By Daniel Lazare
Religion is false, unscientific and morally dubious, and any discussion that does not take this as a starting point will eventually go astray.
The American Fate of Christianity: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular by David A. Hollinger. Princeton University Press, 216 pages, $29.95.
Jesus of Nazareth – Yeshua Nasoraya in Aramaic – was a preacher who gained a considerable following in ancient Galilee, but was accused of subversion and executed around AD 33. So what does he have to do with the free market economy, abortion, gay rights, or any of the other controversies that, 2,000 years later, are tearing society apart?
That’s the question David A. Hollinger, professor emeritus at Berkeley, wrestles with. The American Destiny of Christianity. His language is nebulous, but his thesis is pretty clear: in the United States, at least, the Jesus movement is undergoing a complex process of splitting and contracting. On one side we have liberal and conservative theologians arguing over whether Jesus would have supported the right to life or the right to bear arms or whether his sympathies were with the other side. On the other hand, more and more of us are wondering if it matters, since religion no longer has any meaning.
It’s a big change from the 1950s, when religion was the rule. Everyone was supposed to believe in something – even if it wasn’t fashionable to ask too closely what that something might be. Dwight Eisenhower spoke for many when he observed that the American government is “meaningless unless it is based on a deeply felt religious sense, and I don’t care what that is.” But the number of “nones” – the people who answered Nope when asked about their religion began to grow. As recently as the early 1980s, pollsters put their numbers at a meager five percent. But then they hit 8% in 1990, 15% in 2000 and, finally, 29% in 2021. For respondents in their 20s and 30s, the number jumped to 40. According to The American Destiny of Christianity, all but 0.2% of US congressmen still claim religious affiliation. Despite this, the writing is on the wall: the arc of the story obviously leans towards atheism and agnosticism. Either Americans now believe that, rhythm Ike, religion is irrelevant to the health of the republic, or they don’t care anymore.
Thus, Christianity is in decline. As for the divisive part of history, it is something that plagues all movements – Freudian analysis, surrealism, Marxism, whatever. In Christianity, the trend goes back at least to the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Church became divided over the nature of Christ and the trinity. Greek and Latin Christianity then split in 1054, rival popes in Rome and Avignon split in 1378, while Papists and Protestants split in 1519. It’s an old habit that doesn’t want to s ‘Stop. If the latest demonstration is a little peculiar, it is because one side — the evangelicals — is growing thanks to Donald Trump, while the other, what The American Destiny of Christianity calls Christianity ecumenical, seems to be running out of steam month by month.
For Hollinger, a liberal who “strayed from the faith” after his school days but who “still has the sense,” it’s yet another case of the best lacking in conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. But even he admits that liberal Christianity is a lost cause. “The universalist ideology which had been a defining characteristic of ecumenical Protestantism,” he writes, “and which served as the justification for its progressive commitments of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, fell under deep suspicion, often accused – with some justice – to serve as a cover for white male privilege. First it was too radical, in other words, and then it wasn’t radical enough. Ecumenicals argued for full congregational equality in Africa, Asia and Latin America, he adds, only to step back in confusion when Ugandan churches reached out to American conservatives to make common cause in opposing gay rights. to realize that the Old Testament is not the word of God, but rather a collection of disparate texts “cobbled together…in the consolidation of the ancient Hebrews into one people.” But he wishes t Always let liberal Christians make greater use of it because, quoting Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School, he believes that “a historical-critical view of the Bible has deepened, not destroyed, our respect for its truth.”
Does he have? Modern scholarship has made it clear that texts like Genesis and Exodus are collections of myth and legend with little, if any, connection to real-life events. So why should we regard their truth value as superior to, say, that of the Upanishads or the Epic of Gilgamesh?
This kind of double talk is frustrating to say the least. But Hollinger really falls when he takes on New Atheism, the movement made famous in the early 2000s by writers like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. As usual, his approach is equivocal. “Christian apologists,” writes Hollinger, attacked the new atheists for their crude understanding of what religion really means. “Yet this ritualized dismissal,” he says, “…almost always elided a very important fact. indulge in crude caricatures, except those caricatures turned out to be less far-fetched than the apologists claim.
But that in itself is a dodging since the thrust of the new atheists was not against religious practice per se, but against the idea behind it. The title of Dawkins bestseller in 2007, The illusion of God, says it all. The concept of a Supreme Being is completely and unalterably wrong, and any doctrine that says otherwise will also end up being wrong.
There is no beating around the bush when it comes to this fundamental truth. The problem, therefore, is not that evangelical Christianity abuses the Bible, but that anyone, liberal or conservative, uses it at all. Certainly the Bible is not just a fascinating historical text, but a great read filled with amusing stories about kings who spy on naked women, brothers who sell their youngest brother into slavery, donkeys who speak the word of God and fleeing prophets. that end up in the belly of a whale. But as a guide to modern problems, its value is nil. The second-century gnostic Marcion argued that the Hebrew Bible, with its tales of lust and betrayal, was downright bad. But he was wrong. The theories of good and evil were so underdeveloped that they were not so much immoral as pre-moral. Any attempt to use it as a moral guide in the here and now is absurd, and the sooner we understand this the better.
Hollinger’s failure to do so is why The American Destiny of Christianity ends up being a very bad book – windy, meandering, evasive and unwilling or unable to deal with the real issues at hand. He is right to say that evangelical Christianity has become a pillar of a radical right that is moving in an increasingly undemocratic direction. But his half-hearted quasi-defense of “ecumenical” Christianity is undermined by his reluctance to address the real reason he is behaving so badly. It’s collapsing not because supporters aren’t making their case more effectively, but because those arguments no longer make sense. Religion is false, unscientific and morally dubious, and any discussion that does not take this as a starting point will eventually go astray. Hollinger quotes the 5th-century theologian Augustine of Hippo on the need to combat “malevolent false opinions.” But poor old Augustine, the favorite scapegoat of religious liberalism, is getting bad press. When it came to combating religious falsehood, he believed that one could never be too hot, angry or intolerant. We should feel the same.
Daniel Lazarus is the author of The Frozen Republic and other books on the US Constitution and US politics. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including Harper’s and the London book review. He currently writes regularly for the weekly workera socialist newspaper in London.