Americans of all stripes have grown accustomed to the idea that the United States, whether good or bad, is fundamentally “Christian” in its outlook– an idea that can now be declared to be completely wrong. My childhood in New York in the 1980’s indicated that the Christianity my mother surrounded me with was already seriously on the decline, and the America we live in is barely nominally Christian, though anecdotal suspicion makes for poor proof. However, that suspicion was largely confirmed by the results of a 7-year study involving a cross-section of the entire U.S and over 75,000 respondents. The truth about America is — if you add all the Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants and sectarians together– that the country is a little over 50% “Christian”. And in many of the largest metropolitan areas, including the largest (the New York Metropolitan Statistical Area) Christians are in fact already a minority. In fact, the America we live in is “post-Christian”, as the study so refers– or as I refer to it, practically atheist.
Answering Some Assumptions
Before we delve deeper into the study’s results, there are a few things we have to get out of the way. First off, I do not see the above paragraph as a negative or positive: I see it as a reality that we have to work with. Inflated statistics are no better than negative ones, and in fact are worse because they are dishonest propaganda. The rise of practical atheism among the next generation is the direct result of the teaching of this generation. No, the internet did not make millennials and Generation Z more atheist. Their parents did.
The strongest unit of the Church has always been the family, and when the family unit was decimated by the Baby Boomers and Generation X, faith was the first thing to go. In fact, ingrained into our educational systems is the myth that science and religion have always been in conflict– a falsehood created during the early American era and spread by people of no less stature than Washington Irving— and the fact that parents did not provide answers to the propaganda they allowed their children to be subjected to is where blame lies. Further, from an Orthodox standpoint, Orthodox Christian leaders (and this includes– and perhaps even more strictly condemns– True Orthodox) have done a terrible job when it comes to apologetics against atheism due to the rise of ecumenism (leading to shucking apologetics altogether), which further cemented the indifference and emotionalism of practical atheism today. This must be corrected.
“Come On, it can’t be That Bad!”
In some ways, the latest Pew numbers from 2015 on religion can provide some comfort to Orthodoxy in general, though in reality such comfort is actually an illusion, a sort of buffer akin to noting that you’re heading towards water when your plane stops working at an altitude of 9,000 feet. The Pew statistics are much rosier, making Post-Christian America only 30% of the country, and a majority of the young. While that itself should be alarming, it is not for most people, and Orthodox can be comforted that their numbers, along with the Roman Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have risen somewhat among the younger populace. The real problem is that this is not dealing with the rate of replacement that America’s historic Orthodox Churches are built on– because most Orthodox Churches in America were mistakenly built upon the rate of immigration.
Combining American assimilation with a 20th century commitment to ecumenism, three generations of children were born without a solid spiritual foundation (1920-1965) and 1965 was right about the time when Americans started having smaller families because we were going to destroy the earth or something. Look no further to understand why our giant 100-year old Orthodox Churches outside the major metropolitan areas are increasingly empty. You cannot build a Church based solely on immigration (it’s not stopping the Roman Catholics from trying though— but in the meantime, you can buy some closed Roman Churches at a great price!) People must have solid faith to pass on to their children.
So what is the awful truth about the statistics?
Over seven years, the Barna Group, an information-gathering company focused on the intersection between faith and society, conducted a detailed survey of the religious beliefs of Americans. Unlike the Pew statistics, the Barna Group did not simply ask about religious affiliation, but used a sixteen-point checklist in their polling to determine the actual beliefs of those polled. Rather than simply check off denominational positions, questions about whether the polled believed God existed, whether there were errors in the Bible, how many times the polled went to Church or even prayed were presented. The checklist allowed the pollsters to make a more more concrete understanding of actual religious beliefs of those polled. If a person answered antithetically to basic Christian practices and beliefs in nine out of the sixteen points, their position was regarded as post-Christian, or as I have called it for years, practical atheist. The results were shocking. While I was alerted to this research by a Daily Caller article making the argument that religion informed political affiliation, the reality is that Trump was certainly not elected on his religious principles. The study listed the 100 “least Christian” areas based on Nielsen market distribution, which roughly corresponds to the government’s list of Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA’s).
The first thing I noticed was that the largest market, the New York area market, was already majority “post-Christian”. Of course, some may argue that New York is an amoral hellhole but the reality is that growing up there meant I got to see just how big Churches like the Roman Catholic Church were quite full there– and I was already seeing the beginning of the end as the Papal Bishops could do nothing about the “Piss Christ” exhibit or ACT-UP protesters profaning the Eucharist in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A comparison of Catholicism as a bellwether in 1981 with 2017 is simply unimaginable if you weren’t there.
So I decided to look at precisely how irreligious in general the top 20 MSA’s were on aggregate. I gathered the population data from Wikipedia: the top 20 MSA’s represent approximately 122.6 million people, or a little over a third of the entire country. I then matched it up to Barna’s data points and divided the result by 20.
The largest cross-section of the United States is 44.45% post-Christian, or practical atheist. Your chance, walking down the street, of a person not being a Christian of any sort, is just under 50/50 and growing.
America isn’t Christian, and the numbers prove it.
So what now?
Practical Conclusion #1: The Lot Option
A lot has been said about the popular book The Benedict Option, which argues that Christians should basically opt out of society. I’d argue that as Orthodox we’re already marginalized, and what this data says is that major cities are no longer smart areas for Orthodox Christians to raise families. Besides the fact that outside influences are far worse in the major cities, we are witnessing unprecedented societal deconstruction. In this sense, the smart thing to do is to get out. While there are other good economic reasons to do so, getting out makes a huge difference. Even an escape to a smaller region within the MSA can be helpful. Why I chose Lot as opposed to St Benedict should be obvious to the reader.
Practical Conclusion #2: It’s Time to Get Real on Marriage
Studies show that religious intermarriage is becoming increasingly common, and this usually leads to children who have no genuine concept of family spirituality. But we need to go further with these data points– one logical conclusion is that just because someone says they are Orthodox, that runs the risk of not meaning a thing (meeting them in Church is completely different, however). People need to go back to marrying inside Orthodoxy (and no, I’m not against people in small missions heading to bigger Churches to meet people, because from a marriage standpoint, True Orthodox and World Orthodox people mostly do the same things and can usually survive just fine in the same house.)
Relationships, if they aren’t based on a genuine confluence of faith, usually end up leaving one party telling him or herself to “fake it till you make it” in the hopes of it working out. Statistically, it will not because of a lack of shared ideals: marriage has become so hyper-sexualized people aren’t even checking if they have a genuine similarity in personality anymore, and one’s faith is a big marker (it goes without saying two practical atheists or post-Christians marrying each other can theoretically also work, since neither party cares about their “faith,” but then comes the question of a shared moral compass.) Now, I’m not saying all mixed marriages fail. They don’t, if one party is unconcerned about the other party dominating with their religious positions. What I am saying is that this is rare, so when looking for a spouse, it should be advised that such should be avoided.
Practical Conclusion #3: Challenge New Atheism; the Problem of Sts Cyril and Methodius
One of the by-products of the era we live in is that the myth of the “genius atheist versus the illiterate Christian peasant” is basically dead. New atheism is based on emotional appeals and logical leaps that would make any philosopher born before 1950 vomit. Most subscribers to New Atheism basically grew up not going to church with parents making excuses why they didn’t, which basically became the religion of the child. It is time to begin answering the deluded on their terms and introduce their children to the fascinating world of the ancient and true Church. The main excuse one encounters from Orthodox (including, if not especially, clergy) for not engaging atheists is because they try to argue that they don’t have to believe in a God they can’t see. Well, guess what? They can see you, so make the case right from the beginning. (For the record, the strongest arguments I’ve discovered are the arguments concerning intangibles such as love or feelings, and the hypocrisy of the rising simulation theory.) And scientism can easily be answered with real science and the testimonies of real scientists. The reality is that we are dealing with an America that is largely completely unchurched, like the pagan cultures that Sts Cyril and Methodius dealt with. And like Sts Cyril and Methodius, there may be no success in our lifetimes. But we have to try. Even if it means you have to read more.
Practical Conclusion #4: Watch Out For the State
If America is largely non-Christian, that means the founding fathers and religion that conservatives have harped on about for years are largely meaningless. If atheism is in control in a democracy, that means the mob can turn on you. (Yes, I said democracy. The republic as a republic is increasingly becoming an illusion.) So decouple yourself from the state in any way possible. Stop suggesting marriage licenses. Question how valuable your tax exemption is. Get out of government programs that try to control your behavior. Avoid the welfare state– studies show that in areas with high government subsidy, people with money donate less. The state is increasingly based upon thievery. Do your best to avoid ever having to rely on it. Create the network of Christians and Christian allies you should have been doing from the beginning if you haven’t already. As a president from another time once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
For Orthodox Christians in America, never have such words been so true as in 2017.