TIME Religion

God Is Dead. Except at the Box Office.

While Hollywood is finding God, Americans are losing their religion. But that’s not a bad thing.

These days, God is dead everywhere except at movie theaters. But rest easy, America, that doesn’t mean we’re spiraling into an amoral abyss or a lawless society. Indeed, by most indicators of anti-social behavior, things have never been better.

Even as polls and church-attendance records show the U.S. is becoming a more secular, less pious country, current films such as Heaven is for Real (based on a best-selling account of a four-year-old boy’s supposed trip to the afterlife) and Noah (based on the Old Testament’s account of the Great Flood) have done boffo business.

Noah is closing in on $100 million, the line that separates mere hits from blockbusters, and Heaven is for Real easily bested Johnny Depp’s poorly reviewed meditation on computer-enabled immortality, Transcendence. God’s Not Dead, a drama about a college freshman challenging his professor’s atheism, is also performing strongly, and so is Son of God, the latest cinematic version of the life of Jesus.

Expect to see more Christian and religiously themed movies as a result. “If there’s a sense that there’s a growing market and a growing hunger for more films like this,” a Columbia TriStar Pictures executive tells The Christian Post, “then the desire to continue to provide more films will increase, and decisions will be made to be able to make more films like this.”

Yet there’s no reason to think that such movies will do anything to stanch the broad and ongoing decline in religiosity. And there’s even less reason to worry about the trend toward a less godly country.

Gallup reports that fully 77% of Americans agree that religion “is losing its influence on American life,” and that just 20% think religion is gaining influence. Mainline Protestantism has especially taken it on the chin over the past 50 years. In 1965, over half of Americans were “active members” of Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and similar denominations, according to The Catholic World Report. That number is now below 10%. While independent bible-based churches and the Catholic Church show some growth (largely due to immigrants), Pew Research reports that “the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace.” Indeed, such “nones” now comprise 20% of the population and one-third of adults under the age of 30.

Those numbers will keep growing. With each successive generation – from the “Silents” born between 1928 and 1945 to Gen-Xers born between 1965 and 1980 – Americans have gotten less and less religious. Millennials, who were born between 1981 and 1994 and outnumber Baby Boomers, are embracing secularism for a variety of reasons, none of which is likely to disappear.

Millennials are far more likely than previous generations to view organized religion as intolerant, sexist, and homophobic. That attitude isn’t helped by traditional Islamic theology, the Catholic Church’s position on female priests, or political candidates such as Ray Moore, who is running for lieutenant governor of South Carolina and calling for Christian parents to remove their children from public education (“Pharoah’s school system”).

Sociologists agree that religion is generally less important in societies where basic existential needs – food, clothing, shelter, education, work – are covered. Even with the global financial crisis of the past few years, the fact is that Americans and other residents of the developed world are still doing extremely well by any standard. Even the poorest countries are gaining ground, which suggests that they too will become more secular over time.

While it’s understandable that believers would worry about secularism’s effect on non-believers’ souls, the widespread sense that a godless society is a lawless society is clearly wrong. A line routinely (though controversially) attributed to Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky sums up the fear of many religious people: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” Yet the plain fact is that over the same period during which America has gotten less religious, crime of all sorts has declined massively, teens are waiting longer to have sex, abortion rates are down, the divorce rate is at a 30-year low, and philanthropic giving remains strong despite economic lassitude.

Christians and other believers can take pride in the fact that moviegoers are shelling out millions of dollars to watch films dealing with religious themes – and that an entertainment industry long hostile to such topics seems ready and willing to deliver whatever the audience wants. And they can also take solace in the fact that, even as America has become an increasingly godless society, it’s become a nicer, safer place to live.

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