Overview

A growing chorus of religious commentators ties rapid secularization with all manner of social ills. But the evidence doesn't bear it out

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A renewed line of pro-religion persuasion is leveraging people’s desire for happiness and religion’s purported ability to provide it. I suspect that with seculars it’s proving as effective as the many get-religion rhetorical gambits that have gone before it.

Which is to say not effective. At all.

A recent piece at the Big Think portal evokes the famous Blaise Pascal wager with an emphasis not on eternal life but rather the desire for happier life in the here and now.

Citing sources like this study, Jonny Thomson builds his case on the premise that religion practitioners enjoy greater access than their nonreligious counterparts to balms for grief, ways to resolve anger, and sources of light in moments of darkness.

“Religion has been proven to make us happier and give us support,” Thomson writes. “Why, then, would you not take steps to join in?”

What Thomson offers the individual the Washington Examiner dangles in front of the whole society. In a March 14 piece headlined “Make America religious again,” commentary fellow Christopher Tremoglie blames the culture’s rising secularity for rampant social decline, for plagues like narcissism, mental health problems, and the opioid epidemic, and for a rise in violent crime.

In a stunning act of scapegoating and mistaking correlation for causation, Tremoglie claims:

A shift away from religion has produced little in terms of improving humanity. Selfishness has replaced selflessness, instant gratification has replaced a puritan work ethic, and, all the while, standards keep getting lower to accommodate the collective regression that has transpired as a result. As more and more people die from drug overdoses and violent crimes, a return to religion could provide a remedy to many of the problems plaguing the country.”

So it’s as simple as that? Presented with evidence and arguments like these, we seculars will not walk but sprint to the nearest house of worship?

I’ve heard these and similar arguments for decades. And while I’ve been drawn at times to religion’s inspirational content, I have always been stopped by the gigantic problem at the center of most rhetorical appeals to seculars: the fact that nontheists do not perceive God as real, and no advertisement of religion’s benefits will get the nonbeliever over the belief chasm.

As for those advertised benefits, they are usually oversimplified and oversold in appeals like these. I accept that believers can become better people and derive spiritual sustenance from participation in churches or other houses of worship, if they pursue their faith with sincerity, humbleness, and good intentions, and if their religious community is a healthy one. But those are massive “ifs.”

The too-numerous-to-list revelations of abusive behavior by religious leaders, and the toll they take on followers, shred any notion of religion as a surefire source of goodness and uplift. As do the too-many-to-count moral misdeeds, in private and public life, by people who tout their piety.

Social breakdown? If growing secularity were the cause of the distress and dysfunction afflicting America, we could expect to find the world’s most secular societies in even worse straits. We don’t. As Phil Zuckerman has written, the happiest, healthiest countries on this planet tend to be the most secular.

But even if religion always did bring greater happiness to people and societies, it is silly to expect nontheists to join religious communities on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. Because what we would do in the pews—the praying and singing and communal speaking, usually testifying to the reality and greatness of God and various other supernatural phenomena—would be so fake, and so dripping with cognitive dissonance, as to make us less happy than we were to begin with. (OK, Unitarian services get a pass.)

If growing secularity were the cause of the distress and dysfunction afflicting America, we could expect to find the world’s most secular societies in even worse straits. We don’t. As Phil Zuckerman has written, the happiest, healthiest countries on this planet tend to be the most secular.

Of all the things I’ve heard said about our culture’s dominant religion, the most salient argument might be this: “The reason to follow Christianity is that it’s true.”

Some people can go there; some can’t. For those of us in the latter category, the task is not to feign or force belief, as if that were even possible, but to develop secular sources of meaning and transcendence.

Is that not what we see in secular circles? Humanist groups and other nonreligious communities are sprouting and growing every day, along with other secular projects that fuel our quest to think deeply about this thing called life and live it more deeply.

It’s not as though only the religious can form communities, provide emotional support, serve people in need, engage in activism for a better world, cultivate ethics and values, advance knowledge and wisdom, explore life’s big questions, and do the countless other things that sustain life and make it richer.

Seculars can do all this, too. Often better.

Sorry, Pascal. For the not-now and never-gonna-be believers, that’s the smart wager.

Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...