This article originally appeared at the Washington Post's On Faith page. Click here to read the continuing conversation.
As a boutique belief system in the United States, atheism has a good many advantages. There are so few atheists and agnostics that they do not run all the risks of a populist movement. Not for them is the burden of dealing with the masses of a global population, their idiosyncrasies, worries and all.
Since Christians make up three-quarters or more of the American general population, we have the burden of accounting for almost everybody's problems. Sadly, we are much less well represented in elite education, media, and government. This is not because religion is incompatible with elite education, but because "skepticism" about religion has become a sociological way for the elite to mark themselves off from the rest of us. In this sense, anti-religion (and in particularly anti-Catholicism) serves the same function that joining the "right" church used to serve in another era.
The secular elite have provided most of us with wretched religious education by all but banning it as a topic for serious enquiry or discussion. Meanwhile, they know just enough about religion to get some "facts" right on a pop-religion quiz, but have no grasp on why, despite all temptations, some thoughtful folk remain religious. They know some of the lyrics of religion, but cannot hear the music.
You might blame Christian education in churches for this problem, except a culture of entertainment has reduced most Americans ability to tolerate difficult discussions. Pity the pastor, with seminary training in ancient languages and a carefully constructed sermon, who must face a congregation taught by television to anticipate education with Muppets and Katy Perry.
The rise of fundamentalist sects of religion may have more to do with this culture of entertainment than anything else. The kind of religion hucksters sell on television in the same time slot as quack diets is offered as religious as entertainment.
If atheism ever catches on, you can be sure that it too will suffer from hucksters and cultural deprivations. Google the music of atheist Dan Barker to see what the future may hold if atheism gets big enough in the general population to get some of the ills they have foisted on us.
On the ground, government school teachers also are shackled by the same dulled students. Too much entertainment has made many students like the burned characters in an Oscar Wilde play without any of the wit. For that reason, most of us who teach rejoice in any student who challenges anything. As the default belief of American history, the cause of theism is supplied with students who affirm belief in a Creator, but are oft too numbed by cultural ugliness to grasp the beautiful idea that He has "endowed them with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Nor is it that serious intellectual endeavor and Christianity are incompatible. Safe to say few of us outthink Jonathan Edwards, let alone contemporary religious scholars such as Alvin Plantinga and Francis Collins.
Serious Christians do exist. I visit many churches where regular folk are carefully reading great books and wrestling with great ideas, but this activity is not encouraged in the broader culture.
Weirdly, Christians must clean up the mess of broader culture, but we have had little power to create pop culture in the last fifty years. The poor and the disadvantaged are always the first to bear the brunt of bad cultural ideas and only the religious remain on the ground to try to help. Christians, for example, try to keep people from doing the things that get men sent to prison, but then work hard to help prisoners once people fail.
In this sense it is easier to be an agnostic or atheist. You have rejected the mainstream of American history, which means you don't have to take responsibility for its failures, though you can appropriate its successes.
In my experience an atheist or agnostic is mostly a Bible Baptist looking for social mobility, a function the Episcopal Church used to play before theological liberalism made it too nineteenth-century to take seriously in the twenty-first. If you want someone to provide intellectual uplift to Appalachia or to the inner cities, you are going to have to look to a graduate of Al Mohler's seminary, because the "skeptics" will have all moved to gated enclaves where the only theist that will clutter their conversational space will be the man cutting their grass.
To their credit, secularists have rejected something, and this generally means knowing something about what one has rejected. This is true, if by "knowing something" one means getting quiz show questions right—not understanding.
Pew has released a study that shows if the average atheist and the average theist appear on religious Jeopardy, the theist is in trouble. However, wisdom and understanding are different from "just the facts." It is good to know facts, but that doesn't mean you get it.
Every year I have students who can tell me many of the details of the Republic, but cannot read a dialogue as a dialogue. They are worse than useless in any discussion, because once they have given us a Wikipedia overview of the text, they have nothing left to say. They have memorized an opinion ("Meno is about recollection. Recollection is an epistemological view that . . . ") and nobody is going to get them off topic. If you want to win Platonic Trivial Pursuit, they are your man, but if you want to understand Plato they are quickly left behind.
My experience is that "street level" atheism is often just this way. At some point, usually in junior high, the street level atheist sees intellectual problems in his childhood faith or the "hypocrisy" in the church. These problems, sadly, get no real answers and it does not occur to the young person that any group that upholds any standard will attract hypocritical behavior.
The budding secularist gets the delightful feeling of intellectual superiority and then does a Google to discover the fabulous world of Internet atheism! When you combine this new found sense of being an "insider" with relief that all those nasty religious demands to love the weak and to moderate one's desires can be dismissed, you have a powerful force in anybody's life. At this point, even exposure to the religious intellectual tradition will not help, as the trajectory has been set.
Of course, there is a wholly different secular tradition that came to atheism and agnosticism after hard work and thought. They might not believe in God, but they understand why some of their colleagues do. They get what is good about religion as well as its difficulties. These secular voices are too often drowned out by the bleats of Dawkins and the Internet atheists.
What should be done?
First, Americans must recognize that nothing has been done to us that we have not allowed. We must reject being entertained and demand to be educated. When television personalities like Glenn Beck sell tens of thousands of serious books by authors such as Hayek, I am more hopeful.
Second, religious Americans must reject the temptation to retreat into a comforting anti-intellectualism. For Christians at least, we are called to live by faith and faith is intellectual. It is not merely intellectual, it is driven by love, but head and heart can never be separated.
Third, we must demand that our government schools teach religion, not just the "facts" but with understanding. Wisdom will only come when we recognize why billions of the world's people believe what they do. This means that majority Christians must also accept charitable expositions of other faiths. When the state of Texas demands less coverage of Islam this is a bad step.
We must do unto others as we would have them do to us. We must allow students to read books that come from different traditions, from atheism to paganism. The intellectual growth that will result will not be the sort that can be captured in a fill-in-the-blanks or multiple choice exam. Instead, we are going to have to support government school budgets that to allow for small discussion classes that can produce a deeper understanding of important ideas.
Ignorance about things vital to our fellow citizens is harmful to the Republic.
For example, one of the most influential books first published by an American is the Book of Mormon. It appears in almost no American government school curriculum, though it exercises a global influence and impacts the lives of millions of Americans. This is foolish. I am, to say the least, no Mormon partisan, but there are entire states in our nation that cannot be understood without some grounding in Mormon thought.
How many American college graduates have a more charitable comprehension of the indigenous culture of Paris than of Salt Lake City? Mormon Utah can only wish it were treated as gently as "other cultures" are in a politically correct curriculum.
Finally, Christians, the vast majority of the population, should demand that their churches do more intellectual work. Most pastors would be eager to teach more doctrine, if they thought their congregants would tolerate it. We must make sure they know we will not tolerate the Church worshipping at the altar of the entertainment idol.
The Pew Study demonstrates that facts are not enough. We need people that know the facts, but also know the meaning those facts have. All of us must recognize that the meaning we give "the facts" has been and will be challenged by other well informed citizens.
Last night hundreds of regular Evangelical people took precious free time to come to a university to hear a first-rate theologian, Fred Sanders, teach from his magnificent new book on the Trinity. Daily Sanders moves his high level scholarship into the pews and eventually this work with show up in surveys from Pew. Fred Sanders and the ministries springing up all over America like his prove there is a hunger for religious knowledge and this gives me hope for the coming generation.
They will be capable of winning Trivial Pursuit, but too busy pursuing wisdom to play.