From High Prestige to Low

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.

As religion fades relentlessly in America, evangelical leaders are fighting back. Fundamentalist writers deny that Christianity is in retreat. Instead, they say, only weak believers are quitting Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, while hard-core, true-blue, devout adherents remain as firm as ever.

The Myth of the Dying Church, a new book by Glen Stanton of Focus on the Family, claims that supernatural-oriented “born-again” folks retain all their fire – and presumably all their fervor for narrow-minded “religious right” political causes.

“The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today,” he wrote in The Federalist.

Stanton admitted that “liberal Protestant churches” have suffered enormous losses. “People are leaving those churches as if the buildings are on fire.” He said it happened because the mainline ceased believing miracle tales and other divine claims of the Bible. “They might as well become Unitarians or something like that,” he said in an interview.

Well, I suppose it’s true that “intense” religion remains strong in America. After all, reports say that about one-fourth of all Christians now are Pentecostals who “speak in tongues.” That’s pretty intense.

But I think there’s a deeper message in the culture shift that is occurring: Religion isn’t just losing members – it’s also losing social status and public prestige. Here’s why:

When I was young in the 1950s, America felt high respect for “tall-steeple” mainline Protestant churches with seminary-educated clergy, many with doctorate degrees. Back then, the most respectable community leaders belonged to the most highbrow congregations.Far less respected were arm-waving, whoop-and-holler, fundamentalist churches with amateur, self-proclaimed, jackleg preachers. Bottom status went to “holy rollers,” those pitiable emotional religious basket cases. It’s a realm notorious for Elmer Gantry-type charlatans.

When America’s secular tidal wave began a half-century ago, it eroded mostly the high-prestige elite churches. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, etc., lost millions of members, while the nation’s population climbed. In other words, educated, reputable faith disintegrated – but lower-I.Q., lower-status, less-respected religion held firmer. (In fact, it became a wing of the Republican Party.)

Younger Americans especially quit religion, leaving mostly gray heads in pews. A societal transformation is in progress. The ratio of Americans who belong to church has fallen 20 percent in the past two decades. The share of adults who say their faith is “none” has climbed to one-fourth — and one-third among adults under thirty. Soon, “nones” may outstrip all other categories.

Shrinkage of respected churches leaves more low-respect ones behind. Thus religion itself loses prestige in America’s eyes. After all, it’s difficult for educated people to admire believers who spout “the unknown tongue” or croon in church.

Someday, I hope, our culture will look upon religion as something unsuited for bright, successful people. For anyone to become “saved” may be an embarrassment among enlightened families, something not to be mentioned in sophisticated circles.

I hope American values continue evolving until it’s assumed that intelligent, science-minded people naturally disbelieve supernatural claims. They will want little to do with citadels of the supernatural.

Religion may move from high-prestige toward low-prestige. That’s a powerful implication of the demographic shift that is occurring.

Link here at Daylight Atheism.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

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