Mike Hendricks

Mike at Night

Mike Hendricks recently retires as social science, criminal justice instructor at McCook Community College.

Religion in America

Friday, June 26, 2015

Perhaps the most controversial magazine cover ever printed was Time magazine's cover on April 8, 1966. It was a solid black cover with three words printed in red:

Is God Dead?

The date of the cover should tell us a lot about the subject. The world was going through a tremendous social upheaval in the '60s on practically all fronts and religion was not exempt either. Worldwide, the number of people belonging to religious organizations was plummeting and this was the case in America too. From 1950 to 1970, the average number of people saying they attended church or synagogue on Sunday in the U.S. dropped significantly from 50 percent to 40 percent. These numbers were even more dramatic in European countries and unlike the United States, these numbers never stabilized.

When you talked to people about this decline, the reason to them was obvious. Knowledge is a cumulative process so there had to be a point in time when man had no knowledge. So when natural phenomena occurred like earthquakes, floods, snowstorms, hailstorms, tornadoes, eclipses of the sun and moon and so forth, humans had no explanation for this because they had no knowledge. So they conjured up the idea of something much greater than them, called it a god, and eventually began worshipping and fearing the very thing they had created. Then as men gained knowledge, learned about science and the scientific method and discovered they could determine the reason for things occurring that had no reason before, the need for a God to explain these things slowly disappeared.

But unlike our European brethren, the decline in religious affiliation didn't continue in the U.S. It stabilized at about 40 percent and has remained there since.

Until recently that is.

A Pew Research poll recently found that number shrinking again. In that poll comparing 2007 data with 2014 data, they found that Evangelical Protestants had declined 0.9 percent, down to 25.4 percent of the total population. Catholics had declined 3.1 percent, down to 20.8 percent while those unaffiliated increased 6.7 percent, up to 22.8 percent. That means there are now more people unaffiliated with a religious belief system in the U.S. than there are Catholics. Mainline Protestants also saw a significant decline, down 3.4 percent to 14.7 percent while Non-Christian Faiths increased by 1.2 percent, up to 5.9 percent.

The overall number of people defining themselves as Christians dropped from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent.

There are a couple of ways to interpret this data and, of course, the one you choose is influenced by your belief system, whether it be faith-based or science-based. One way is the way it was perceived back in the '60s; that science provides answers to questions that were unknown before science and therefore there is a scientific explanation for everything that happens on the planet rather than a spiritual one.

The opposite way to perceive this data is that even though there has been a decline, still over 70 percent of the American population belongs to a religious organization which is the highest percentage of any country in the world.

Can science and faith ever be reconciled? The Pope recently indicated that the Universe could have been created with a Big Bang if that's the way God wanted to do it. So from that perspective, it certainly could be, at least in the minds of some believers.

But faith indicates an emotion and science suggests a logic. Faith causes you to believe in something regardless of the evidence, like romantic love, friendship, loyalty or faith and science dictates that something cannot be assumed to be true unless it can be proven to be true. But sometimes belief in something turns out not to be true and we all know that scientific proof has been overturned by new findings time and time again.

So there's a huge gap between religious faith and scientific proof and it seems unlikely to me that that gap will ever be completely closed.

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