Monday, June 11, 2007

How religious are we?

There's a spate of new books out about the new (?) American dispensation for religion and its ever-growing, ever-nefarious influence on our lives. Sam Harris's The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great.

Over at The Nation, Ronald Aronson is thinking about what these books mean in the grand scheme of the American political and religious landscape. What these books signify, among other things, is that Americans are not happy with the new political and cultural paradigm that is being foisted on it from above. But if Americans are not happy with it, then why is it happening? I can count on a single hand the number of truly pious religious zealots that I know, and yet it seems as if their influence is huge, and getting bigger. Is it simply that I, in my ivory tower, don't interact with the pious masses? Or is, perhaps, that the entire face of the Christian Right is exaggerated?

That is, essentially, what I have always believed. Aronson makes a good point here. He argues that surveys how religious Americans are are tainted by the "'social desirability effect,' in which respondents are reluctant to give an unpopular answer in a society in which being religious is the norm." It's a good point, and one that I think really ought to be taken seriously. After all, how religious are Bill O'Reily and Sean Hannity? Or, for that matter, the contenders for the presidency? Are they not all pandering--performing their religiosity? Who among the talking heads and arbiters of culture has not suddenly found Jesus in the last couple of years?

Aronson musters some really compelling stats by looking both at surveys and analyzing the (bad) ways in which they are conducted. According to him, as many as 1 in 4 Americans does not believe in God.

Consider the following:

- a recent Harris American poll shows that 31 percent of those with postgraduate education do not avow belief in God. (<-- booya!)

- Twenty-four percent say that President Bush talks too much about his religious faith and prayer

- 28 percent deny that the United States is a Christian nation.

- 49 percent believe that Christian conservatives have gone too far "in trying to impose their religious values on the country."

Say what you will about the quality, tone, and efficacy of the new group of anti-religious books on the market, they mean something, and we do well to weigh that.

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