The Great Divide

Most of the college students I talk to assume that colonial Americans overwhelmingly went to church and that America has steadily become less religious over time. Neither assumption is, in fact, true. On the eve of the American Revolution in 1776 only about 17 percent of Americans were religious adherents (a category that includes church members and their children). Today, according to the recently published Baylor Religion Survey, about 90 percent of Americans report some affiliation with a congregation, denomination or other religious group. Fully a third of Americans, about 100 million people, claim to be evangelicals (www.baylor.edu/isreligion). The interval between the American Revolution and the Civil War was the key period in establishing this upward trend (we can discuss this in a future post if anyone is interested).

So, America is a very religious place and has become more so over time. Sound right? Well, probably not. While active religious participation has increased, there has also been greater acceptance, even privileging, of unbelief. Atheism was generally considered unacceptable in public life before about the middle of the nineteenth century (Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859). Everyone believed, or at least claimed to believe in some fashion, and religion was seen as a pillar of social stability. A good example is Benjamin Franklin, who once wrote that he “never doubted . . . the existence of the Deity.” But he also added that much of his Presbyterian upbringing “appeared to me unintelligible . . . and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect.” Religion has always been a powerful force, capable of much good or much evil (there are plenty examples of both), but it is the potential to do harm that seems to occupy most of the public debate today.

The result is a great divide between private belief and public unbelief. What to do about this chasm seems to be one of the major challenges of modern life. Some groups, like the Amish, are committed to living only on one side of this divide. But most of us, the Baylor Religion Survey suggests, regularly cross from one side to the other. How we relate the two sides to one another says a lot about our faith, both as individuals and communities. To what extent do we live divided lives and is it honest to do so? To what extent is cultural accommodation a good or bad thing? I would love to hear your opinions.

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