Jamelle Bouie brings us the surprising news that a not insignificant plurality of Americans believe that capitalism and Christianity are in conflict. Here’s the graph:
What’s even more surprising is that the number goes up, not down, when you narrow the sample size to Christians only.
I can’t comment on how well the view of Christianity as an anti-capitalist philosophy tracks with the textual evidence in the Gospels, but I will say that numbers like this complicate the argument that popular religion is little more than a form of ideological control used to the benefit of the ruling party. It turns out majority religious views in the United States are not so easily caricatured.
So why do so many atheists waste so much breathe dueling with strawmen? When it comes to the New Atheists, I don’t think we can entirely rule out an economic incentive: the more inflammatory the claims, the more press attention they get. But commerce is surely only a very small part of it. I think atheists are also internalizing what the right has known for awhile: martyrdom is seductive. As much as it makes us rend our garments, it just feels good to be one of the few sane people defending capital-T Truth from the violent horde. Hell, martyrdom is what helped popularize early Christianity in the first place — though, in that instance, Christians were literally being martyred.
I don’t mean to be glib. I understand this intuition that nonbelievers are under attack from all sides, I really do. Certainly there are vast swaths of America where it’s prudent to conceal your lack of faith — and that includes virtually every level of elected federal office. It’s also true that many of the more vehement atheists I know lost their faith while growing up in regions and families where non-belief was simply not an option. It’s natural to feel besieged under those conditions, but calling people of faith either con artists or dumb rubes is no less unfair than suggesting that atheists are morally deficient.
And besides, as I’ve said before, name calling gets boring real fast compared to the sort of debates we could be having. For a good example of the latter, check out Matt Yglesias here. Even if you think the metaethical grounding for Christian values is complete fantasy, scrutinizing it helps us finds new ways to think about our own moral foundations. And it can have some surprising or counterintuitive implications, like the poll results at the top of this post.
Which, as I’ve said before, are fascinating for all kinds of reasons. This is just an aside, but I can’t help but wonder now if American soil isn’t ripe for some kind of Red Tory or Christian socialist movement (albeit by another name in the latter case).