Thursday, October 25, 2018

Interview from the Archive: David Niose says that old "'Christian nation' assertion was never valid", explains why

Editor's note: This article was originally published in March 2017.

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

"The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center," the organization reported in May 2015, when its most recent report about faith -- or lack thereof -- in our country was published.

Pew continued: "Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages."

Specifically, the Center noted that "(b)etween 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the population fell from 78.4% to 70.6%, driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. The unaffiliated experienced the most growth, and the share of Americans who belong to non-Christian faiths also increased."

One can imagine how much farther this number has fallen since 2014. Like it or not, America is in the midst of serious cultural change.

David Niose has much to say about this.

He is, as his profile at Psychology Today explains, "an attorney who has served as president of two Washington-based humanist advocacy groups, the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America. He is author of Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans and Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason. He currently serves as legal director of the AHA."

Niose is the man behind Our Humanity, Naturally, a PT blog which the publication says "presents issues of life, society, and philosophy from the naturalistic standpoint of Humanism. A progressive philosophy of positive values without dogma and superstition, Humanism is becoming more prevalent among those concerned about anti-intellectual and dysfunctional trends in modern society."

Niose recently spoke with me about many issues pertaining to the shifting sands of American religious life. Some of our conversation is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: Many people claim that America is a "Christian nation". Very often, this idea is supported by the claim that our founding fathers created the Constitution on theological grounds. As time goes by, however, this assertion seems to hold less and less authority. Why might that be?

David Niose: The “Christian nation” assertion was never valid. Just by reading the Constitution we can see that the document is not grounded in any theology. There is no mention of God in its text, and the only reference to religion in the original document is in Article 6, which assures that there shall be no religious test for holding public office. If there is theological grounding—let alone Christian grounding specifically—that grounding is as invisible as God. As anyone who has studied the framers knows, the Constitution is nonreligious because the values underlying it come not from theology but from the secular philosophical roots of the Enlightenment. Reason and empiricism, not Christianity, were central to their thinking in trying to create a more perfect union.

Now, with that said, it can be instructive to compare the country at the time of its founding to today’s America. As I point out in my book Nonbeliever Nation, in the founding era the country was much more religiously homogeneous than it is today. About 98 percent of the population was not just Christian, but Protestant. John Adams once said he was glad that Catholics were “as rare as a comet or an earthquake” in New England. The point is, it was once possible to say that almost all Americans identified as Christian, even Protestant specifically, but that certainly isn’t the case today. With more than one in four Americans now identifying as non-Christian, the “Christian nation” claim is plainly invalid.

Cotto: While the majority of Americans still identify with Christianity in one form or another, church attendance has decreased rapidly over the last several years. Meanwhile, the amount of those describing themselves as secular has skyrocketed. At the same time, the communal aspect of religious observance relates to a deep human need for social bonding. How is this yearning often satisfied in a secular environment?

Niose: Humans are social animals and there’s no question that social connections are very important to us, but modern society provides opportunities for connection in numerous ways. Nonreligious people still have their families and friends, for example, and of course we have careers, groups of all types that we belong to, and no shortage of opportunities to connect with others. Unlike earlier times, when life was more insular and church was central to social life, the world is so connected today that one can find others with common interests very easily, just by doing a little searching online. Years ago, you were very much defined socially by the religious group or church to which you belonged, but that simply isn’t the case anymore.

Cotto: Perhaps the biggest direct contributing factor to secularism in our country is that Roman Catholicism is losing laity at a gargantuan rate. According to the latest Pew study, for each convert to this religion, roughly seven members depart. That has created the situation in which an estimated one out of eight Americans is a former member of the Roman Church. With regard to America's religious landscape, what can be learned from the implosion of Roman Catholicism?

Niose: There are numerous layers to this question. The obvious catalyst for many of the woes of contemporary Catholicism is the sex abuse scandal. A pedophilia epidemic is never good for business. Besides that, however, there is the reality of an institution that struggling to maintain credibility in the environment of the modern world. The church is proudly patriarchal, for example, at a time when women have attained some measure of equality. Catholicism is doctrinaire and dogmatic at a time when even ordinary people with average education levels are willing and able to question doctrine and dogma. If you think of Catholicism as a meme, you’d have to say it hasn’t adapted well to the changing environment—though, to be fair, it still survives.

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