This Friday, in my seminar on Law & Theology, we turn to a topic that is near and dear to my heart – the role of religion in public discourse. Although not all proponents of minimizing God talk in the public square seek to mold a secular society, some do. They argue that religion – particularly religion outside of the highly privatized and skeptically contingent world of liberal Protestantism – is irrational and, for that reason, potentially dangerous. Richard Rorty told conservative Christians that the goal of a liberal teacher is “to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.” Children from such homes, he wrote, “are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft [domination] of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents . . . .”
Within the legal academy, Steven Gey argues that the public square should be a “religion free zone” and popular writers, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, write bestsellers calling for the end – or at least the marginalizing – of faith. In a forthcoming film, comedian (?) Bill Maher announces that “[t]he plain fact is religion must die for man to live.”
But is this assumption of a post-religious world governed by rationality consonant with reality?
G.K. Chesterton famously said that “[h]e who does not believe in God will believe in anything.” A recent survey by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, entitled “What Americans Really Believe,” suggest, as have other studies, that he is right. Mollie Ziegler Hemingway described the results in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal:
While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.
Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama’s former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin’s former denomination, did.
An ISR press release claims that “traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead and astrology.” (It appears, from this table, that theologically conservative folks are a bit more likely to say that they do not believe in these things, but that the theologically liberal are much more likely to say that they do believe in them.)
Assuming their validity, I’m not sure what to make of these findings. Are they a hangover from the pre-Enlightenment enchanted world? I’m more inclined to think that they are an inevitable human attempt to come to grips with what we cannot know but suspect, whether from wishful thinking or an innate sense, is there. To recall Matthew Arnold’s image of the retreat of the Sea of Faith with its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” it may be that the tide will always return.