Almost as soon as the Puritans set foot in Massachusetts Bay, they began to sound the alarm that godlessness was at hand. Prophecies of God’s impending demise are as old as the history of European settlements in the United States. Indeed, the recent book, Prophecies of Godlessness, edited by Charles Mathewes and Christopher McKnight Nichols, offers a fascinating account of America’s death-watch for God—a death-watch that has preoccupied hopeful atheists and deists (and frightened conservative believers) for more than four centuries.
The 1960’s, however, was a watershed decade. The ever-increasing ability of science to explain reality and the decreasing faith in the inerrancy of the Bible resulted in a crescendo of predictions that God was dead, or might as well be since no one believed any longer.
During this era, social scientists and secular humanists in particular, were certain that belief in God was, at long last, dying and not a minute too soon! According to the scholar of religion, Slavica Jakelic, whose essay covers the sixties in Prophecies, social scientists and secular humanists projected their desire onto the population at large. America, they maintained (wished), if not the world, was finally coming to its senses. God, they detected (wished), was—finally—absent from daily life. Murder by neglect seemed a fait accompli. Growing religious skepticism and critical questioning had yanked the rug out from under pious belief. The religions had been shown for what they were—providers of consolation and of meaning for the feeble-hearted and logic-challenged.
Convinced that the country’s religiosity had plummeted, social scientists felt no need to confirm their prophecies of godlessness by gathering empirical data.
When surveys were finally carried out, the data revealed that the number of God-believers in this country has remained amazingly steady for at least three generations. That’s right. Go ahead and re-read that sentence if you must. Today, ninety-four percent of Americans believe in God or in a Higher Power. Exactly the same percentage as in the 1960’s when ninety-four percent of Americans also believed in God or a Higher Power.
The predictions of social scientists and secular humanists turned out to be wrong. God was (and is) alive and well.
Quite simply because science offers only certain kinds of answers–data-based answers. It can’t help us make sense of life’s most important and most intractable questions like, “Why am I here?” “What is my purpose?” “What is expected of me?” “How can I go on now that my partner has died?” “What is the right thing to do?” “Why should I do the right thing?” “What is a good life?” The list of questions that science can’t answer is long.
Singer-songwriter Johnny Cash wrestled with these questions in his music. No doubt, this has much to do with its popularity. His lyrics, set to fitting (and haunting) melodies, capture what many of us experience. Here are some lines from “Help Me:”Oh Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile. I’m tired of walking all alone. And Lord, help me to smile another smile, just one more smile. Don’t think I can do things on my own. Refrain: I never thought I needed help before. Thought that I could get by, by myself. Now I know I just can’t take it any more. And with a humble heart on bended knee, I’m begging you please, for help.
Social scientists and secular humanists would surely counsel Johnny’s many fans to focus instead on the so-called sacred texts that are chock full of contradictions. Or focus on the so-called religious experiences that are born of overactive or diseased imaginations. Anyone who focuses on the “real” issues will surely turn from God.
Okay, sure, we can try to forget Johnny Cash and his music, but the majority (remember–at least 94%!) of us aren’t going to stop wondering whether we can (or want) to do things on our own. We aren’t going to stop asking, with a humble heart, on bended knee, for God’s help. Science and secular society have failed to provide compelling substitutes. It’s pointless to recommend that we ask science for help when we’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis or the death of a child. Science can’t help us when we’re struggling every day to get by or to smile another smile or to walk another mile.
No matter. Some social scientists and secular humanists continue to discount the kind of human predicament described in the song, “Help me.” They continue to discount the evidence demonstrating that predictions of imminent, nation-wide atheism are without warrant. They assume atrophy of religious belief where none exists. They remain attached to the idea of loss of faith and to its anticipated outcome—a godless America.
Truth is that God is not going away any time soon. In this country, the number of God-believers remains high and stable. Almost all Americans believe, have believed, and if current trends can be trusted, will continue to believe in God.
Let’s face it. Prophecies of godlessness fritter away precious time and brainpower. Though social scientists and secular humanists are unlikely to stop predicting God’s disappearance from human affairs, their time and brainpower would be better spent on issues that relate to the world as it actually operates.
Rather than scoff, they could take an interest in and support the work of theologians who are committed to developing intriguing visions of God—say, a God who calls on us to work harder to secure greater justice and better living conditions for those who have little or none.
Rather than roll their eyes, they could make a point of talking to God-believers, especially those with strong beliefs. By doing so, they are more likely to make an impact, especially if, when speaking to someone whose God seems to undermine efforts to eradicate suffering and oppression, they explain why they see things differently. Also, by engaging in dialogue with those whose religious views they do not share, they will be reminded of the humanity of the Other.
So, what’s it going to be, Mr. or Ms. social-scientist and secular-humanist? More breath-wasting and ink-squandering prophecies that help no one? Or life-enhancing engagement with theology and religion that could help many?
Resource: Slavica Jakelic, “The Sixties: Secularization and the Prophesies of Freedom,” in Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of American’s imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day, ed. Charles Mathewes and Christopher McKnight Nichols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 156-190.