Less Religion Means More Government
Religion & Liberty Online

Less Religion Means More Government

My article from this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

Soviet communism adopted Karl Marx’s teaching that religion was the “opiate of the masses” and launched a campaign of bloody religious persecution. Marx was misguided about the role of religion but years later many communists became aware that turning people away from religious life increases dependence on government to address life’s problems. The history of government coercion that comes from turning from religion to government makes a new study suggesting a national decline in religious life particularly alarming to those concerned about individual freedom.

The American Religious Identification Survey, published by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., reports that we should expect one in five Americans to identify themselves as having no religious commitments by 2030. The study, titled “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” reports that Americans professing no religion, or Nones, have become more mainstream and similar to the general public in marital status, education, racial and ethnic makeup and income. The Nones have increased from 8.1 percent of the U.S. adult population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

According to the study, 22 percent of American 18 to 29-year-olds now self-identify as Nones. For those promoting dependency on government to handle the challenges of everyday life, as well as those who wish to take advantage of a growing market for morally bankrupt products and services, the news of declining religious life is welcome.

The increase in non-religious identification among younger generations highlights a continued shift away from active participation in one of the key social institutions that shaped this country. It may also come as no surprise, then, that according to the research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, voters under 30 are more liberal than all other generations. When asked about their ideology, 27 percent of those under 30 identify themselves as liberal, compared to 19 percent of baby boomers, and 17 percent of seniors. Pragmatic utilitarianism, favorable views toward a larger role for government in helping the disadvantaged, and a lack of ethical norms characterize this young segment America’s population.

The most significant difference between the religious and non-religious populations is gender. Whereas 19 percent of American men are Nones only 12 percent of American women are. The gender ratio among Nones is 60 males for every 40 females.

The marketplace and society in general will both reap the consequences of high numbers of male Nones. If more and more men are abandoning the religious communities that have provided solid moral formation for thousands of years, we should not be surprised by an increase in the explosion of demand for morally reprehensible products as well as the family breakdown that follows closely behind. With consciences formed by utility, pragmatism, and sensuality, instead of virtue, we should expect to find a culture with even more women subjected to the dehumanization of strip clubs, more misogynistic rap music, more adultery and divorce, more broken sexuality, more fatherlessness, more corruption in government and business, more individualism, and more loneliness.

Alexis de Tocqueville cautioned in his 1835 reflections on Democracy in America, that the pursuit of liberty without religion hurts society because it “tends to isolate [people] from one another, to concentrate every man’s attention upon himself; and it lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification.” In fact, Tocqueville says, “the main business of religions is to purify, control, and restrain that excessive and exclusive taste for well-being which men acquire in times of equality.” Religion makes us other-regarding.

Historically, religious communities in the United States addressed the needs of local communities in way that were clearly outside the scope of government. For example, as David G. Dalin writes in “The Jewish War on Poverty,” between the 1820s and the Civil War, Jews laid the foundation for many charitable institutions outside the synagogue including a network of orphanages, fraternal lodges, hospitals, retirement homes, settlement houses, free-loan associations, and vocational training schools. These were also normative activities for both Protestant and Catholic religious communities on even a larger scale in communities all over America before Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The reported decline in religious life is an omen that virtue-driven local charity will decline, the passion to pursue the good will wane, and Americans will look to government to guide, protect, and provide. As we turn our lives over to government control, our capacity for independent thought and action are compromised. The real “opiate of the masses,” it would seem, is not religion but the lack of it.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.