn’t make any sense.

    Sure, I understand how ignorant people believe that stuff, but there are many college-educated, socially progressive people that said they did, too.

    Then I realized something. They are CINOs (Christians In Name Only). They go to church for the fellowship and so their kids will be raised “properly” or like their grandparents expect. They go to fit in. They go because they are afraid of death and want to believe in something bigger than they. They don’t believe the bible is literally true. They believe in evolution (though they may not admit this to many of their church friends).

    They really ARE educated, but they just can’t let go of religion.

    If churches suddenly had a way to turn everyone green who did not, in their heart of hearts, actually believe in the true tenets of the faith but were just still involved for the reasons I named above, there would be a huge number of green people walking around–a LOT more green people than non-green ones.

    Like the bumpersticker says, “Going to church no more makes you a Xtian than going to a garage makes you a car.” It’s about appearances, not true faith.

    It’s about a fear of not being a part of something that’s been ingrained in them since birth. America is a country mostly ruled by Christians, and let’s face it–it’s a lot easier to “go along to get along” (e.g. call yourself a Christian, too) than it is to admit you don’t believe in that stuff.

  • Citizen Z

    Don’t let anyone get away with the argument that they’re on higher moral ground because of their faith.

    DING!DING!DING! We have a winner! They’re not “becoming secularists”, they’re looking for a way to appear moral. Since they’re not good at doing it through actions they do it through tribal identification.

  • Ron in Houston

    It’s interesting – there are at least two ways to handle our failings as humans.

    One is to beat yourself Monty Python style claiming that you’re a horrible, awful sinner.

    The other is to say, “gee, I didn’t do so well there. It would have been nice if I’d have reacted different and I need to try to do that next time.”

    I tend to think that one is vastly superior in terms of the long term health of our psyches.

    In many ways I think abandoning religion can lead to much healthier psychological outcomes.

  • Tom

    “Many people who call themselves Christian don’t really believe, deep down, in the tenets of their faith. In other words, their actions reveal their true beliefs.”

    This is a little simplistic, and ahem – dogmatic. It is of course possible for someone to believe something “deep down” (wherever or whatever that is), yet act in a way that contradicts that belief, and continue to believe. Most beliefs in this realm are aspirational, after all. I believe that losing weight and getting in shape will be good for me. The fact that I skip running and eat handfuls of Jelly Bellies doesn’t prove anything about what I “really” believe – just that I, like all humans, exist in a morass of contradictory beliefs, ideas, desires, etc. Call it cognitive dissonance or human nature, but don’t treat it like its revelatory. I don’t know exactly what to make of the stats quoted, but if there is a growing gap between the professed and practiced beliefs of Christians, it likely has more to do with the practical standards of churches inevitably being influenced by the standards of society – something that has been in progress at least since the Enlightenment.

  • Citizen Z

    This is what I’m talking about: moral balancing or compensatory ethics.

  • Claudia

    Its not so much them not living up to their own arbitrary standards that bothers me, its more the fact that they’re willing to break their own personal rules but want the law to persecute others for not following other rules. The stench of hypocrisy of only wanting the law to prohibit sins that you have no interest in engaging in (like marrying a person of your own gender) is nauseating.

    I think cognitive dissonance can actually account for belief combined with poor behavior, but I can’t believe very many Christians really, truly believe in Hell. If they do they’d be perpetually terrified of slipping up, which is something you only see in the hardcore fundies. I remember in Jerusalem observing the ultraorthodox jews (especially the men) and noticing how perpetually worried many of them looked. I suppose I’d be worried too if I really believed in the god of the Torah.

    A more amusing example is “Christian” teens who won’t do vaginal intercourse….but will happily engage in oral and anal. Because, you know, god doesn’t mind sodomy at all.

  • Hammurabi

    The whole article to me reads like a back-handed insult to atheists. Especially the part about priests leaving child-rapists in their positions. As if the issue is that they aren’t clinging to their church and traditions tightly enough and they’ve become so “secular” that they are ok with child rape.

    To quote Steven Weinberg:
    “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. “

  • Vanessa


    They’re not worried about slipping up because just believing that Jesus died for them is enough to get the into heaven.

  • This is all well and good – but when it comes to a “moral” issue like gay marriage, the good catholic hides his simple personal bigotry behind the “moral” values of their “faith”.

    The secular individual has no such luxury and has to deal with consequences of their beliefs – especially the consequences for other people.

  • littlejohn

    My guess is that as we see the more moderate theists effectively losing their religion, the more pro-Christian backlash we’ll see among the shrinking but very vocal Tea Party types.
    This could go so far as to split the current Republican Party into two groups based on degree of piety. The ultra-right Teabaggers seem to favor a theocracy. The few remaining moderate Republicans find them embarrassing.
    The next couple of election cycles will be very interesting, I think.

  • I’m not so sure that they are losing their religion. Rather they are changing their religion so that it conforms to secular life. That’s how religious people (apart from a few of the crazed evangelists) in England act anyway. You simply don’t know that they have a faith, they act the same, they don’t mention religion and they try to be good people. Like the rest of us.

  • ihedenius

    Don’t let anyone get away with the argument that they’re on higher moral ground because of their faith.

    That has never occurred to me. But then I was never indoctrinated and wasn’t even aware of the existence of religion until six or maybe even seven years old. My country is one of the most irreligious on earth. I’m looking in from the outside. Except for 911 I might never have taken an interest in the phenomenon of religion.

  • Todd

    But if one adheres to the principle of Occam’s razor — that the simplest explanation is the most likely — there is another, more unsettling conclusion: that many people who call themselves Christian don’t really believe, deep down, in the tenets of their faith. In other words, their actions reveal their true beliefs.

    Taking the liberty to expand just a bit on what others have already astutely pointed out:

    1. I would argue that this is a misstatement – or at least an oversimplification – of Occam’s Razor, but even given Lobdell’s version the simplest explanation is hypocrisy. Tacking on the notion that “many people who call themselves Christian don’t really believe, deep down, in the tenets of their faith” is an unnecessary complication.

    2. Lobdell chooses to use this unnecessary complication in order to reach his preconceived conclusion that Christians’ moral failures don’t arise out of sheer hypocrisy, but because they have capitulated to the immorality of secularism. Hammurabi is exactly right: The implication is that Christianity is virtuous, righteous, and moral while secularism is unethical, corrupt, and evil. It couldn’t possibly be that born-again Christians are more likely to be racist because they already are racist and can easily find Biblical justification for racism (or that they assimilate into a evangelical culture of racism and prejudice; their fall from grace must be due to amoral secularism. Bullshit. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck it must be…secularism? Don’t blame “secularism” for Christians’ failures to live up to their own moral standards.
    Lobdell subsequently abandons his own appeal to Occam’s Razor: The simplest explanation, and by far the most likely, is that priests abuse children and Sunday morning services are segregated because of the church. His birth-control example is a complete non-sequitur: The reason “most Catholic women use birth control” is that the Catholic prohibition on contraception is indescribably absurd. It is preposterous to blame religious institutional ills on the people who are not even religious, but it’s much easier than holding Christians accountable to their own moral codes.

    3. Finally, as Claudia very eloquently pointed out, Christians are (often) all too eager to proscribe moral standards for others while exempting themselves from the same rules. To wit: Newt Gingrich, who within just the past couple of weeks has had no trouble trying to deny Muslims the same religious freedoms that he enjoys (and, as it happens, demands). More to the point, he has condemned homosexual marriage as an affront to heterosexual marriage, which Ed Brayton analyzed brilliantly on his “Dispatches from the Culture Wars” blog:

    Newt’s just worried that now that gays can get married it will ruin the sanctity of all three of his marriages, including the first one, during which he cheated on his wife the woman who would become his second wife (while the first wife was battling cancer), and his second one, during which he cheated on his second wife with the woman who would be become his third wife (while railing against Bill Clinton for cheating on his wife.

    With another nod to Claudia, the stench of hypocrisy is nauseating indeed.

  • Sarah

    This post touches on a topic I would like to hear more about – Christians being “more likely to be racist than other Americans.”
    I haven’t found any good discussions or data on this subject.
    I have assumed that atheists are less likely to be racist. Would anybody care to share information regarding this topic?

  • Claudia

    @Todd, thanks! Newt is quite a piece of work. BTW, wife number 2 has recently broken her silence and said that not only did he cheat on her while railing against Clinton, but he told her she had to accept it and then almost literally let loose with “Do what I say, not what I do”:

    He asked her to just tolerate the affair, an offer she refused.
    He’d just returned from Erie, Pennsylvania, where he’d given a speech full of high sentiments about compassion and family values.
    The next night, they sat talking out on their back patio in Georgia. She said, “How do you give that speech and do what you’re doing?”
    “It doesn’t matter what I do,” he answered. “People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.

    Its almost startling to see hypocrisy that open. Here’s the full interview:

    @Sarah, I’m unaware of research on the subject, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. However I doubt it has too much to do with religion, and more to do with the fact that in the US, religiosity positively correlates with conservatism and also negatively correlates with economic status and education. It stands to reason that an uneducated conservative is more likely to be racist than a highly educated liberal. As atheism becomes more widespread, I’m fairly confident these peculiarities will disappear. Western Europe has very high levels of nonbelief, and I’d bet hard cash that here you’d find a proportionately lower correlation between religiosity and much of anything.

  • muggle

    I think Troglodyke pretty much said it all.

    The thing is they think they believe for all the reasons it is still far easier in this country to pretend to than to buck the system. (Shouldn’t be that way but it is and will be for some time.) They pretend to themselves as much as anyone else but that’s what it is — especially amongst the politicians who use religion to control the populace — a pretense, a farce.

    I too would love to see everyone who didn’t believe sincerely to turn green. The true believers would suddenly be the minority. If you truly believe, you would strive to adhere even while falling short. Not many actually do this.

    As to growing numbers leaving the church — of course, as more and more have the courage of their conviction.

    As to the stereotype that they’re bad because they don’t genuinely believe, it’s not true of out Atheists or even Atheists who have the guts to admit they don’t believe to themself but think about where it puts you if you’re trying to tell yourself you believe becasue you’re giving into societal pressure to do so. I think there’s a tendency to act out. To dismiss sins with by convincing yourself Jesus will forgive it. If you had the courage of your convictions, you wouldn’t need this crutch. Take away the pretense and say there’s no god, crutch of Jesus will forgive these sins make you less likely to instead of taking personal responsibility for fucking up.

    Add to that — let’s not mix-up “sins” and moral behavior. What’s being counted there? Being gay? Not judging the woman who has a baby out of wedlock? Being a woman who has a baby out of wedlock? Divorcing when the marriage doesn’t work? When you don’t equate moral with sin, what’s moral changes — and becomes far more compassionate towards your fellow human beings. A narrow rulebook doesn’t allow for that. Of course, there’s more likely to be things like racism in context with a pretense at belief. You’re singing the tune that you think is the one of the popular drummer, not a different one. Racism is all about being the main drummer and keeping diffrent dummers/people down, it’s all about fear, as is conformity, to religion or anything else. I think (I hope anyway) that was the point the writer was trying to make.

  • Darryl

    The explanation for the change in Christianity is complex and not just due to a single factor. All the explanations offered are possible.

    Fundamentalists are always alarmed over something, and that won’t change. The only reason they have any significance in our society now is due to their political efforts. But, short of a fundamentalist coup, I think the trends are against them–their kids and grandkids think that a lot of their ideas are stupid, or just bizarre. Attrition will wipe out pervasive racism, sexism, etc.

    I think in progressive and multicultural societies like ours religions undergo change to a greater extent and more rapidly than in more closed, less culturally diverse societies. And I think they tend to get secularized over time, that is, they tend to be affected by changing attitudes and behaviors.

    Because of our social organization and ingrained notion of personal autonomy, we don’t tolerate any real kind of communal discipline that would enforce any set of behavioral standards. There is not the kind of social stigma attached to some behaviors, like divorce, that existed just 50 years ago.

    Your average American, Christian or no, just wants to live the good life whatever that requires. If it means violating the professed tenets of your faith, then so long as there will be no reprisal, so be it.

    Let’s face it, this is not a culture that promotes delayed gratification or self-sacrifice. Sins done in secret are somehow rationalized so one can sleep at night. This is about desire–a thing separate and away from what someone may think or believe.

  • TJP

    The problem with this whole argument is that his conclusions are misguided. He opens with saying that atheists and agnostics have a lower divorce rate and are less racist than those that claim to believe… he then goes on to suggest that the “believers” act this way because they don’t truly believe in the tenants of their religion… If they don’t actually believe shouldn’t they act like the non-believers (i.e. lower divorce rate/ less racism)? Seems to me that the conclusion shouldn’t be that believers act badly because they don’t truly believe, but in fact that belief teaches or encourages these bad behaviors.

  • nobody named matthew

    Well, I can accept that you think I am uneducated, and you are happy at the decline of “true Christianity, but true belief in what i think JESUS was and is, compels me to love GOD with all my being, but it also (wether in ignorance or not)alows and teaches me not to judge others, to love and help them in any way that I can. I have friends and loved ones from all walks of life, I believe that the article is partly on track but I also believe a “true Christian” should try to be more than they have become of late. I still have not found anyone who is not worth loving, that does not meen I condone certian things I myself would not do, but everyone has something worth loving in them. I am no better than anyone, and I don’t claim to be, but I do cherish and am not ashamed that I believe GOD came to Earth as a Man, to teach (at least me) how to “truely love my Neighbor.

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