Secular

Christian Nation vs. Secular Country?

AS WE SWING into the 2016 presidential campaign, we Americans can be certain of at least one thing: We will be treated to another round of very public arguments about the role of religion in our republic. If this were a boxing match, and if past patterns persist, the title of the bout would be Christian Nation vs. Secular Country. The sides, more eager to mobilize their own than have a conversation with the other, will happily seek to bludgeon one another.

Thankfully, a number of writers have set out to complicate this picture in a way that adds both color and hope. Peter Manseau’s One Nation, Under Gods and Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Quran are beautifully written accounts of our interfaith country. By interfaith, I mean both that there were people of different faith persuasions present from our earliest days, and that they constantly bumped into one another as they established their communities and sought to build up this country.

That interaction often went badly—the Salem witch trials, the anti-Catholic Know Nothing party, and present day anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are just some examples. As Manseau writes, “The story of how a global array of beliefs came to occupy the same ocean-locked piece of land is more often one of violence than of toleration.”

But there are inspiring threads of pluralism in the American tapestry as well. As Manseau puts it, “the repeated collision of conflicting systems of belief, followed frequently by ugly and violent conflict, has somehow arrived, again and again, not merely at peaceful coexistence but at striking moments of inter-influence.”

Both of these books display the full fabric.

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The Problem with Creating ‘Christian’ Versions of Things

Photo via Fotocafe Photography / RNS

A collection of Julia Chew is showcased during 2015 Christian Fashion Week. Photo via Fotocafe Photography / RNS

If someone offered you the chance to live in a world designed to look and feel like the real one, but is actually a tidier, more ordered Stepford-ish facsimile, would you take it? For many Christians today, the answer appears to be yes.

Call it Newton’s Third Law of modern Christianity, but for every event, there appears to be an equal and opposite corresponding Christian event. There are Christian music festivals and book festivals; Christian versions of TED Talks; the upcoming International Christian Film Festival in Orlando, Fla.; and earlier this month, even a Christian Fashion Week.

While it might seem tempting for Christians to lock themselves away in anti-secular bubbles, where they could wear nothing but Christian clothing and eat nothing but Christian food (Chick-fil-A, I’m guessing?), the ramifications of doing so are polarizing at best, and deeply destructive at worst.

Just look at the recent spate of religious freedom laws being passed around the country. Regardless of whether you view the RFRAs as discriminatory or necessary, the nut of their existence essentially boils down to separateness.

At their core, they are laws designed to keep one group of people from being forced to interact with another.

Secularism Grows as More U.S. Christians Turn ‘Churchless’

“Unchurched Adults Are More Likely To Be…,” graphic courtesy of Barna Group/RNS.

If you’re dismayed that one in five Americans (20 percent) are “nones” — people who claim no particular religious identity — brace yourself.

How does 38 percent sound?

That’s what religion researcher David Kinnaman calculates when he adds “the unchurched, the never-churched and the skeptics” to the nones.

He calls his new category “churchless,” the same title Kinnaman has given his new book. By his count, roughly four in 10 people living in the continental United States are actually “post-Christian” and “essentially secular in belief and practice.”

If asked, the “churchless” would likely check the “Christian” box on a survey, even though they may not have darkened the door of a church in years.

Kinnaman, president of the California-based Barna Group, slides them into this new category based on 15 measures of identity, belief and practice in more than 23,000 interviews in 20 surveys.

The research looked at church worship attendance and participation, views about the Bible, God and Jesus, and more to see whether folks were actually tied to Christian life in a meaningful way or tied more by habit or personal history.

Atheist Coalition Wants You to Know They Are ‘Openly Secular’

The Secular Coalition for America is a partner of the 'Openly Secular' campaign. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A new coalition of atheists, humanists and other nonreligious groups is taking a page from the gay rights movement and encouraging people to admit they are “openly secular.”

The coalition — unprecedented in its scope — is broadening a trend of reaching out to religious people and religious groups by making the secular label a catchall for people who are not religious.

“We wanted to rise above who is an atheist, who is an agnostic, who is a humanist, who is a secular Jew,” said Todd Stiefel, founder of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation and a main force behind the coalition. “This needed to be about something everyone could rally behind so we intentionally used the word secular because it was one thing we could all agree on.”

The campaign, “Openly Secular: Opening Minds, Changing Hearts,” was unveiled at the 65th annual gathering of the Religion Newswriters Association here on Sept. 20. It includes a website, resources for families, employers and clergy, and a YouTube channel featuring both prominent and rank-and-file nonbelievers announcing their names followed by the declaration, “I am openly secular.”

In Mixed Faith Marriages, Focus Is on 'Values,' Not 'Beliefs'

Dale McGowan’s most recent book, “In Faith and In Doubt.” Religion News Service photo courtesy of Dale McGowan.

If interfaith marriages are supposedly doomed, Dale McGowan’s should have been toe-tagged from the start.

He’s a committed atheist; his wife comes from a line of Southern Baptist preachers. Yet 23 years and three kids later, they are still happily married.

What’s their secret? McGowan, 51, has just written “In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families,” to help other couples considering what he calls a “religious/nonreligious mixed marriage” succeed.

“The key is to talk about your values,” McGowan said from his home in Atlanta. “A lot of time we mix up the words ‘values’ and ‘beliefs.’ Beliefs are what you think is true about the universe. Is there a God? Where do we go when we die? But values are what you believe are important and good. When you get couples talking about values they find out they share a tremendous amount, even if they don’t share beliefs.”

That’s what McGowan and his wife, Becca, did. While she believed in one God, she did not believe salvation could be had only through belief in Jesus. And he agreed that he could go to church with her — and did, for many years, with their children.

Losing My Religion

RECENT POLLS SUGGEST that America’s vaunted religiosity is slipping, including the percentage of people willing to identify themselves as evangelicals. At the same time, the percentage of avowed secularists has risen. A movement calling itself the “New Atheism”—those adamantly opposed to religion—has attracted a considerable following.

The oracles of this movement—including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens—deny any possibility of the supernatural, assert that religious belief is irrational, and posit that religion has caused untold evil and suffering throughout history. Because of their dogmatism and their refusal to countenance views other than their own, I refer to these people as “secular fundamentalists.”

Hard data may be elusive, but the latest generation of American young people is much less religious than the last, and the growing secularism they represent could be a byproduct of the polarizing effect of the Religious Right. With evangelical fundamentalism being the dominant and most public form of U.S. Christianity over the last generation, young seekers would rather turn away from all religion than adapt to the harsh expression of faith that excludes so many of their peers and often stands against their aspirations for fairness and equality.

Religious fundamentalism has tainted the reputation of Christianity. For many, unbelief has become more palatable than belief, if believing requires an embrace of the distortions that have so characterized U.S. Christianity over the last several decades.

What prompted the emergence of this New Atheism or secular fundamentalism? What historical forces contributed to its rise? The roots of this phenomenon go back more than three decades—to the political mobilization of a different species of fundamentalism that became the movement commonly known as the Religious Right.

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Behind the Numbers: Religious 'Nones' May Not Be Who You Think They Are

Atheists and unbelievers gathered March 24, 2012 on the National Mall for the Reason Rally. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner.

In recent surveys, the religious “nones” — as in, “none of the above” — appear to lead in the faith marketplace. In fact, “none” could soon be the dominant label U.S. adults pick when asked to describe their religious identity.

But they may not be who you think they are. Today, “nones” include many more unbranded believers than atheists, and an increasingly diverse racial and ethnic mix.

And, researchers say, this is already making nones’ attitudes and opinions less predictably liberal on social issues.

A Year After Losing Faith, Atheist Pastor Finds a New Calling

This Easter, Teresa MacBain will mark an anniversary that’s uncommon for an ordained  minister — her first year as an atheist.

Last March, MacBain, now 45, stood at a podium before hundreds of people in a Maryland hotel ballroom at the national convention of American Atheists and told them that, after a lifetime as a Christian and 15 years as a pulpit pastor, she had lost her faith.

Her coming out was national news, and she expected it would cost her her position as pastor of a United Methodist church, and she expected she might lose some friends and family members. In the last year, she has lost all those things.

But there have been gains, too, including a new career, the embrace of a new community that she had been taught to distrust and a newfound sense of confidence.

Court Upholds Indiana’s Ban on Secular Wedding Officiants

Photo: Marriage license, © MNStudio / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Marriage license, © MNStudio / Shutterstock.com

A federal court in Indiana has rejected atheists' requests to preside at wedding ceremonies, saying only clergy or public officials are licensed to solemnize marriages.

A lawsuit filed by the Indiana chapter of the Center for Inquiry argued that an Indiana law that requires marriages to be “solemnized” — made official by signing a marriage license — only by clergy, judges, mayors or local government clerks violates the Constitution.

But Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled on Nov. 30 that marriage has religious roots. Therefore, government regulation of marriage is an act of religious accommodation — not endorsement — and protected by the Constitution.

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