Religious Confusion In Postmodern America

Sep 14th, 2019 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The practice of personal faith is based on one’s knowledge about God, His revelation and His redemptive plan centered in Jesus Christ.  But in this Postmodern, Post-Christian era, religion has deteriorated into a matter of experiential, autonomous choice, not revelation.  Compared to Western European countries, America remains a highly religious country.  But religiosity does not equal sound doctrinal convictions.  One of my favorite authors today is sociologist Christian Smith, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.  Smith has authored a series of books that superbly analyze the culture of American teens and emerging adults (18-30 years of age).  In his 2005 study, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Smith summarizes the worldview of America’s teen culture.  This worldview surfaced during a series of broad-based surveys and interviews conducted by Smith and his research team.  In my view, the results of this study also summarize the larger worldview of the broader American culture as well.

Smith’s general thesis about teenage religion and spirituality in America is that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary US teenagers and young adults is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  The research of Smith and his team focused on how this group of Americans view God, their religious habits and practices, how they interact with those who are a part of their own faith tradition, and how they view prayer, church attendance, discipleship, youth group and other religious/spiritual exercises.  This de facto creed is particularly evident among mainline Protestant and Catholic youth, but is also visible among black and conservative Protestants, Jewish teens and other religious types of teenagers.  MTD has five key elements:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

MTD is having a decidedly important influence on all levels of American religions reflected in this model.  A more inclusive, diverse and syncretistic religious dynamic is emerging in America.  The important and central doctrines of historic, biblical Christianity are being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness and an earned heavenly reward:  “Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.”

Additionally, two recent examples demonstrate the religious confusion within American civilization:

  • First, Washington Post reporter, Lateshia Beachum, recounts that “a newly elected single mother of two wanted her kids to walk away from her swearing-in with an empowering message. So instead of placing her hand on a Bible to take her oath of office as councilwoman for St. Louis County, Kelli Dunaway chose ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go!’ by Dr. Seuss. Her 5-year-old son, Liam, and her 7-year-old daughter, Bella, held the book in their small hands as their smiling mother was sworn into office  13.  It was a choice with personal meaning. Dunaway said her single mom was a coal miner who would say if she believed in herself and worked hard, Dunaway could achieve anything. ‘In my experience in life, that’s been true,’ the graduate of UCLA School of Law said . . .  The belief in one’s own ability, both from her mom and Dr. Seuss, pushed Dunaway to victory this year . . .  ‘My kids are my only family in St. Louis, and I wanted them to feel part of this,’ she said. ‘They’re making sacrifices to be part of public service, too, and [the book] has an empowering message.’  Dunaway said she’s seen a mixed bag of responses to her swearing in with a childhood classic, including those who are inspired by her making her own tradition to those who question whether she takes her role in office seriously.  ‘I understand it,’ she said. ‘A lot of people believe that without God, there can be no morality, and I just don’t agree with that.’  She said the part where Seuss writes, ‘You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes,’ has resonance with the public.   ‘You get to direct your own destiny. If that message can spread, it can change the world,’ she said. ‘Although we do have to get past the people who think I’m a heathen.’”

Dunaway’s choice for her swearing in manifests a religiosity void of any content or meaning—namely, a moralistic approach to life based on a children’s book by Dr. Seuss.  The tradition of taking an oath of office on the Bible signified that one saw this responsibility as a sacred trust validated by a sacred symbol—the Bible.  The Dr. Seuss book made her feel good and, she hopes, made her children feel good.  It was a moralistic, therapeutic choice, void of all theological meaning.

  • Second, a recent Pew Research Center study demonstrates that knowledge of religious beliefs/doctrines does not equate with deep-seated conviction and religious transformation. One can understand, but not embrace a life-changing belief. The study deals with the theological knowledge of the group now called the “nones,” the “religiously unaffiliated.”  Dalia Fahmy of the Pew Center reports that “Atheists, agnostics and those who describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular’ all fit into the broad category ‘religiously unaffiliated.’  But there are differences among them: Atheists and agnostics, for instance, know more about religion than those in the ‘nothing in particular’ group, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey designed to measure the U.S. public’s knowledge about a wide range of religious topics.”  Fahmy summarizes five key findings given by the religiously unaffiliated, also known as religious “nones”:
  1. Atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most other religious groups, while people who identify as “nothing in particular” are among the least knowledgeable. Out of 32 multiple-choice questions on the survey, atheists and agnostics get more than half right, on average (17.9 and 17.0 questions correct, respectively), while those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” get about a third correct (11.4 questions). This means that atheists and agnostics are among the highest scorers on the survey – along with Jews and evangelical Protestants – while those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” have some of the lowest scores. Americans overall get an average of 14.2 out of 32 questions right.
  2. Like other Americans, “nones” are fairly knowledgeable about some of the basics of Christianity.Majorities of atheists, agnostics and people who say their religion is “nothing in particular” know that Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus (and not the Crucifixion, Ascension to heaven or Last Supper). Majorities in all three groups also know that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity holds that there is one God in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Roughly three-quarters of religious “nones” in the U.S. were raised as Christians, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey.
  3. Atheists (and to a lesser extent, agnostics) are on a par with Catholics and Protestants in correctly answering questions about Catholicism and Protestantism. Seven-in-ten atheists and agnostics know that Catholicism teaches that purgatory is the place where souls are purified before entering heaven – about the same share as Catholics who correctly define purgatory (71%). And roughly half of atheists (47%) know that Catholicism teaches that the bread and wine used for Communion actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, equal to the 50% of Catholics who know this. When asked to pick the tradition (Protestantism, Catholicism, both or neither) that believes salvation comes through faith alone – a key Protestant teaching that’s known as “sola fide” – roughly equal shares of atheists (25%) and Protestants (28%) respond correctly. Among those whose religion is “nothing in particular,” just 39% answer the purgatory question correctly and 10% know that Protestantism teaches that salvation comes through faith alone.
  4. Atheists and agnostics are also among the most knowledgeable on questions that are notabout Christianity. Out of 13 questions in the survey about non-Christian world religions including Islam, Judaism and Hinduism, atheists correctly answer an average of 6.1 and agnostics get 5.8 right, compared with an average of about 4.3 among Americans overall. For example, eight-in-ten atheists and agnostics (78% each) know that Ramadan is an Islamic holy month, compared with half (51%) of U.S. adults in the “nothing in particular” category. Seven-in-ten atheists (69%) and agnostics (70%) know that yoga is most closely associated with Hinduism, compared with roughly half of those in the “nothing in particular” category (48%). And about four-in-ten atheists and agnostics (43% each) correctly state that the Kabbalah is most closely associated with Judaism, while roughly a quarter of “nothing in particulars” (23%) know this.  The only group that outperforms atheists and agnostics on the survey’s questions about world religions other than Christianity is Jews, who correctly answer an average of 7.7 of the survey’s 13 questions on these topics.
  5. Atheists are more likely than any other religious group to correctly answer the survey’s question about religion and the U.S. Constitution. About half of atheists (55%) correctly say that the Constitution specifies that “no religious test” is necessary to hold public office. That’s by far the highest correct response rate, ahead of agnostics (41%) and Jews (38%), while 23% of those in the “nothing in particular” category correctly answer this question. Just over a quarter of Americans overall (27%) get this question right, with many incorrectly stating that the Constitution requires federal officeholders to affirm that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights (15%), that the Constitution requires federal officeholders to be sworn in on the Holy Bible (12%), or that the Constitution says nothing about religion as it relates to federal officeholders (13%).

Doctrinal confusion and the shallowness of Postmodern autonomy pose a significant challenge for the Church of Jesus Christ.  Those of us who believe in the authority of God’s Word and in the centrality of sound doctrine must recommit ourselves to strong expository preaching, the proclamation of sound doctrinal truth, the defense of the trustworthiness of the Bible, and to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered” (Jude 3).

See Dalia Fahmy, “Among religious ‘nones,’ atheists and agnostics know the most about religion,” Pew Research Center (21 August 2019); Lateshia Beachum, “Why a county councilwoman was sworn into office on a Dr. Seuss book,” Washington Post (21 August 2019); and Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching:  The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, pp. 118-171.

Comments Closed

One Comment to “Religious Confusion In Postmodern America”

  1. Richard Pendell says:

    I found teaching at all 12 levels of public school, all references to Biblical persons places or events were completely foreign to nearly all students. The Burmese students were the only exception. Many carried their Bibles to school and were eager to explain Bible stories to others.