For most of my life, a majority of Americans—around 70%—identified with a religion. In the twenty-first century, that stability in religious affiliation has collapsed, falling by 20 points in just two decades. The United States, long one of the world’s most religious countries, has become, rather suddenly, one of the least.
Rapid changes in society, technology, mobility and time management, along with the reluctance of younger generations to make institutional commitments of any kind, have contributed to this erosion. So have the manifold sins of believers and religious institutions, which publicly discredit the transformational claims of faith communities. If religious people behave badly, what’s the point?
The major religions have survived comparable challenges in the past. What may be different in these latter days is the degree to which the secular age has flattened reality into a strictly horizontal dimension, excluding the verticals of transcendence and depth. For growing numbers of Americans, God is neither felt nor thought. Religion’s windows into the divine invisible have been replaced by mirrors.
At least since the Enlightenment, critics and skeptics have been writing obituaries for religion. By the nineteenth century, doubt was in full flood. An appraisal in 1878 was typical: “one can hear faith decaying … This decay has been maturing for three hundred years, and their effects prophesied for fifty; indeed, not prophesied only but in some degree accomplished.” [i]
Thirty years later, Thomas Hardy would write “God’s Funeral,” a somber poem about the death of belief. As the “strange and mystic form” of the expired deity passes by, borne by a great procession of mourners, the poet confesses the object of faith to be a delusion:
… tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed.
Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quivered, sank; and now has ceased to be.[ii]
At least Hardy felt sad about the demise of divinity (“Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon, / Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.”). These days, unbelief is more a matter of indifference than sorrow. How many people still take God into account, or think theologically, and shape their lives accordingly? Once God is gone, what’s the use of religion?
The precipitous decline of religious affiliation in America has prompted anxious speculations about what’s next. In “America Without God,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, sees religious fervor being sublimated into political conviction.[iii] As we have seen in the case of the recent Trump cult, with its sociopathic savior, this can go very wrong. At least religion attempts to temper the zeal of believers with mandates of repentance and forgiveness, as well as the humility of unknowing in the presence of mystery. Politics, not so much.
In an article on the “Death of Faith,” journalist Murtaza Hussain deems the extinction of traditional religion in America to be only a matter of time. “Older expressions of religion are not completely absent in public, to be sure. But compared with the past, their influence over events feels akin to the light of a dead star.… The slow-rolling death of religion in American life begs the question, then, what type of new world will emerge from the wreckage of the old?”
Hussain hopes that any emergent communal expressions will not repeat what he calls “the worst aspects of the old religions, including the moral censoriousness, judgmentalism, heresy-hunting and the persecution of those who think differently.” We should construct a new social imaginary, he suggests optimistically, “with the self-conscious idea of improving on the mistakes of organized religion.”[iv]
Personally, I am not prepared to exchange Jesus, the sacraments, saints, centuries of wisdom, sacred conversation, communal prayer, or the Paschal Mystery for a mistake-free startup. While I may lament the Church’s manifold sins and grumble over its frustrations, I will continue to feast on its visions and receive its graces. Even the soul’s darkest nights are preferable to a world without divine depth or holy wonder. As Meister Eckhart said, “I would rather be in hell and have God, than in heaven and not have God.”[v]
In concluding his illuminating study of religious defections by the Victorians and their successors, A. N. Wilson quotes one of the era’s greatest religious thinkers, Baron von Hügel (1852-1925), who insisted that “religion was the deepest kind of life.” And to that, Wilson adds his own Amen: “And I am bound to say that compiling this study of those who tried to live without religion, or who chose to live within the limitations of a purely materialistic explanation for the problems of metaphysics, has not made me wish to revise the baron’s viewpoint.”[vi]
How, then, should the Church respond to declining numbers, or address widespread indifference to its priorities and practices? Shall we attempt to shape a social imaginary more congenial to “the deepest kind of life?” Do we welcome the death of antiquated forms in order to practice resurrection? Or should we wait and listen in faithful silence for a word not yet spoken?
George Tyrrell was an Irish Jesuit who urged the Church at the dawn of the 20th century to adapt and evolve in response to the challenges of modernity. His progressive views were out of step with his contemporaries, and when the anti-modernist Pius X became pope in 1903, Tyrrell’s fate was sealed. He was expelled from the Jesuits in 1906, denied the sacraments in 1907, excommunicated in 1908, and forbidden a Catholic burial in 1909. Half a century later, his views would be mostly vindicated at the Second Vatican Council.
The fact that Tyrrell was wrong in 1906 and right in the 1960s demonstrates the tension between stability and innovation which is unavoidable—even necessary—within a living tradition. A great religious institution may not be able to turn on a dime, but it still contains within itself an ultimate loyalty to its transcendent and ineffable core, enabling it to adapt and survive. The secret of Christianity’s longevity is its rootedness in a reality which exceeds any particular institutional or theological expression. Transition, revolution, or even apparent catastrophe do not signify ultimate defeat if you are in covenant with the God of infinite surprise.
As Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart puts it, “the proof that any tradition is a living one is precisely that it does not fiercely cling to every aspect of what it has inherited but instead exhibits an often astonishing ruthlessness in shedding the past, out of obedience to some still more original spiritual imperative.”[vii]
Dying to the old and rising into the new is a costly and painful process, but it is the ultimate vocation of every believer and every church. In a letter to a friend in April 1906, Tyrrell movingly expressed both the anguish and the hope of trusting in the unknown futurity of God:
“I quite understand your desire for a life of prayer—the nostalgia for the old days ‘when His lamp shone about my head.’ God knows I feel it. But I think they will return for us all in some better form. I find the Breviary lives for me again after a long transition period of death. One has to pass through atheism to faith; the old God must be pulverized and forgotten before the new can reveal himself to us.” [viii]
Tyrrell’s “pulverized and forgotten” God sounds little different from Hardy’s “mangled Monarch,” except for one thing: resurrection. Hardy thought death was the end of the story. Tyrrell knew it was only the beginning.
[i] W. H. Mallock, The Nineteenth Century, cited in A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 164.
[ii] Full text and notes for Hardy’s poem: http://greatpoetryexplained.blogspot.com/2019/01/gods-funeral-by-thomas-hardy.html
[iii] Shadi Hamid, “America Without God,” The Atlantic (April 2021): https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/04/america-politics-religion/618072/
[iv] Murtaza Hussain, “How the Death of Faith Will Hurt the Left,” Wisdom of Crowds (Sept. 15, 2020): https://wisdomofcrowds.live/death-of-faith-hurt-the-left/
[v]Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1328), cited in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, originally published 1911 (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993), 209.
[vi] A. N. Wilson, 336.
[vii] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2020), 106.
[viii] George Tyrrell, cited in A. N. Wilson, 351.