America’s Functional Atheism

By James A. Haught | 24 June 2019

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Some jokes reveal truths. Remember the quip that “no Christian wants to go to heaven right now”? Obviously, the hidden truth is that most Christians secretly doubt church promises of paradise. (Unlike Muslim suicide bombers.)

Well, I think secret disbelief goes deeper, saturating most of this “Christian nation.” A majority of Americans behave as if they doubt the reality of gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, visions, prophecies and the rest of church supernaturalism. For most of society, daily life proceeds in a manner generally called “functional atheism” (acting as if God doesn’t exist).

Even priests and ministers have secret doubts. That’s why skeptics created The Clergy Project, an online refuge where troubled preachers come out of the closet to reveal their uncertainty about holy dogmas. Scores have confessed, so far. Disclosures first were published in a report titled “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” and later assembled in a book, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind.

At a British book symposium, author Graham Lawton declared that “no one really believes in religion, not even priests.” He said cultures give lip-service to supernatural beliefs, but it’s a false pretense, as in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

“If you ask quite religious people about the claims that are made by religion – like the fact that God’s watching you – they don’t really believe that,” he said.

Well, Lawton is mostly right, but not entirely. America contains a significant streak of what sociologists call “intense” religion. A 2017 Harvard study found that — more than in other advanced nations — hard-line, narrow-minded, far-right Christians remain fervent in the United States. In fact, they’re the heart of the Republican Party’s base. Big-money television preachers still reap hundreds of millions of dollars. Also, an estimated 10 million Americans are Pentecostals who “speak in tongues.” These worshipers clearly believe supernatural dogmas.

However, they’re a shrinking fringe, relentlessly retreating. Most of America is turning secular with amazing rapidity. Church membership has dropped 20 percent in the past two decades. Around a third of young adults say their religion is “none.” In general, supernatural faith is dying, and the rest of the nation lives by functional atheism.

Panic is growing among some church figures. Conservative writer Rod Dreher fears America’s swelling secularism so much that he wrote a book, The Benedict Option, urging believers to renounce mainstream society and bond in private communes like Benedictine monks in monasteries. For Dreher, the Supreme Court approval of same-sex marriage was a Waterloo, the worst of many defeats, for his type of hidebound, intolerant Christians. It cast them as bigoted gay-haters out of step with the nation. Dreher wrote:

“Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.”

Well, the Bible decrees (Lev. 20:13) that gay males must be put to death. Does Dreher want Christians to hold to that biblical teaching about sex?

So far, I haven’t seen any fundamentalists heading for cloisters. But maybe they should, because they’re shriveling to an unappetizing fringe, while the rest of America increasingly lives by functional atheism.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is

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