I would be remiss if I didn’t dissect a recent sophomoric editorial in The Oklahoman lamenting the decline of Christians in the nation and the rise of people describing themselves as agnostic or atheist.
The editorial, titled “Declining Christian numbers in Oklahoma, elsewhere no cause for celebration,” referred to a recent Pew Research Center survey that shows the number of people who identify as Christian dropped by more than seven percentage points from 2007 to 2014. It also showed people who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” rose by six percentage points during those seven years.
The survey found that 70.6 percent of the U.S. population still identifies as Christian, a high number for sure, but the editorial really doesn’t stress this point. The commentary is just a reductionist apologia for Christianity rather than a fact-based and truthful historical analysis of the religion. The editorial omits important information and relies on cringing generalizations.
The overall gist of the editorial is fairly simple. The number of Christians in the U.S. is in decline and this is a bad thing overall.
Let me be clear before I go through three “points” made by the editorial that although I identify as “nothing in particular,” I do think there are ways to academically and intellectually defend Christianity. For example, I think of famous Christians, such as C.S. Lewis or Cardinal John Henry Newman, who held sophisticated Christian views that still resonate and provoke.
But The Oklahoman isn’t interested in an intellectual defense. Here’s one of the first big points the editorial makes:
. . . there’s no denying that people genuinely devoted to a religion emphasizing love for others, denial of self, and belief that one answers to a higher power have generated far more societal improvement than what’s been rendered by those pursuing a self-directed “do whatever makes you feel good” ethos.
Our nation is undoubtedly a better place when there are more of the former than the latter.
The idea that it’s mostly non-Christians who pursue a “do whatever makes you feel good” personal philosophy is simply a gross generalization. According to one writer looking into the issue only 0.7 percent of inmates in the federal prison system identify as atheist. This number has long been in dispute, especially by Christians, but it’s at least worth exploring on an empirical basis if one is going to make a generalized argument about “self-directed” people.
In addition, the idea that our nation is better off because of Christianity is simply not provable. It can be compared to the colonization argument that countries that have been colonized by empires are better off than if they weren’t colonized. But here’s the point: We will never know. It’s pure speculation. Along these lines, I might add that Christianity on a historical basis has been used to help empires exploit people throughout the world under the term “missionary work” and to give a moral basis for slavery in the U.S. The Southern Baptist Church, for example, was founded based on its pro-slavery position.
I could go on and on along these lines, but my overall point is the editorial doesn’t engage in anything close to a dialogue about the issue.
Here’s another big point the editorial makes:
Critics will counter that Oklahoma typically ranks among the top states for church attendance, yet ranks worse on the aforementioned measures than states with lower levels of religious observance. This may suggest some people are hypocrites, but it doesn’t mean Oklahoma would be better off if fewer people adhered to a religion that advocates against murder, adultery and theft. A classroom full of pregnant teenage atheists would still be a sign of societal decay.
The editorial gets it exactly wrong, especially when it comes to teenage pregnancy. It’s backwards. Open-minded people in this state for years have advocated for comprehensive sex education in our schools. We have been thwarted by religious conservatives and fundamentalists who believe such education will lead to promiscuity. Thus, there’s been a long-held argument here-stretching over decades-that religious conservatism is responsible for the state’s high teenage pregnancy rate because many teenagers are not getting the information they need to either abstain from having sex or to use birth control.
But The Oklahoman is having none of that basic logic:
Oklahomans’ problems aren’t the product of Christianity. But the compassionate response of many Oklahomans, who even make dramatic personal sacrifices to aid struggling people, is often a product of their Christianity.
Yet polls through the years have shown that Oklahoma is especially Christian. A 2004 Gallup poll showed eight out of 10 people in Oklahoma identified as Christian. That number is dropping, according to the Pew survey, but the fact remains that a majority of people identify as Christian in Oklahoma and have done so for a very long time.
So who IS responsible for Oklahomans’ problems? If the majority of Oklahomans, including its politicians, are Christians, then it would only be logical to presume they are the ones responsible for the state’s social problems, such poor medical outcomes and childhood poverty. Undoubtedly, there are Christians who do great social work in the state as the editorial mentions, but when the state’s leaders-politicians like U.S. Rep. James Lankford, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, state Rep. Sally Kern, Gov. Mary Fallin, etc.-won’t do anything about our “problems” and instead exploit impoverished people to serve the wealthy, then one has to reach the conclusion that Christianity is exactly what ails this state.