Battling Rhetoric: Is the World Becoming Less Spiritual?

As detailed in the prior post, rhetorical phrases are often symptomatic of ideology--that is rhetorical phrases are used not to detail behavior or communicate beliefs but to establish arguments: If X is true, then Y must also be true.

Unfortunately, a common rhetorical argument in today's society is, "The world is becoming more secular and therefore less spiritual; consequently, the world needs more religion."

The first part of this statement is not true. (I tackle the second part below.)

The mistake often centers on the assumption that a state-religion or a homogeneous culture by default produces more spiritually-minded people. While one could argue that "spirituality" is not automatically tied to "church attendance," for the purposes of this post, I will connect the two.

Does a state-religion or homogeneous culture result in more church attendance and/or more sincere belief?


A substantial number of people in the past, including during the Middle Ages, did not go to church despite the expectations of the state. Even the Puritans suffered in this regard (and it is helpful to remember that the Puritans only required other Puritans to be faithful churchgoers; the Massachusetts Bay Colony was filled with non-Puritans who were not part of that covenant).

When Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America in the 1800s to observe American culture, he was stunned by the number of churches and by the fact that people attended them: it was so different from home! He praised religion as a positive influence on American politics; he also clarified that the number of "sects" ensured that positive influence:
In the United States, if a politician attacks a sect, this may not prevent the partisans of that very sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, everyone abandons him, and he remains alone.
[All the clergy I interviewed] attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point. 
In Europe, de Tocqueveille argued, religion and politics marched in opposite directions. Discussing religion in general, he distinguished the "habit" of religion from sincere belief. When "habit" and politics mix, the result is less than positive:
As long as a religion rests only upon those sentiments which are the consolation of all affliction, it may attract the affections of all mankind. But if it be mixed up with the bitter passions of the world, it may be constrained to defend allies whom its interests, and not the principle of love, have given to it; or to repel as antagonists, men who are still attached to it, however opposed they may be to the powers with which it is allied. The church cannot share the temporal power of the state without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter excites.
Hence, de Tocqueville argued, the power--and proliferation--of religion in a democracy. To those who worried about declining religious commitment in Europe, specifically France, he pointed to American democracy as a solution.

To put this in the most basic terms: separation of church and state plus competition ensures that more people will go to church--and believe in a theology--not less.

The Gallup Poll and/or the Gallup Poll for the Baylor Religion Surveys back up this lack of spiritual decline in the U.S.: weekly church attendance in the United States from 1974 to 2014 held steady at approximately 40%. Church attendance in the U.S. in the 1940s was slightly lower while the 1950s was something of a fluke with attendance in the high 40s. 66% of Americans in 2005 declared that "religion [is] important in my daily life."

40% is higher than church attendance in most European countries, including Greece, but not higher than in Ireland or Italy. 66% is also higher than in most European countries except, interestingly enough, than in Greece, Italy, and Portugal.

Japanese  Home Altar
For those wondering about the supposedly non-religious Japanese, although few go to church, 64% pray on certain occasions while 54% visit a temple regularly and 72% believe it is important to have spiritual beliefs.

The difficulty here is separating church attendance from spiritual belief and spiritual belief from a particular type of devotion/adherence.

In recent years, Americans expressing allegiance to specific denominations has decreased, prompting declarations of "decreasing spirituality"--however, atheism in America has remained steady (4% since 1944) and church attendance has not declined. The reason: Nondenominational Evangelical congregations have risen spectacularly (these are individual congregations that vary from liberal to conservative, tending more towards conservatism, under a broad Protestant umbrella).

Setting aside church attendance, in America in 2005, 74% of participants in the Gallup Poll said they believe God is directly involved in the world. The connection between church attendance and spirituality here again is iffy since I go to church regularly, have strong opinions about theology, and I'm not sure I would have answered yes to that question.

However, my limited experience backs up the claim that secular freedom aids in the growth of religious feeling and that spirituality is in fact increasing rather than decreasing. It is not simply that religion is discussed more in the political arena (a reality about which I have intense reservations), it is that I encounter more discussions of religion in my workplace and among my acquaintances than I did twenty years ago. Students discuss their local church services (see nondenominational congregations above); friends discuss wanting to belong to a religious community or belief system; co-workers sincerely reference God and prayers when discussing another co-worker's family difficulties. I would be remiss not to mention the growing number of immigrant Muslims and Christians who discuss faith in their essays and conversations in heartfelt and genuine ways.

Proclaiming that "secularism" is harming religion and the "world is getting less spiritual" is rhetoric, not truth. As Rodney Stark points out, it is rhetoric that originated in Ivory Tower academe, not in religious thought (although many religious people have adopted it). He points out, for instance, that in surveys about religion from the twentieth century, the academic survey planners did not include questions about the paranormal because they believed that modern people don't believe in the paranormal. When the surveys were revised by more objective scholars to include such questions, the results were astounding: "82 percent told Gallup in [2007], 'I am sometimes very conscious of the presence of God.'" 61% responded that they believe in angels, and 55% that they believe in guardian angels.

The solution regarding this piece of rhetoric is not to pour scorn on the latter part of the rhetorical argument--"therefore, the world needs more religion"--or argue that it is false (the world isn't going to give up religion, anyway). The solution is for religions (and, I should add, all institutions plus politicians) to abandon rhetorical devices that plead a "lack" in order to offer a "more."

This type of argument smacks of con-artistry. Besides, as both C.S. Lewis and Dieter F. Uchdorf point out, fear is a lousy way to bring people to a knowledge of God.

C.S. Lewis discussing joining a church: When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong, they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.

C.S. Lewis discussing tyranny: My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting [to impose "the good"] would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. (My emphasis.)

Dieter F. Uchdorf: It is true that fear can have a powerful influence over our actions and behavior. But that influence tends to be temporary and shallow. Fear rarely has the power to change our hearts, and it will never transform us into people who love what is right . . . People who are fearful may say and do the right things, but they do not feel the right things . . . Unfortunately, this misguided approach to life and leadership is not limited to the secular world.