The Post-Christian Public Square

Article excerpt

Whether we are for it or against it, the accelerating secularization of what used to be called Western civilization (and what we may here perhaps less polemically refer to as Europe and its offshoots) is observable fact. The less prosperous and generally politically unstable countries constituting much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia seem split between those coveting the level of physical ease and prosperity that most Westerners have access to and those hating, despising, and fearing the West as a deadly moral and spiritual pollutant.

And even if we have not quite sold our souls to the devil in exchange for our historically unprecedented standard of living, many in Europe and its progeny have paid a high spiritual price. A recent British poll disclosed that only one third of British teens profess belief in any God, with an astounding 50 percent claiming never to have prayed (though 84 percent had at one time or another found themselves in a church). Closer to our borders, the Canadian newsweekly Maclean's pithily titled its April 7, 2009 story on religion among Canadian young: "Youth Survey: Teens lose faith in droves."

Things aren't quite as bad in the anomalously more religious U.S. The Pew Research Center reported recently that nearly 60 percent of Americans pray daily, and the total percentage of self-described atheist, agnostic, and secular unaffiliated only slightly topped 10 percent. A more worrisome figure for those charting the future was the 25 percent of young American adults aged 18 to 29 who described themselves as religiously unaffiliated as of late 2007. Adolescence and young adulthood, when people are determining what part of their cultural heritage, including religious and moral beliefs, they shall make their own, have always been the most common time for a period of doubt and unsettled religious convictions. Young people commonly sort themselves out spiritually as they mature and especially as they come to form their own families. But many of those towards the end of the surveyed age category are likely to have already settled into communities and formed families - and some may have decided that marriage and children do not appeal. In addition, Americans throughout the life cycle are showing more of an inclination to roam from church to church, and of course less compunction in picking and choosing which parts of their creeds to assent to.

In fact, merely checking a box on a survey instrument or responding "yes" to a phone-poll query does not assure the continuity of Christian religious belief. New Age-y and Eastern Religion Lite versions of theism abound, ushering modernity into a brave new world where God has successfully been cloned in our image. According to these more user-friendly religions, God is disposed to be well pleased with us, pretty much whatever we do; he/she smiles benignly as society sets off on ever more self-involved and self-destructive schemes.

So even in the U.S., we have wandered rather far from the faiths of our fathers. Just how far is partially masked by how much of the language and the trappings and the seasonal imagery of traditional Christianity persists. And therefore it is perhaps difficult to fully realize the moral effect of letting go of the Christian ethical imperative. And there is another red herring as well. We find it hard to imagine a non-Christian or post-Christian Western democratic society because we are so aware of how imperfectly Christian all past samples have been. At various times and to varying degrees, the Western nations have indulged both individually and collectively in slavery, genocide, racism, child abuse, religious persecution, brutal wars external and internal, as well as theft, corruption, denial of rights - well, we know the history. From the 1960s on, historians have lingered over the failures and hypocrisies of Western civilization almost lasciviously. This may be evidence of our own era's wholesome disposition toward humility, but more likely and depressingly, our recent eagerness to despise our forefathers betrays a hankering after moral superiority over more pious past generations. …


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