In his book, Living the Secular Life, professor/atheist evangelist Phil Zuckerman claims that a variety of political and sociological factors are putting an end to religion in America. Zuckerman asserts it’s not the influence of Richard Dawkins or the intolerant mocking of Bill Maher that are swaying people away from God, but instead he thinks there are five cultural winds that are blowing individuals out of the religious ranks and into the secular fold.
Let’s hear what he has to say.
The Political Divide
Zuckerman’s first point is that the rise of various religious-political groups that tightly coupled themselves with the Republican party in the 1980s has only served to “alienate a lot of left-leaning or politically moderate Americans from Christianity. Sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer have published compelling research indicating that much of the growth of 'nones' in America is largely attributable to a reaction against this increased, overt mixing of Christianity and conservative politics."
The Catholic Scandal
Second on Zuckerman’s list is the impact that has resulted from the sexual misconduct of various priests and the apparent cover-up of the incidents that occurred within the Catholic church’s government. The effect, says Zuckerman, has been quite noticeable with various polls showing serious declines in the Catholic ranks.
The Spiritual Leadership of Women
A third catalyst for reduced religious interest in America cited by Zuckerman is more women working outside the home. Zuckerman references Callum Brown as being “the first to recognize this interesting correlation: when more and more women work outside the home, their religious involvement — as well as that of their families — tends to diminish. Brown … argues that it has been women who have historically kept their children and husbands interested and involved in religion.”
The Normalizing of Homosexuality
Fourth in Zuckerman’s group is the growing acceptance of homosexuality as a moral sexual practice. Because the legitimization of homosexuality is typically fought by the religious, Zuckerman says that religion is viewed as intolerant and seen as an enemy to fairness and equality.
The Internet Atheist
Lastly, Zuckerman lists the Internet as a chief ally in atheism’s education and evangelism of new converts. “For example,” says Zuckerman, “in her ongoing research on nonbelieving clergy, Linda LaScola has found that many pastors and ministers who have lost their faith in God cite their time spent on the Internet as a factor in their emergent atheism.”
True or False?
So how do we as Christians respond to these claims by Zuckerman as well as his overall thesis about religion dying in America? In my opinion, supplying a worthwhile answer requires more than simply working through each item, so I’d like to provide my feedback by replying to Zuckerman’s key points in a cursory fashion, but then quickly move on to address from a general perspective and a Biblical standpoint what’s really being asserted behind the scenes.
Let’s begin with the explicit positions Zuckerman highlights. Is he right? In my opinion, I’d say both yes and no. Yes, there are some instrumental-cause impacts from the items he lists, but no, they aren’t the sledgehammers he makes them out to be.
I believe he’s correct in pointing out that mixing religion and politics has never been a good idea, especially when theocratic governments such those that are on the landscape today are the end result.
True, also, is the charge that when those who belong to a religion (especially its leadership) act contrary to the moral teachings of that religion, and their actions go so far as to violate a society’s laws, that the negative result can be people disassociating themselves from that faith.
In addition, many pastors will tell you how disappointed they have been with the failure of Christian men to step up and assume their rightful place of spiritual leadership in the home. Also, studies done by Christian researchers such as Kinnamann have validated that a top negative cited in polls about Christians is their stance on homosexuality being an immoral lifestyle.
Regarding the Internet, there are two things worth calling out. Does the Web provide a far-reaching pulpit for atheistic teachings? Of course. But it provides the same thing for religion as well.
Second, just because atheistic teaching is on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s correct and/or properly educating the simple-minded religionist as Zuckerman implies. For example, a local pastor I know came partially unglued by reading a variety of atheistic websites devoted to the fallacious pagan Christ teachings. Once I and others schooled him on the historical and philosophical inaccuracies of those teachings, he came back stronger than ever and instructed his congregation on the truths he learned from the experience.
The Story Behind the Story
Behind these points is the real case Zuckerman is presenting, which is more important to discuss in my opinion. Zuckerman’s tone is one of victory where he proclaims that belief in God is cratering while the acceptance of atheism is skyrocketing. He goes beyond the formal definitions of secularism and instead uses the supposed momentum behind the term to cheerlead the demise of religion in total.
Not so fast.
Despite what Zuckerman is attempting to portray, there is a distinction between a person no longer identifying with a particular denomination or faith and becoming an atheist. Even the studies on the “None’s” point out the difference between asserting nothing supernatural exists and saying you don’t belong to an organized religion.
I’ll also cry ‘foul’ on a typical dig that atheists like Zuckerman make on those who believe in God. Discussing how human beings may not as a whole have an innate religious instinct, he writes, “So while the author Nicholas Wade writes of a “faith instinct,” we can certainly argue that there is also a “doubt instinct” or a “reason instinct” that is just as persistent and inherent to our nature.”
I’m happy to agree that humankind is naturally curious, that thinking about what one believes is an excellent activity in which to engage, and that agnosticism is a perfectly rational position to assume. But please, can we stop saying that belief in God is unreasonable?
Such tired, invalid, and snide assertions have been refuted time and again by the lives of very reasonable and brilliant human beings who embrace theism, Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig and others, and even those of different faiths, including some very honest atheists.
A Biblical View
Let’s for a moment say Zuckerman is 100% correct and the numbers actually show that religion is on a downhill slide headed for near extinction. Let’s pretend to ignore facts like the meteoric rise of Christianity in places like China and grant Zuckerman his arguments in full.
If the world should reach the point where 99.9% of its inhabitants are atheists and only 0.1% believe in God – and God exists – then the 0.1% are the only ones who stand in the truth. I think we can all agree that truth isn’t determined by popularity contests, isn’t affected by “majority rules”, and is immune to personal preference and the current direction cultural winds are blowing.
If atheism is true, we all need to be atheists, and if Christianity is correct, then Zuckerman and his brethren need to bow their knee to Christ. The fact is, eternity is an awfully long time to be wrong, so we all need to get a right handle in this area – something that Paul makes very clear when he writes, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . .If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Cor. 15:14, 19).
Next, let’s remember that the efficient cause behind the ranks of Christianity swelling or shrinking has nothing to do with whether women work outside the home or if some people are feeling politically marginalized. God is not sitting in Heaven wringing his hands in worry over any supposed decline in those who believe in Him despite His best efforts to woo them. He’s already told us that few are those on the narrow road (Matt. 7:14).
The Bible is also clear that God is sovereign over all our lives, determines everything that happens, including whether a nation like America rises or falls: “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it” (Jer.18:7, 9).
Perhaps America will go the way of past nations and fall away from God. But even if such a thing happens, God will still call to Himself all those who belong to Him and keep them in the faith just as Jesus said: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).
Sadly, as Pascal noted, people rarely arrive at their worldview because of facts and truth, but most times people embrace a belief system because they find it attractive. Those who “switch sides” because of the cultural points Zuckerman notes prove Pascal to be right.
It’s my hope that instead of behaving like that, people everywhere will make a commitment to believe something only because it’s true, thoroughly investigate the person of Jesus Christ, and make themselves an internal promise to go where the truth leads. History has proven time and again that when people do this and leave their presuppositions at the door, the result is another Christ follower.
As to the future of Christianity in America and everywhere else, I think my feelings on the matter are best summed up by a portion of Michael O’Brien’s song, And the Story Goes On:
There's hope for the future
There's hope for the lost
There's always a soldier to carry the cross
'Cause the story is true
And the story is changing this world
And the story goes on
 See his work, e.g. Unchristian.
 See: http://www.slideshare.net/schumacr/isnt-jesus-just-a-copy-of-pagan-gods-presentation for a PowerPoint presentation that covers the key arguments against Jesus being nothing but a conglomeration of various pagan god myths.
 Which, in its simple definition, involves the distinct separation of government and religion and the belief that all faiths have equal protection in the eyes of the law. For more, see: http://www.secularism.org.uk/what-is-secularism.html.
 Emphasis mine.
 Some Christians will say that Christianity is not a ‘religion’, but instead is something else (e.g. a relationship, etc.) While the term ‘religion’ only occurs four times in Scripture (Acts 25:19, 26:5; Col. 2:23; James 1:26-27), the Greek word for it – thrēskeia – simply means the expression of devotion and worship to a transcendent being. Each time it is used in Scripture, the context is one where an external practice of such devotion, acts, etc., are involved.
Robin Schumacher is a software executive and Christian apologist who has written many apologetic articles, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at various apologetic events. He holds a Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament.