Fill the pews — or say you do

It’s no secret that Americans as a whole are more openly religious than our counterparts in other developed nations. About 79 percent of Americans identify with an organized faith group, and more Americans believe in the devil (and that Barack Obama is a Muslim despite his clarification that he’s Christian) than in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

As of 2006, more people in the United States rejected the theory of evolution than in any other developed nation with the exception of the heavily Muslim (though officially secular) Republic of Turkey. A 2012 Gallup poll showed that 46 percent of Americans reject the theory entirely — claiming that humans were divinely fashioned in their present form about 10,000 years ago — while 32 percent believe in divinely-guided evolution, and only 15 percent say our species evolved without godly intervention. Recent political hot-button issues have also shown that a large portion of the populous is all-too-comfortable mixing religion and politics, despite America’s constitutional separation of church and state.

So it comes as no surprise that almost half of Americans say they attend church weekly, in contrast with folks in Western Europe, where (on average) 20 percent of people say they attend weekly. There’s a curve-ball, though. They’re lying. When researchers asked participants to recount their weekly activities, rather than asking directly about religious attendance, only 24 percent report going to church. It turns out the difference between the U.S. and Western Europe isn’t so much the level of church-going, it’s how comfortable people are admitting they don’t go.

NPR’s science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has suggested this tendency to make ourselves look like good, church-going people is due to a cultural perception that church-goers are, to border on tautology, good people. Like working out or exercising dental hygiene, Americans seem to see church as part of a healthy, balanced life — even when they slack on it.

A few empty pews in this church. Graphic by Caitlin Lewis.

However, Vedantam didn’t address why our nation feels that way. Why do we feel the need to trumpet our religious convictions and allegiances in order to proclaim that we’re good, decent folk?

This perception comes largely from our history of religious fundamentalism, I think. A large portion of America’s early settlers, most famously the Pilgrims and the Puritans, came to the country for religious reasons.

Though we often portray these groups as the heroes of their respective stories, and enjoy recounting their quest for freedom to practice their faith in peace, there was a dark side to these believers. The Puritans especially set out to purify the church of what they felt were man-made corruptions, and to establish a “city on a hill” that would be a beacon to the rest of the world.

This drive to create purity and to live by what they felt was God’s law created very harsh and dangerous circumstances for anyone who dissented from the community, or anyone who was even perceived as violating community norms. Twenty people were executed during the Salem Witch Trials after being accused of consorting with the devil and practicing black arts.

Even as society has become gradually (but continually) less violent and more accepting of non-conformists, we’ve still retained the notion that “good” people adhere to some basic tenets of mass-determined behavior, which happens to be largely determined by Judeo-Christian tradition in the U.S. This includes spirituality of some sort (most commonly a belief in a male deity), reverence for a holy book of some kind and deference to religious authority and community at least during important events in our lives. People who don’t adhere to these values are considered to be, at best, slacking in their spiritual and ethical upkeep, and at worst, dangerous deviants.

Europe, by contrast, has gone through many religiously-motivated wars and uprisings, and has largely determined that theology is a private matter best kept out of government. This is ironic, given that religious freedom is one of the values America has been proud of since its founding. Sadly, it seems that “religious freedom” has often been interpreted as “freedom to choose among mainstream Christian denominations.”

Even though we pride ourselves on being an individualistic nation, it seems that one area we haven’t learned to appreciate diversity is in religion. Until America learns to value its citizens of non-traditional spiritual backgrounds and also of non-spiritual backgrounds, this stereotype that good people go to church will persist, and will remain a symptom of a larger problem — intolerance.

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