There is no way to put it gently: Christian religious adherence is rapidly declining in the United States. 2018 and 2019 Pew Research Center telephone surveys indicate that “65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percent over the past decade.” This decline in Christian religiosity is matched by an uptick in atheism and agnosticism, with Pew reporting that “the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.”
The trend of declining religiosity is not only an American issue. Christianity has fallen victim to a broader trend in the West, which started in Europe during World War I and World War II. And decreased religiosity is also affecting the non-Western world in places such as Japan and South Korea, where Christianity is not the only major religion.
It appears that the best predictor of organized religion’s decline is socioeconomic status. As societies get richer, they seem to become less religious. The irony here is that Christianity’s modern progeny—liberalism, which preaches equal rights and tolerance—actually appears to be engendering the decline of Christianity.
At face value, this seems to be a fine trade-off. Ditch Christianity with its commandments and responsibilities, and keep liberalism. After all, liberalism has been a major boon to humanity and can technically be operated under a completely secular environment. A short list of liberalism’s innumerable virtues include greatly increased living standards, life expectancy, autonomy of the individual, gender equality, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech, as well as the ability to possess private property and the democratization of education. Why not have your cake and eat it too?
However, the fruits from the tree of liberalism grow from the roots of Christianity. Uproot Christianity and you kill the positive components of liberalism. This linkage is lost on people who believe that the Enlightenment was a separation from Christianity, rather than an extension, and who proceed to erroneously assert that John Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers pulled the foundations of Western civilization from the aether, without any cultural conditioning. In fact, a successful liberal society is contingent on Christianity, and further declines in religiosity will endanger the health of liberal countries—including that of the United States.
Christianity as the Bedrock for Liberalism:
The argument that liberalism can exist separately from religion fails to appreciate the radical moral intuitions gained from Christianity, which are now taken for granted by citizens of the West. Consider that in the Book of Genesis, man and woman were made into the image of God. And in the New Testament, Jesus Christ died for all humans. Those two ideas are integral to our modern conceptions of justice and equality. As Apostle Paul beautifully put it, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The notion of the equality of souls is the wellspring for all of our moral progress, from past to present. This liberating truth is what has allowed us to throw off the shackles of our past prejudices.
Prior to the Christian revolution, most people did not believe that all men were created equal, possessing infinite worth. For example, Aristotle believed that certain humans were born slaves and lacked any capacity for virtue or rationality. And in the famous Code of Hammurabi, the value of a human life was unjustly determined by gender and social status. Under this non-Christian legal code, the punishment for the same crime ranged from death to a fine, depending upon the identity of the criminal. Without Christianity, the moral progress we have become so accustomed to enjoy would either be millennia away or impossible.
Since the moral matrix of liberalism—which promotes freedom for all, regardless of status—is predicated on the Christian doctrine of natural equality, it struggles to effectively function without the continuation of Christian religious adherence. As John Adams observed about our liberal republic, “[o]ur Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Freedom requires a moral populace. For liberalism to promote citizens’ well-being, the individuals who partake in the system must be restrained from their vices. When immoral behaviors are tolerated or promoted, our entire governing system becomes corrupted, no matter how pure it began. For the utility of liberalism to be maximized, morality must be prioritized.
The Moral Landscape Without Christianity:
Most immoral behavior can be attributed to greed and expediency—vices inherent to human nature, but pronounced under our individualistic, capitalist framework. In a broader sense, this results from the autonomy of the individual being the locus of importance in our society. Modern society’s individualistic tendencies breed a certain form of hedonism, which dissipates responsibility from the unit of family and community. In other words, strengthening the individual weakens the community, as people look primarily for what is beneficial to them, rather than for what is beneficial to their community. This myopic view retards progress as it fails to identify that the individual advances along with the community.
In short, when freedom is divorced from its necessary counterpart of responsibility, it can be a detriment.
One of the flaws inherent to the Western world is that capitalism rewards greed. Yet, like aggression, which can be used for attacking and protecting, greed also has a certain duality. Capitalism is built on the supposition that self-interest can be weaponized and harnessed toward the creation of products that members of a community want to buy, thereby increasing the capital of the producers who make the valuable products. This induces a positive feedback loop, in which producers with innovative capabilities harness their creative powers, in order to increase the living standards of the community.
This supposition has largely been realized, as human flourishing has exponentially increased since capitalism’s conception and application, and capitalism has proven itself to be the best economic theory known to man in regards to material prosperity. However, wealth-chasing does not always lead to net positive outcomes. When profit is God, individuals will sacrifice morals and their conscience to please it. This is why Jesus Christ said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
Unfortunately, history is full of examples of people straying from Jesus Christ’s guidance. The most obvious example is slavery, which acts as a stark reminder of the depths man will reach, in pursuit of material gain. And even after the abolition of slavery, history shows us that, as laws and norms evolve, so do the worshippers of profit. During the Gilded Age, workers made pitiful wages for grueling and dangerous work and were ultimately seen as expendable. If the workers attempted to improve their living standards by going on strike, their employers were often aided by the state or the federal government. Alternatively, employers hired their own thugs to violently break up the strikes. Another example of corrupt profit-seeking is the behavior of Sanford Dole, of the Dole Food Company, in Hawaii in 1893. With the help of the U.S. government, Dole overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy for its pineapples and sugar plantations. Similarly, the U.S. backed a coup in Guatemala, due to the United Fruit Company, which wanted to overthrow the government in pursuit of profit. This coup destabilized the country for years, leading to needless death and suffering. The lust for profit is the one constant in these varied historical events.
Today, corporations might not use such sinister means, but they nonetheless manipulate our biologies to squeeze wealth out of us. Currently, the outputs of greed and expedience are at their worst when they are coupled with the unnatural elements of our society—namely pornography, fast food, social media, and drugs. The lust for profit causes corporations to exploit our worst desires.
For example, our economy, which is built on consumerism, too often exploits women as sexual objects in one of its many efforts to sell us useless junk. The free market creates incentives for corporations to pursue profit, and the objectification of women is, sadly, profitable, making the free market a force acting contrary to social progress. Recently, some companies’ advertisements have improved in their portrayal of women, yet it has come about as the result of an unprofitable public outcry, rather than changed hearts.
Meanwhile, pornography—in which the objectification of women is quite blatant—has successfully slithered its way into the soul of our society. The predictable result has been an increasingly damaged male-to-female relationship, as men become worse partners. In response, women have been forced to lower their expectations of men, thereby destroying the best motivator that men would have to improve. The free market does nothing to rectify this problem. Instead, it promotes profitable behaviors that are difficult to resist, irrespective of the consequences.
Fast food is another problem exacerbated by today’s profit-driven system. Unhealthy food manipulates our brains’ reward systems to betray us. Such food induces pleasure and relaxation through dopamine and oxytocin neurotransmitters, which causes us to crave foods that are detrimental to our health. As a result, obesity is one of the leading causes of premature death in America. 42.4 percent of Americans were obese in 2017, due in large part to fast food. Despite the obvious negative health consequences of fast food, McDonald’s alone spent 1.5 billion dollars in advertising, during that same year. In our lightly regulated capitalist system, there is a cyclical manufacturing of harm. Companies, like McDonalds, advertise to gain profit, then profit from the advertising, resulting in a deleterious cycle that allows them to expand and grow, delocalizing their harm in the process.
Sadly, the exploitation of women, pornography, and fast food are only part of the problem. Social media companies, whose business model is predicated on attempting to capture a user’s attention for as long as possible by encouraging engagement, play an even more detrimental role in our lives. Facebook employees admit that their “algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” Social media has also given people the ability to create echo chambers, by allowing them to choose their source for the dissemination of news. Most people do not select the news sources that objectively inform them, but rather choose ones that confirm their biases, leading to the consumption of one-sided news and the creation of a multiplicity of “realities” where people of opposing viewpoints essentially live in different worlds. And when this occurs, polarization is the logical result. We now suffer from a conflicting set of irreconcilable “realities.” While social media has the latent potential to unify people across ideological boundaries by exposing them to conflicting ideas, it has failed due in large part to peoples’ propensity to tribalism and, worse, it has embraced this failure for the purposes of profit.
Finally, the primary reason for Americans’ decrease in life expectancy—the most tragic statistic in America—is opioids. A lawsuit in 2007 against one of the major manufacturers of opioids, Purdue Pharma, discovered that the corporation knew that opioids were addictive, but continued to manufacture and falsely market the drugs as “not addictive.” This has led to 128 people dying per day in America from opioid overdoses, vastly outnumbering other issues like police brutality, which gets an inordinate amount of airtime in the mainstream media.
How Would Christianity Fix Liberalism’s Ills?
Christianity would be the antidote to the ills inherent to liberalism. Whereas liberalism destroys communities by promoting selfishness, indulgence, and division, Christianity would rebuild a local sense of community. Whereas liberalism rewards greed, Christianity would remind people to remain virtuous in their pursuit of well-being and to share their success. Whereas liberalism allows people to abdicate responsibility, Christianity would encourage them to adopt a greater burden. Thus, we need a rebirth of Christianity to counteract the negative effects of capitalism and individualism, while preserving their beneficent powers.
Christianity, and religion in general, is vital to community cohesion. A study by Richard Sosis, a professor of humanistic anthropology at the University of Connecticut, found that the average life-span of a secular commune is 7.7 years, while the average life-span for a religious commune is 35.6 years. A vital function of religion is to unify people around a common belief structure, which in turn acts as the foundation for both cooperation and unity. When a secular belief structure attempts to emulate a religious belief structure, it fails. To maintain its own health, the community must embrace religious values that transcend the individual’s needs and desires.
The community that Christianity engenders also makes people less lonely and increases trust. In a study done on the intersection of trust, religion, and the sharing of money, researchers found that the human capital of trust—a major economic driver—increases when participants are religious. Another study found that religious people donate more often than secular individuals. And Dan Ariely, a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke University, found that people are more honest when exposed to “moral codes.” According to his research, both atheists and non-atheists alike are more honest when asked to recite the Ten Commandments. Christianity calls what is expedient sin and what is meaningful virtue—and, logically, this doctrine will produce a more moral citizenry.
Furthermore, human beings are innately religious, as proven by the primacy of meaning in our lives. If humans were innately materialistic rather than spiritual, our quest to attribute meaning to the cosmos would be silly. Instead, we constantly search for meaning, and this search is part of what makes us human. For this reason, getting rid of a sophisticated religious structure merely allows for an unsophisticated one to replace it with inferior incentives.
Christianity’s incentive structure is beneficial, precisely because it disincentivizes hedonism, while simultaneously promoting individual responsibility. By cultivating such responsibility, Christianity enables individuals to live more meaningful lives. The more responsibility people assume, the more meaningful their existences become.
It is thus no surprise that meaning is a vehicle for sustained well-being—which is why religious people tend to be both happier and healthier. Religion allows us to sustain our well-being, because its prescriptions give us the tools to delay our gratification in the present, in order to exponentially increase it in the future. In short, religion’s tools give us the power to transcend and see through the fog of our biology.
When it comes to determining the validity of Christianity, individuals must not look at whether the God of Abraham exists, but at whether Christianity is successful in producing an effective system that increases our well-being materially and spiritually. Christianity’s child, liberalism, has proven to be efficacious on the material front. However, liberalism needs to renew its commitment to its moral underpinning: Christianity.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.