Politics & Policy

The Sea of Faith

Pews and politics.

Beginning last week, homosexuals in Britain can sign up for “civil partnerships,” giving them most of the tax and legal benefits of marriage. Near the head of the line for this new arrangement were Sir Elton John and his boyfriend, who made a low-key ceremony out of it. The Economist has a brief report on all this, with a self-congratulatory little note at the end about why this change in the law has raised so little fuss in Britain. (The Economist is libertarian on social issues.) After suggesting some minor reasons, we get this: “Most of all, though Britons may be no more tolerant of each other than other nations, they are certainly more secular. So religious passions have played little part in the debate.”

This is a routine rhetorical flourish in reports of this kind. I imagine most American conservatives, including most nonreligious ones, would respond to that with some thought like: “Well, thank goodness we are not that secular. It’s our religiosity that gives us ballast, preserves our cherished institutions from unnecessary change, and keeps us on the straight and narrow.”

Is this true, though? So far as the straight and narrow is concerned, the notion that religious belief is a social good does not actually bear up very well under examination. India is much more religious than Japan, but much worse behaved. (Homicide rates 0.034 per 1,000 vs. 0.005; adult HIV/AIDS infection 0.9 percent vs. 0.1; etc., etc.) Similarly within these United States. George Barna’s surveys show that African Americans are the most religious group in U.S. society, Asian Americans the least religious, white Americans intermediate. The statement “My religious faith is important to me” draws an affirmative response from 52 percent of Asian Americans, 68 percent of whites, 72 percent of Hispanics, and 89 percent of African Americans. However, statistics on various kinds of social dysfunction and misbehavior–crime, illegitimacy, drug addiction, AIDS infection–vary in precisely the opposite way, Asian Americans having, and causing, the fewest problems, African Americans the most. (Barna’s surveys turn up a lot of counterintuitive results: For example, that born-again Christians divorce at the same rate as non-Christians.)

Nor is Britain as irreligious as all that. The 2001 census turned up 72 percent of British people as declared Christians, with only 15 percent having no religion, and eight percent declining to answer the question. This is not so dramatically different from the U.S.A., where the corresponding numbers seem to be 82 percent Christian, 16 percent irreligious or not responding. George W. Bush is a devout Christian, but so is Tony Blair. Margaret Thatcher was, if anything, more religious than Ronald Reagan.

So why do we have this fixed idea that we are so much more pious than those Godless folk across the Atlantic? And that this makes us better, or at least better-behaved, people, and fortifies our society? Well, if the differences in quantity are not great, the differences in quality are. Of Americans who describe themselves as Christian, far more are regular churchgoers here than in Britain. Only 5-7 percent of Christians in England go to church weekly; in the U.S.A. it is probably around 20-25 percent. (The U.S. number is much disputed: Read this. We seem to not be very honest about our church-attendance habits.) The great majority of British Christians are merely “cultural Christians,” labeling themselves when polled on the basis of ancestry, family custom, tribal identification, or how they wished to be thought of, not profound conviction. Far fewer American Christians do this; far more actually believe actual articles of faith.

Among those Godless Europeans, in fact, there are a surprising number who feel themselves to be religious in some vague, uncommitted, non-doctrinal sense. Just about the least-churched country you could name is Iceland, where only two percent of people attend services weekly. Yet “four out of five Icelanders say that they pray, and the same proportion believe in life after death.”

That quote is from an article titled “Is God an Accident?” by Paul Bloom in the December Atlantic Monthly. Bloom is a professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale University. It’s a fun article, full of curious factoids like: “Most Jews and Christians believe in an afterlife–in fact, even people who have no religion at all tend to believe in one.” (My italics.) Prof. Bloom argues that while the tenets of particular religions are of course learned, the instinct to religion is a fundamental part of human nature. It arises, he says, from a duality built into our brains, which have one module dealing with the physical reality, the other with the social. Prof. Bloom claims to have detected this duality in small babies: “Six-month-olds understand that physical objects obey gravity… Newborns… quickly come to recognize different emotions…,” and so on. It follows that it is easy for us–nearly irresistible, in fact–to believe that our essence is only part physical, that the soul is a different thing, a different kind of thing, from the physical body, and might survive independent of it. Bloom’s conclusion: “The universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.”

This is not a very surprising result. I think we all know, at some level, that religious feeling is a human universal. Even explicitly irreligious movements, like Marxism, quickly take on a religious flavor when they are imposed on great masses of human beings. When Mao Tse-tung showed himself at Tiananmen gate, the massed Red Guards below wept and howled like revivalists at a tent meeting, and many miraculous cures were claimed for the Chairman’s Little Red Book. As materialism descends on the populace, natural human spirituality rises to meet it.

Like other personality traits, religiosity varies widely from one person to another. At one extreme are the religious geniuses, people like William Blake or St. Therese of Lisieux, to whom the Divine is only an arm’s length away, to be reached out and touched. At the other, at all times and places, have been those who just don’t get it.

At this point Ralegh interjected, and said in all his studies at Oxford he had never found anyone to define “soul” satisfactorily. The rector supplied him with a text from Aristotle. “Obscure and intricate,” said Ralegh; “try again.” The rector then produced the definition: “a spiritual and immortal substance breathed into man by God, whereby he lives and moves and understandeth, and so is distinguished from all other creatures.” “Yes,” said Sir Walter, “but what is that spiritual and immortal substance?” “The soul,” said the rector, baffled. “You answer not like a scholar,” said Sir Walter.

It sounds like Clint Eastwood interrogating his priest in Million Dollar Baby. In fact it was Sir Walter Ralegh tweaking the rector of Winterbotham around 1590.

Since susceptibility to religious feeling seems to “travel” with other features of the individual human personality, it is interesting to speculate whether it might have genetic origins, or at least influences. There is strong circumstantial evidence that this is so. Studies of identical twins separated at birth and raised apart show good agreement in religiosity between twins. St. Therese’s parents were both intensely religious persons. Dean Hamer, the “gay gene” guy, wrote a book about all this last year, which Time magazine did a cover story on. What you make of this stuff depends on which direction you approach it from. One follow-up letter to Time expressed the very reasonable opinion: “Of course we have a God gene–God gave us one!” If there is a God, and He wants us to know Him, why then, of course he would endow us with a religious instinct. To a follower of one of the Abrahamic religions, the conclusions of Bloom and Hamer are nearly tautologous. Since we are made in God’s image, it makes sense that we have an inborn capacity to turn to Him.

The fears–or in some cases hopes–of 19th-century European thinkers that religious faith would disappear, that “God is dead,” therefore seem to have been seriously misplaced. Unless and until we radically change our nature, we are stuck with God, or at least with spirituality. Back in 1867, Matthew Arnold wrote:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

He needn’t have worried. Or need he? While the instinct to believe may stay with us, organized systems of belief might weaken and fade, as much here as they have in Europe. It is true that swathes of the U.S.A. are thoroughly churchgoing at present; but this sort of thing can change very quickly.

A friend of mine speaks of “this God-soaked country, America.” He has a point; but what country was ever more “God-soaked” than Ireland, where church attendance has been dropping like a stone for 20 years? This is not a particularly Catholic thing, either: the Methodist people of Wales were notably religious well into my own lifetime, with community life centered on the chapel, the pews packed every Sunday, and every adult Welshman proud of his ability to sing his way through the hymnbook. In a single generation those pews emptied out; the chapels now stand forlorn and unwanted, while the hymnbooks desiccate and crumble.

There is no reason this could not happen here. The U.S.A. is not immune to the kinds of social forces that emptied those Welsh and Irish pews. We might all become Icelanders. When Matthew Arnold was writing his poem, most people did not venture far from their home villages. Nowadays, when middle-class folk honeymoon in Bali, far more of us have felt the twinge of the thought expressed by Edward Gibbon: that while not all of the world’s religions can be true, it is possible that they are all false. If enough Americans come to internalize that thought, churches will empty, and we shall be alone with our vague Icelandic yearnings–”cultural Christians,” perhaps, but no longer committed servants of the Lord.

Some people would not consider this a loss… especially if you substitute “mosques” and “Muslims” for “churches” and “Christians” in that last sentence. And getting those “civil partnerships” through our legislatures would then be a breeze, as, according to The Economist, it has been in Britain. The consolation would be, that whatever may happen to our houses of worship, it is not probable that any large number of us will ever lapse into cold mechanistic materialism–that we will come to believe we are just, as Dean Hamer puts it, “a bunch of chemicals running around in a bag.” We are not made to think like that. Reports of God’s death have been greatly exaggerated.


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