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A milestone in the fading of religion

Updated: November 11, 2012 6:15AM

Shouldn’t there be some kind of ceremony? A ritual to mark the end of the Protestant majority in the United States. Maybe Pat Boone singing “Amazing Grace” as a baloney and mayo sandwich on Wonder bread is lowered into a grave . . .

Sorry. I kid. But that’s the downside of no longer holding American culture in a hammerlock. It gets harder to demand that your certainties be given the head-dipping deference they once enjoyed as a matter of routine.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s new report, whimsically titled “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” reports the number of Protestants sliding to 48 percent of the U.S. population, the first time it has dipped below half since the nation’s founding, while “nones” — those who don’t belong to any faith — rose to 20 percent.

What does this mean? Besides, of course, that every fire-and-brimstone TV evangelist will have a ready explanation the next time a tornado wipes out a town: “Behold the wrath of an angry God, expressing His displeasure at the erosion of the infallible Protestant Church in that oblique-yet-lethal way God prefers to make His will known.”

And they wonder why the faithful stray . . .

This is actually part of a very long process that began with the founding of the United States. In detaching from Great Britain and trying to forestall the repressive reach of the Church of England, our founding fathers were like scientists who create a new virus to solve one problem — a domineering king and his church — only to see it get loose and create havoc. They didn’t realize the virus — freedom — would infect lots of folks they never intended to be affected: first blacks, then women, then everybody eventually realizing that they didn’t have to follow arbitrary rules or arcane litanies if they didn’t want to.

This might seem to suggest that any person, freed of their fetters, will immediately dump their religion, and I don’t believe that either. Life is a long time, if you’re lucky, and you have to fill it somehow, and adhering to the various tenets of Lutheranism or Baptism or Seventh Day Adventism or any of the other sub-groups of Protestantism is not inherently a worse use of your time than, oh, knitting colorful afghans or playing John Madden Football or anything else.

Finding equivalence between religion and any random leisure activity can be seen as a jaw-dropping insult by those who sincerely believe their particular faiths are not curious customs to pass the time, but the inviolable truth of the Lord God Almighty.

Get over it. It’s a problem we’ve seen coming for years: Freedom for yourself leads to freedom for others. Allowing others to practice their own rituals unmolested — grudgingly, at first — leads them to act as if their amusing traditions and quaint beliefs carry the same significance your eternal truths do.

It can be a shock — as we see in the Muslim world — when your sand village certainties are exposed to the chrome blur of modern life. The first impulse is to make it stop — “wallpapering the world” is the phrase I coined when I worked in Wheaton. Cover over the stuff that bothers you. Or, as we saw recently, try to get the United Nations to ban making fun of your religion.

Wonder how well that’ll work?

The heart breaks for such people. You can see how painful it is to have the truisms that were ground into you from birth revealed as just another flavor in a multi-flavored world. It’s a tough adjustment to make, and we don’t take enough pride for having made it. Rather than envy the false respect that killing scoffers can evoke, temporarily, faiths should instead celebrate their ability to take derision — it’s a sign of confidence when every passing mockery doesn’t rattle your God’s fillings.

These conflicts will be routine for the next century or two, until religion fades into a complex personal pastime, like opera.

And that’s coming. The worst news for religiously oriented Americans is that the numbers break down along age lines — only 5 percent of those over 85 profess no religion, 9 percent of those from 67 to 84, dropping away steadily until more than a third of those under 21 don’t associate with any faith.

Which should be a reminder to all those dug-in extremists of every faith fighting the smallest change: People vote with their feet.

There is some good news for the pious — America still remains far more religious than any other Western country. The Pew report found 58 percent said religion was “very important” to them, only a small decline from the 61 percent of five years ago. To put that in perspective, only 21 percent in Germany find religion very important, 17 percent in England and 13 percent in France.

Welcome to the future. The bad news is, you can’t drag the world back to 1700. The good news is, you don’t have to. Look at the Amish; their genius is, they’ve realized they can ignore the tempting freedoms of the world and just practice their own faith without coercing others. It’s a model to follow.

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