Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Christianity's influence continues to diminish and a recent Harvard survey is just one example of why

Associated Press

If you needed further evidence that the secularization of America is not just heading our way, but is already here, I offer exhibit No. 812.

Atheists and agnostics now outnumber Protestants and Catholics combined among a key group of very bright college freshmen, those beginning this fall in Harvard University's class of 2019.

Parents used to worry that wild-eyed pinko professors might debunk their children's faith. Now the kids arrive at college with no faith to debunk.

The Harvard Crimson surveyed the school's incoming first-year students on topics ranging from religion to sex to politics to drug use.

Here are some of the religion numbers:

■ Some 37.9 percent of freshmen described themselves as atheists or agnostics. That's up from 32.4 percent two years ago.

■ By comparison, 17 percent said they were Protestants and 17.1 percent said they were Catholics, a total of 34.1 percent, down 8 points from two years ago.

■ A whopping 60.6 percent (presumably including many of those who had some affiliation with a faith group) declared themselves "not at all religious" or "not very religious."

■ Less than one-fourth as many, just 14.5 percent, said they were "religious" or "very religious," a figure that apparently includes not just Christians but also Jews, Muslims, Hindus and members of other faiths. So the number of devoted Christians is even smaller.

Demographers and religion journalists have for some time noted a rejection of religion among U.S. millennials — young adults between ages 18 and 34.

But as Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported in the Washington Post's online Acts of Faith section, The Crimson numbers are far starker than for millennials generally.

It's not wise to jump to apocalyptic conclusions from Harvard's limited numbers. Harvard's just one school. Its freshmen may not be representative of other elite schools' incoming students, much less students at second- or third-tier colleges.

Also, people quite often are less religious when they're young, ambitious and believe themselves invincible, but turn toward the transcendent as they get older and life humbles them. Harvard's current freshmen could, then, change.

But I wouldn't bet on it. That doesn't appear to be where the larger trend is headed. In any case, the implications of The Crimson's survey are worth thinking about.

While Harvard is just one school, it's among the more influential institutions in the land, the training ground for a disproportionate number of future U.S. Supreme Court justices, CEOs, scholars and government leaders.

You might almost say that as Harvard goes, so goes the country. That being the case, or even partly the case, we're going to end up far more secular than we are now.

If you're a secularist, you may view this as grand news. If you're a churchgoer, as I am, you may find this unsettling. Christians make a lot of mistakes and incur a lot of public ire, much of it self-inflicted. But they also do great good. Their influence on society has been infinitely more positive than negative.

At their best, they remind us all we're more than just bone, gristle and corpuscles, that we're eternal souls imbued with divine purpose and eternal hope.

Historically, they've served as a moral fulcrum for society, and led the way toward the abolition of slavery, child labor laws, prison reform and care for the poor and elderly, among many other blessings.

Christianity's influence already has diminished, though, and will diminish further.

We imperfect disciples must learn to view ourselves as simply one more minority voice. Not as persecuted, just as less of a force than we once were.

We must try to communicate our good news of love, mercy and grace in fresh ways, to a culture that increasingly has no earthly idea what we're talking about and delightedly mocks us.

You know, that's not such a sad fate.

Christianity was born as a minority religion. God perhaps intended it to be that. It seems to function at its purest when it's the joyful, scandalous faith of underdogs.