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September 04, 2007

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Nato

Well, I have no feeling of "being swamped by a rising tide of religion." It's never been easier to be an unbeliever. They added "under God" to the pledge and changed out motto to "In God we trust"* in the 50s, but not because of a rising tide of religiousness, but rather because the religious felt threatened by a rising tide of (atheistic) communism. Further, no one would try that today - most people wouldn't want to to begin with, and even if they did, it's clear no court would allow it.

I hate it when atheists talk about "coming out" as atheists. In 1965 I'm sure the neighbors might have found it shocking or at least suspect, but I think the communities in which atheists have any real claim to persecution are few and far between these days.

*From "e pluribus unum," one of the greatest, most quintessentially-American mottos of all time! What a shame.

Thomas

I have no idea what it means to be "churched". But if we're talking about what religions people claim to follow, it's pretty clear that at one point almost nobody claimed to be an atheist, and now a very large minority claims to be, if not atheist, at least agnostic, spiritual, or of some other sort of non-religious ethos.

My guess is that "churching" just means that there are more churches today per capita than there have ever been, and if my lucky supposition is correct, then that's a pretty silly metric to use to gauge the religiosity of the populace.

Nato

Tom, I think "churching" refers to the increasing propensity for people to belong to a church of one sort or another. Of course, some percentage of the increase in church attendance almost has to be the increase in the percentage of people within *range* of a church, but they're nonetheless remarkable statistics.

Nathan Smith

Stark collects a lot of information on church membership from things like church records. He's aware of possible changes in the meaning of church membership and record-keeping practices among churches and across time, and he tries to control for them using other indicators such as number of pews, which obviously have their weaknesses. How successful he is in the end I can't really say.

What I *don't* think he's referring to at all is religious belief. My guess is that there has been a slight rise in atheism, because in the 18th century people who might have been atheists today tended to be Deists, believing in a "clockmaker" God, because no cogent account was available of how the world could exist without a creator. After Darwin provided a fig leaf of plausibility for a Creator-less universe, Deism tended to turn into atheism. Yet even today the statistics generally show that atheists constitute a minuscule percentage of the population, so I guess the rise hasn't been that great.

Val Larsen

I'm pretty sure that the rise in the number of "churched" people has more to do with the costs (e.g., travel time) associated with formal church membership, not with religious belief. The rewards of church membership may also have increase due to the greater vitality of our competitive religious marketplace--vitality that was no doubt enhanced by the passing of the state-sponsored churches. Insofar as novels and other literature are any guide, the 18th century and earlier were totally suffused by religious belief. Read Chaucer or even Jane Austen. It seems that God is a given in their world, though many may not be church goers.

Nato

Good point re: literature, though I do sort of wonder how representative that can be of life for the masses - after all, most of Jane's characters were at worst middle class, if not well into the upper strata.

Nathan Smith

On literature, I haven't read any Jane Austen nor much Chaucer, though I've seen lots of Jane Austen films. Her work doesn't seem particularly religious as far as I remember. Yes, a few of the characters are churchmen or anticipate careers in the Church, but I don't remember any characters that are deeply religious... well, unless you count the conspicuously irritating ones. It seems to me God's relevance to the lives of Jane Austen's characters is rather slight. Of Chaucer I've read a bit of the Canterbury tales, which is a highly irreligious work, and the fact that it is so despite the fact that the characters are on a pilgrimage only underscores the point.

Obviously God and religion do play a greater role in the writings of Milton or Dante than in any high-profile contemporary fiction, so maybe Val just picked the wrong authors to make his point. But then, C.S. Lewis's novels are surely as religious as any major work of literature in the Western canon. But then, C.S. Lewis isn't *in* the canon, even though in my personal opinion, and probably-- so I would guess, anyway-- in terms of readership, he probably excels any of the 20th-century writers more likely to appear on the curriculum of a college literature class. And there's plenty of Christian fiction: the "Left Behind" series, etc. Perhaps what's really happened is simply that *academia* has become more irreligious, and to the extent that academia serves as a filter on literature, it makes the present seem less religious than the past: no one today could write like Milton and get into the college curriculum.

That the educational establishment has become less religious is beyond doubt. The Church once monopolized learning; now it is largely exiled from the ivory tower. Maybe the lesson here is that the decline of religion has been confined to the intelligentsia, while the opposite trend, if anything, has been underway among the populace.

Val Larsen

The fact that Chaucer's characters--who are mostly not distinguished by natural piety--are nevertheless engaged in making a pilgrimage is exceptionally powerful evidence of the degree to which faith in God suffused their culture. And it is precisely because Jane Austen is not overtly religious in her novels that she provides evidence of how completely faith suffused her weltanshaung. So in Mansfield Park, the most worthy male figure, Edward, and the most worthy female figure, Fanny, are both pious. Edward loses the family inheritance without qualm because he is eager to take up a modestly paid position as the pastor of a church. In Pride and Prejudice, the villan, Mr. Wickam, reveals what a reprobate he is in part by refusing to take order and seeking, instead, to be paid 5000 pounds as compensation for giving up the vocation of a clergyman. Austen doesn't trumpet her faith but is it an inescable matrix for her writing.

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