The survey conducted by Harris Poll found that 42 percent of US adults are not "absolutely certain" there is a God compared to 34 percent who felt that way when asked the same question three years ago.George Bush and the Religious Right: Creating doubts about the existence of God since 2000.
I’m only half kidding. The part of me that isn’t kidding is the part which recognizes that, in large swaths of America, religion is primarily social in nature. Much of the country consists of small towns (like the one in which I live) where there are more churches than movie theaters, bowling alleys, and bars combined—and no hint of any markers of “high-end culture” like concert halls, opera houses, symphony, or theater; nor evidence of multicultural social activities like blues or jazz clubs; and festivals (generally built around some sort of food item—Rib Fest, Popcorn Fest) are seasonal. Necessarily, churches become a focus of many social activities for residents of these towns, and the Saturday Social, Friday Fish Fry, Tuesday Fellowship, monthly pot-lucks, and bingo night attract to the local church many people the intensity of whose religiosity wouldn’t suggest spending so much time there, were it not the hub of social activity in their community.
Many of these people are not disbelievers so much as casual adherents to the belief system that underlies their primary social structure. They haven’t dedicated a whole lot of critical thought to the religion, not only because it isn’t required of them, but because church-going, both religiously and especially socially, is just something everyone they know does. To question the religion behind it is to risk abandoning the only social game going in town—which is partly why the same poll also found that only 93% of self-described born-again Christians, 76% or Protestants, 64% of Catholics, and 30% of Jews are “absolutely certain” that God exists, and also partly why there are so many religious folks who don’t seem to have the foggiest idea what their religions actually teach. Some of it is just bloody-minded ignorance; some of it is that a lot of people go to church for reasons other than religion.
Being “religious” (going to church) is not just a social activity, but provides a social identity. Telling someone you’re Catholic without any other context will convey very different things than telling someone you’re a born-again evangelical. People wear their denominations as badges of honor; in many small towns, identifying as a particular denomination means you go to the nicest church, send your kids to the best private school, and probably hobnob with the mayor and most of the other community leaders at the church picnic. You’re not just announcing your beliefs regarding the number of sacraments; you’re establishing your social identity.
To people for whom religion is primarily about social interaction and identity, the regard for the institution is of utmost importance. Just like a college kid who spends her nights at the Metro, heaving and sweating in a throbbing throng of mad-haired fans to a band no one’s heard of yet, or the guy down the hall, who spends his nights at frat parties, downing shots to the sounds of raucous laughter and popular music pouring from a kickass system, each of them believes that their social circle is cool. We gravitate toward social expressions that are available to us and appeal to our individual aesthetics, but, because our social activities and associated identities say something about who we are, we want them to reflect something positive, or else they lose their appeal.
The last few years has seen the rise of a religious tide that many people regard as decidedly uncool.
Even many devoutly religious folks are sick to the teeth of the religious right, who, in spite of attempts by other Christians to counter their dominance in politics and the media, have virtually cornered the market on defining religion in America. The most visible man in the world, George Bush, counts himself among the numbers of the religious extremists whose radical faith-based agenda so many Americans find repugnant, and there’s no shortage of mouthpieces—Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson—whom the media is willing to parade on “news” shows to issue vitriol-laden spewage about everything from gay rights to the cause of hurricanes. It’s been a disgusting display, and it has made uncritically affiliating oneself with a religion who might share these views a much less attractive proposition for the social church-goer. Maybe it’s time to start asking questions about all that God business which is the backdrop of my social life.
So it’s no surprise that within the same timeframe as the religious right has increasingly been giving religion a bad name, the numbers of people questioning the very existence of God has also grown. It’s not that the religious right’s radicalism is suggestive to social church-goers that there’s no God after all, but that the backlash it’s created has undermined the complacent satisfaction they felt at being a part of something that once wasn’t viewed with such disdain. They suddenly have reason to question their church, and, hence, their faith—probably for the first time. Suddenly, renting a movie doesn’t seem a bad alternative to bingo night.
Weirdly, this might be one of Bush Conservatism’s finest legacies. By aligning itself with a dogmatic and unyielding paradigm of limited religious certitude and its purveyors, by trying to bend people into a religious shape that doesn’t fit, it has spawned instead questioning, searching, doubt—which should be a part of every human’s experience, even religious ones.