Finding a Place for God

Atlantic contributors from throughout the past century question the value of religion in a scientific world.

In the Atlantic’s March issue, theologian Alan Wolfe takes up the question of religion’s future. Is the world becoming more religious—or less? And will there be an increase—or a decrease—in religious violence in the years to come? Wolfe suggests that in fact we are likely heading toward a less religious future, because, as he explains, fast as religion may appear to be spreading these days, “both secularism and secularly inspired ways of being religious are spreading just as rapidly—maybe even more so.” 

Historians may one day look back on the next few decades, not as yet another era when religious conflicts enveloped countries and blew apart established societies, but as the era when secularization took over the world.

Of course, this is not the first time that the imminent arrival of a secular age has been predicted. Indeed, over the course of The Atlantic’s history, numerous writers have debated whether we are heading toward a more secular or a more religious future, and whether one development or the other would be for the best.

As early as 1912, a churchgoer named Meredith Nicholson took up the question of religion’s relevance to modern life. In “Should Smith Go to Church?,” the author explored the dilemma of “Smith,” an average American living in an age ruled by science and industry. Over the course of his own lifetime, Nicholson pointed out, churchgoing had gone from the norm to the exception:

I remember distinctly that in my boyhood people who were not affiliated with some church were looked upon as pariahs and outcasts … Yet in the same community no reproach attaches to-day to the non-church-going citizen. A majority of the men I know best, in cities large and small, do not go to church. Most of them are in no-wise antagonistic to religion; they are merely indifferent.

So what could the church do, then, to reassert its value in Smith’s life? Interestingly, Nicholson’s proposed solution sounds not unlike the popular megachurches of today. The church, he suggested, should do away with any minor points of doctrine separating one branch of Protestantism from another; instead, all separate denominations should join forces to create one “unified church.” Moreover, he argued, the church should not confine itself to theology but offer a lively social scene and events every day of the week:

Not only should body and soul be cared for in the vigorous institutional church, the church of the future, but there is no reason why theatrical entertainments, concerts, and dances should not be provided …
By introducing amusements, the institutional church … would not only meet a need, but it would thus eliminate many elements of competition…. The doors should stand open seven days in the week …
Certainly there is little in the present state of American Protestantism to afford comfort to those who believe that a one-day-a-week church, whose apparatus is limited to a pulpit in the auditorium, and a map of the Holy Land in the Sunday-school room, is presenting a veritable, living Christ to the hearts and imaginations of men.

Two months later, a response to Nicholson’s article, penned by an author identifying himself only as “an outsider,” argued that Smith should not in fact go to church. After all, the author contended, if the religious beliefs with which Smith was raised no longer felt true or compelling to him, then there was no sense in holding on to them. Rather than attempting to lure Smith to church or maligning him for his apostasy, religious folk, he argued, would do better to “leave Smith in peace, so long as he is a good man.”

The following year, an author named William Gamble took up the question, “Religion: A Function or a Phase of Human Life?” Gamble suggested that religion, then under attack by some as an impediment to reason and progress, was like poetry: one had to accept certain conventions and suspensions of logic to enjoy the benefit:

We trust art to justify her usefulness; and art weaves her charms, and leads us to regions unmoral and unscientific; still we trust her, and at last she brings us back to the solid world of reality and experience, and we learn that art does not contradict truth, and that she actually in herself is productive … But we do not trust religion to justify herself; we give her little or no opportunity to prove her productiveness. We yield to religious influence as to some foible of which we are rather ashamed.

As the years progressed, the sacred role of religion seemed to wane. In a 1932 piece titled “What College Did to My Religion,” a contributor named Philip Wentworth described how his time at Harvard during the 1920s had persuaded him to abandon his faith. It was during his college years that the nationally publicized Scopes monkey trial had unfolded in Tennessee. Like many of his peers, he explained, he had found himself put off by the rigid dogmatism displayed by those who had taken a schoolteacher to court for teaching evolution. Over time, he recalled, the rational scientific arguments of his own teachers dissolved his long-held belief in a “God of magic.”

Before I went to college I was thoroughly at home in a universe which revolved about the central figure of an omnipotent Deity. In Cambridge I was suddenly plunged into another world. I found myself breathing a wholly different atmosphere. My teachers spoke a new language; their words were familiar enough, but the import of them was strange to me. It was essentially a difference in attitude and point of view …
In the course of time the impact of new knowledge, and especially knowledge of science and the scientific method, wrought great havoc with my original ideas. All things, it seemed, were subject to the laws of nature … In such an orderly universe there seemed to be no place for a wonder-working God.

A decade later, in “Will the Christian Church Survive?,” Bernard Iddings Bell, an Episcopalian minister serving as the warden of St. Stephen’s College (now Bard College), took a stand against what he saw as a dangerous trend toward secularism. Godlessness was growing he warned. And its foundations, he wrote, “are pride, ambition, desire to dominate, lust for the world’s goods.” Not through compromise with nonbelievers, he argued, but only through a return to religious traditionalism would the church persevere. He called for a revival of Christian principles to oppose secularism’s “self-blinded humanity,” and contended that the Church’s own inertia should be held to account for its increasing obsolescence:

The great mass of Christian people remain complacent, unaware both that the position of the Church in contemporary society is humiliating and that the cause of that humiliation is their own timid compromise with a secularism inconsistent with tenets the holding and advancement of which are the Church's chief reason for being …
Christians, like Christ, must again be willing to lay down their lives in defiance of the mores of the world. The future of the Church, under God, lies in no other hands than its own.

In the 1950s, backlash against the defiant godlessness of Communism and an ostentatiously faith-oriented presidential administration did somewhat turn the tide toward a new spirit of religiosity. In 1954, under God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1956, Congress declared “In God We Trust” the national motto.

In “Piety and Secularism in America” (November 1957), the theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr argued that secular and sacred tendencies in American life both played a significant and valuable role. [Because of copyright restrictions, this article cannot be reproduced in full.] “Here we are, in the Twentieth Century,” he wrote, “ at once the most religious and the most secular of Western nations.” Large numbers of Americans, he pointed out, were active and involved members of religious communities. And yet the typical American approach to life was a secular one, characterized by pragmatism—a devotion to efficiency and money-making, without serious attention to life’s larger questions.

America’s secular tendencies, he explained, had enabled its economy to become a powerhouse and its technology to advance by leaps and bounds. But having made such worldly strides, many Americans were now turning once again to religion because they were finding that they had deeper psychic needs that not even prosperity, advanced science, or sophisticated philosophy could address:

It is because a philosophy of the enlightened mind and a civilization of great technical power cannot solve these ultimate problems of human existence that the frame of meaning established by the traditionally historic religions has become much more relevant to the modern man than seemed possible a century ago. There is in these religions a sense of mystery and meaning which outrages the canons of pure rationality but which makes “sense” out of life.

Even the system of government upon which American society was predicated, he noted, rested upon an inextricable combination of secular and religious foundations:

Political democracy depend[s] upon both piety and secularism, each contributing its characteristic insights to the organization of a free society. Secularism furnishe[s] the immediate and proximate goals of justice and prevent[s] religion from confusing immediate with final goals of life and thus developing its own idolatries. Piety [gives] the individual a final authority which enable[s] him to defy tyrannical political authority.

Thirty years later, in “Can We Be Good Without God?,” the political scientist Glenn Tinder echoed Niebuhr’s sentiments, arguing that religion played a crucial role in the moral functioning of a liberal democracy. “Only in modern times,” he wrote, “has it come to be taken for granted that politics is entirely secular. The inevitable result is the demoralization of politics.” Indeed, for a government to commit itself fully to looking after the welfare of all—including the weak, the powerless, and the undesirable—it had to be grounded, he argued, in a belief in God’s merciful love for all.

But what does “belief in God” really imply?  In “Is God an Accident?” (December 2005), the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom suggested that religious faith may in fact be little more than a function of the wiring of the human brain. As an evolutionary adaptation, he explained, humans had become quite good at making connections and finding patterns and meanings to make sense of the world and navigate social interactions. This tendency had become so highly developed that it caused humankind to read spiritual and religious meanings and intentions into the surrounding environment:

We see purpose, intention, design, even when it is not there ... People have a terrible eye for randomness. If you show them a string of heads and tails that was produced by a random-number generator, they tend to think it is rigged—it looks orderly to them, too orderly. After 9/11 people claimed to see Satan in the billowing smoke from the World Trade Center ...
Nobody is born with the idea that the birthplace of humanity was the Garden of Eden, or that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, or that martyrs will be rewarded with sexual access to scores of virgins. These ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.

Bloom’s basic conclusion—that religion is inextricably bound with human existence—echoed a point made by David Brooks in his 2003 Atlantic article, “Kicking the Secularist Habit.” Like Bloom, Brooks urged his readers to accept that religion was not going to disappear anytime soon: in many parts of the world, religious sentiment was running as high as it ever had—or higher. But to Brooks, the persistence of religion was no accident or aberration. Instead, he urged nonbelievers to start thinking of religious people as normal and view themselves as peculiar creatures to be studied under a microscope. Only then, he argued, would they come to an accurate understanding of the world they lived in:

First you have to accept the fact that you are not the norm. Western foundations and universities send out squads of researchers to study and explain religious movements. But as the sociologist Peter Berger has pointed out, the phenomenon that really needs explaining is the habits of the American professoriat: religious groups should be sending out researchers to try to understand why there are pockets of people in the world who do not feel the constant presence of God in their lives, who do not fill their days with rituals and prayers and garments that bring them into contact with the divine, and who do not believe that God’s will should shape their public lives.
Once you accept this—which is like understanding that the Earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa—you can begin to see things in a new way.