With all our affluence today, rather than worrying over waning faith and despairing over our salvation, we ought to see the tremendous opportunity that affluence affords us to love our neighbors on a scale premodern people could never imagine. Such different outlook could make all the difference in the world—and beyond.
From sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s worries over “moral therapeutic deism” in their 2005 book, to the Pew Research Center’s documentation of the growing trend of religious “nones” (people who claim no religious affiliation), to common claims that we now live in a “post-Christian” culture, the idea that religion and modern affluence cannot coexist has deep roots. Indeed, one might go back further and cite sociologist Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
Peter Berger wrote an excellent rejoinder to the secularization thesis 12 years ago, noting that on the whole the phenomenon has not panned out as many feared. And yet … one cannot deny that, even in the United States, affluence and faith stand in inverse relationship. In 2014, Pew recorded that 14% of people who make over $100,000 per year identify as atheists compared to half that, 7%, among those who make $30,000 or less.
So it makes some sense to expect that increased affluence means decreased faith and religiosity, but why? And is this something modern and new? Or is it timeless?
While orders of magnitude more people, due to modern market economies, enjoy the blessings of affluence today than in the preindustrial world, human nature stays the same. Jesus warned, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). When a rich young man came to him and asked, “What must I do that I may have eternal life?” (Matt 19:16), Jesus told him to follow the commandments, which the man claimed to do. Yet apparently he still felt unfulfilled, further asking Jesus, “What do I still lack?” (Matt 19:20). To which Jesus replied, “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). Instead, the young man goes away sorrowful, and Jesus laments, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23).
The data above seem to indicate that Jesus’ lament holds for our modern affluence.
But wait a minute. Isn’t salvation a “free gift” (see Rom 5:15–16)? Don’t Christians believe “by grace you have been saved” and “not of works” (Eph 2:8–9)? How then can it also be “hard”?