In the future, will God-fearing Russians defend Christianity against decadent, godless American atheists? The very question would have perplexed American Cold warriors who defended both America and Christianity against godless Russian communists in the 1950s and 1960s.
But consider the data. According to the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, the number of Russians who call themselves Orthodox Christians rose from 31 percent in 1991 to 72 percent in 2008. In the 1970s, the exiled Soviet dissident novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn scandalized Western liberals and his Soviet persecutors alike by calling on Russians to return to their Orthodox Christian roots. Under Yeltsin and Putin, this appears to have occurred. Putin led the mourners at Solzhenitsyn’s funeral.
While Russians are rediscovering religion, Americans are abandoning it. Between 2007 and 2014, according to Pew, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians plunged from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent.
Even evangelical Protestantism in the South is in decline, though it is not shrinking as rapidly as the mainline Protestant churches or Catholicism in the U.S. Self-described atheists in America have nearly doubled their numbers, from 2.4 to 4 percent over the last eight years. So-called “nones” who are not necessarily atheist but have no religious affiliation have grown from 16 percent of the US population in 2007 to 22.8 percent today. If Nones were a denomination, they would be the second largest in America, after evangelical Protestants (25.4 percent) and ahead of Catholics (20.8 percent).
In Western Europe, Christianity has already undergone a much deeper collapse. Church-going among Europeans has cratered. And yet roughly three-quarters of Europeans still call themselves Christians. Why?
The same pattern is found in Russia, where the religious revival is a matter of self-identification, not practice or belief. Fewer than five percent of Russians attend church regularly, and only small numbers take part in religious activities. And yet a growing majority call themselves Orthodox when asked by pollsters.
The answer to the puzzle is clear, if religion is viewed as a marker of national or ethnic identity, not a belief system.
This is nothing new. For most of history, tribes had their own gods. In the ancient world, it was often taken for granted that the gods of other tribes existed, even if your tribe did not pray to them. If you prayed to Dagon, you were a Dagonite. Whether you personally believed in the Philistine fish god was immaterial.
The evolution of monotheism among Zoroastrians and ancient Hebrews did not break the link between ethnicity and religion. Indeed, the link could hardly be stronger in the case of Jews and Parsis, the Asian minority that maintains pre-Muslim Persian religious beliefs.
Christianity and Islam are often described as universal religions. But except for converts, the vast majority of Christians and Muslims inherit their religious identity along with their genes and their culture from their parents.
What is described as “sectarian conflict” is really simple ethnic conflict in most cases. The conflict between Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslim Albanians in former Yugoslavia was a struggle for power and territory among ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians. They were not disputing whether Jesus was actually the Messiah or instead an honored prophet preceding Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets. Likewise, in today’s Middle Eastern wars, it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish Arab ethnic nationalism from Sunni religious fanaticism.
In the case of Europeans and Russians, the popularity of “Christian” as an identity, even among people who in their own lives are more or less wholly secular, may represent an effort by individuals to distinguish themselves from Muslims who are found inside Europe as well as beyond its borders. This kind of Christian identity is a statement of membership in a particular people or a particular regional civilization, not of personal belief in every element, or any element, of the Nicene Creed.
If cultural or ethnic Christianity is discounted, then it is clear that actual religious belief and practice tends to decline as societies undergo economic modernization and liberalization. Religious belief is weakest in advanced industrial countries like Japan and those of western Europe, and strongest in poor regions, such as the Muslim world and sub-Saharan Africa. It is to be expected that urbanization, education and modernization will ultimately prove fatal to traditional dogmatism in developing regions as well, though this may take some time.
Until recently, this pattern in which modernization produced secularization seemed to be broken by the United States, which combined advanced technological modernity with relatively high degrees of religiosity. But it now appears that the U.S. is evolving toward European levels of secularism.
America’s “religious exceptionalism” in the last few generations may have been something of an illusion all along, with religion acting as a surrogate for ethnicity among white Americans.
In the Northeast and Midwest, which had the most diverse European immigrant populations in the 19th and early 20th century, the church or synagogue was often the central ethnic institution in an ethnic neighborhood. Catholicism is a global religion, but Polish-American Catholics were Polish, Irish-American Catholics Irish, and German-American Catholics German. In the U.S. the Lutheran Church has never really escaped its identification with German and Scandinavian immigrants.
The decline of religion in the Northern U.S. may be the result in part of the success of the melting pot in replacing (to use my example) Irish-Americans and German-Americans and Polish-Americans who are not merely post-ethnic (if still “white”) but also post-Catholic, having grown up in diverse suburbs in which Catholic churches are no longer centers of social life.
The dynamic in the American South has been somewhat different. Southern conservatism traditionally claimed to be defending both the white race and Christianity. The discrediting of racism by the Nazis, followed by the civil rights revolution in the U.S., made it socially unacceptable for Southern conservatives to be overt white supremacists. But while they could not assert their racial identity, they were free to assert their religious identity. The Southern religious right has always been the Southern white religious right, with the “white” part downplayed after the 1950s.
Evangelical Protestantism, of course, is shared by many black Americans with many white Americans, especially in the South. As Protestant churches become more integrated, white supremacists have to find somewhere else to go. Some white supremacists still claim to be true Christians. But among American neo-Nazis and others in the “white power” movement, there has been growing interest in versions of Asatru or Odinism, modern attempts to reconstruct Dark Age Teutonic paganism. Many skinheads believe that the god Thor should be taken out of the comic books and movies and put back in a Viking shrine.
As the case of Odinism suggests, Nature abhors a vacuum. If, as the world grows richer and more educated, supernatural religion continues to decline, then the void of belief may be filled by new creeds. Revived paganism is likely to be limited in its appeal. More successful will be secular creeds that combine the imagery of modern science and technology with the certainty and zeal of pre-modern faiths. Marxism was justified by a pseudoscience of history, while pseudoscientific Social Darwinism provided the underpinnings of German National Socialism. Communists and Nazis alike believed that they were scientific and up-to-date, even as they enjoyed the kind of certainty and solidarity that religion traditionally has provided.
The advanced industrial nations of North America, Europe and East Asia suffer from Muslim jihadism, but they are not going to be conquered from without or within by champions of a new caliphate. The real threat to post-Christian civilization will come from within. Like Marxism and National Socialism, it will take the form of a militant secular creed, but adopt the trappings and rhetoric of science and technology and appeal to educated people whose spiritual longings go unmet. The adherents of the next major religion to sweep through the secular West will insist that it is science and will deny that it is a religion at all.