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The Decline of American Religion

This morning, when I went out to get baguettes for breakfast, I stopped into a local Catholic parish to have a look at the church’s interior. I saw this bulletin board at the back, listing the baptisms, marriages, and funerals in the parish. As you can see, there are none. According to research done last year for a French Catholic newspaper, only 2.9 percent of the French practice Catholicism.  Christianity is essentially dead in this country. From a 2011 PBS report on religion in France:

OLIVIER BOBINEAU (Paris Institute of Political Studies): But people don’t like [public display of religion]. They don’t like it, even Catholics. The pilgrimage to Chartres? Those are fundamentalists, traditionalists. Our culture erases religion. We’re here but we don’t show ourselves.

POTTER: Olivier Bobineau teaches the sociology of religion and lives it himself. He’s a Catholic who wears a small cross on a chain that he keeps hidden most of the time. But one night, at a meeting with high government officials…

(speaking to Bobineau): … so you leaned forward, you could see it, and somebody said..

BOBINEAU: Be careful.

POTTER: … put that away.

BOBINEAU: Yeah. Today it’s unimaginable to go against the state, against the public space, and to show a cross, a skullcap, a veil. It’s impossible. It’s wanting to destroy the state. That’s what the French feel. The majority of French people do not think it’s possible to be French and Muslim. Most French people think you can’t be a citizen and believe in God. We are the most atheist people in the world. Why? Because when you are a believer, in France people think you have lost your freedom, your reason, okay?

So, though reports like today’s Pew poll numbers showing that American identification with particular religions or churches starkly declining are troubling to religious conservatives, America remains a paradise of faith compared to much of Europe. I spoke with a French Catholic today who said that he wants to emigrate to America, in part so his children can grow up in a culture that supports the faith. I have an English Catholic friend back in Philly who told me once that as much as she missed her homeland, she would rather have her children grow up in a culture that respects their faith. It’s very easy for us religiously conservative Americans to despair over the direction of our own culture, especially with regard to religion, but really, we have it so, so good. I say that not in a triumphalist spirit, but only as a corrective to my own customary gloom on the subject.

Along those lines, you might say that the new poll numbers (the results of which cannot be a surprise to anyone who familiar with Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book “American Grace”) are actually not such a bad thing, given that many Americans still express a belief in God, just not in a particular church or form of religion. I think that’s misleading; whatever it’s flavor, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (as this is generally called) is a false form of Christianity, of Judaism, and of Islam. My guess is that a generation that believes in MTD — which gives the psychological and emotional comforts of religion without any substance — will live to see its grandchildren completely secularized, like the French and the English. We Americans are on that track. Slowly, to be sure, but the direction is clear. We know that contrary to progressivist dogmas of earlier ages, the future of the world is not fated to be secular; I’m not at all so sure about the West, though. Has there ever been a Christian culture that lost its religion, but regained it? I can’t think of one, nor can I think of how it might happen, absent some sort of civilizational catastrophe that compels a desperate return to Christian roots. Even if such a thing happened, why would deracinated Europeans necessarily turn back to Christianity, as opposed to some sort of revised paganism, or even Islam?

Also, I agree with my TAC pal Alan Jacobs on this: it’s better to know the truth about where Americans stand on religion than to live in comforting denial. 


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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