It’s the late 1960s. You are the executive producer of a new TV show. You want the show to be entertaining – not so much because it is your life’s calling to provide enjoyment to other American hominids, but because if the show is entertaining, you will make money. Lots of it.
In order to achieve mass appeal, you decide that the TV show will be about a charming, funny, and eminently benign family. A white family, to be sure, given that even token acknowledgment of racial diversity in American society has not yet been embraced by corporate America. The family also shouldn’t be explicitly ethnic; not obviously Italian, Irish, Greek, or Jewish.
Nor should this family be affiliated with any specific religion. After all, religion is such a personal, private, and often divisive matter — one that cuts deeply into many people’s morals, values, marriage contracts, and politics – that, for the sake of pursuing the mass market TV road with the fewest bumps, you instruct your writers to just avoid religion altogether. Keep it out. No church attendance, no praying, no rituals, no God, no Jesus, no Muhammad, no mass, no miracles, no faith. Just things like sibling squabbles, lost kittens, cheerleader tryouts, blind dates, surf lessons, and broken vases that result from someone playing ball in the house.
Welcome to your extremely successful television production, “The Brady Bunch,” one of the most popular television shows in US history. The series aired from 1969 to 1974 and has been in syndication ever since, with at least one of its episodes being played somewhere in the US every single day up to the present.
At the time of its original airing, the percentage of people in the US who were nonreligious was about 5%. Today, it is around 30%. In other words, when Peter was doing his best Humphrey Bogart imitation while asking for pork chops and applesauce, only 1 in 20 Americans were not affiliated with a religion. Today, it is an astounding 1 in 3.
Since the early 1970s, regular church attendance, frequency of prayer, baptism rates, belief in the Bible as God’s word, the percentage of weddings taking place in a religious context – all have plummeted. We’re talking about some serious secularization.
But what does The Brady Bunch have to do with declining religiosity in the U.S.? It is just one example of how popular American television shows surreptitiously erased religion from mass-market portrayals of daily life. Nearly every popular television show did the same thing, from The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Tyler Moore to The Cosby Show and Cheers, through the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Seinfeld, Frasier, and Friends, all the way to the Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. For decades, television has presented an entertaining version of human existence with an implicitly secular lifestyle: people falling in and out of love, enduring disappointment and hardship, persevering against adversity, eating pizza, dancing, laughing, making friends, relying on family, enjoying a joke, making a wisecrack, having troubles at work, pranking the neighbors, performing at talent shows, taking vacations – with little if any reference to religion.
And it wasn’t just television shows. Even commercials have been almost entirely secular for decades. For example, in 1998, two social scientists, Brendan Maguire and Georgie Ann Weatherby, analyzed nearly 800 commercials; only 16 contained content that was even remotely religious or spiritual.
Popular media often reflects social reality. But it can also shape it. In this instance, popular American television was but one of many factors responsible for the secularization of American society. By depicting life without religion, these television shows inadvertently presented an option to hundreds of millions of viewers – a possibility, a prospect. And unbeknownst to them, these viewers were taking in and internalizing these daily depictions of life without God or faith. The secular lives on the TV screen, although obviously fictional, seemed just fine. And in truth, such is the reality of living life without religion: it’s sometimes hard, sometimes easy. It’s life.
Secularization has many sources. It is a result of increased educational attainment in a given society, increased access to the internet, improved living conditions, accessible healthcare, more women in the paid labor force, demographic pluralism, and so forth. And in addition to all of these factors, depicting a secular lifestyle through popular mass media has certainly played its part.