Hope and the godless American hellscape


There’s a story in the Post today on the decline of Christianity in America.   The number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians — still pretty high, at 71% — dropped by 8% in a seven-year span, according to a Pew survey.  And the trend for those born between 1981 and 1989 (“older millenials,” which makes them sound like a race of ageless immortals from a fantasy novel) over that same seven-year stretch has been to move away from religious belief even more as they grow older.

I had this weird thought as I was reading.  Or not really a thought, but this weird experience of reading the story from two different perspectives at the same time.  Like left and right stereo channels.

On the left channel was regular me, agnostic and secular.  On that side, I read the story and felt pretty good about it.  Hopeful, even.  Because I think religion, on the whole, is at best very weird and kind of embarrassing, and at worst a justification for intolerance and prejudice and oppression.  (Actually the “at worst” is a lot worse than that.)  So there’s something comforting — that’s the word that popped into my head — about the idea of living in an increasingly secular country.   Maybe that won’t make us a more benevolent and humane country, but it’s worth rooting for.

On the right channel, though, I read the story as I imagined a religious person might read it.   Full of dismay, because what the hell, right?  Here I’ve invested my whole life in some weird belief system, and I’ve projected all the supposed values of that belief system onto my country, because I’ve been raised to believe America was founded on Christian principles.  Easy enough, I thought, to see this as evidence of some slow and terrible erosion in the country’s moral fabric.  Easy enough to see it held up as proof that American values are under siege.   If I’m this kind of person, maybe I slam the story down on the coffee table, or just furiously tap the online window closed, and then I go stare out the window at the bleak American hellscape around me.

Just a strange experience, to have those two channels of thought going pretty much simultaneously.  I don’t know that it’s really empathy.  Sympathetic imagination, maybe.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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