The development of science over the past few centuries provided a strong rival to religion for the first purpose, an explanation that not only covered the same territory but came with much stronger evidence for its truth. One might hear stories about occasional miracles at Lourdes or elsewhere, but one directly observed the miracles of science every time an electric light was turned on or an illness cured.
Science did not, however, provide an alternative for the second function. People responded, I think, in one of two ways. One was to retain a serious belief in the religion and reject those parts of modern science that they found inconsistent with it—in its more extreme form, the fundamentalist option. The other was to give up serious belief in the religion and adopt some substitute: Environmentalism, Liberal politics, Marxism (as in "liberation theology"), Objectivism, New Age superstitions.
Two recent events started me again thinking about this situation. One was a conversation with a college freshman very upset to discover that the church she was now attending blended environmentalism, which she does not believe in, with Christianity, which she does believe in. The other was a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal offering quite striking evidence, from polling data, that religious people are less superstitious, less given to a variety of what most of us would regard as irrational beliefs, than non-religious people.
The effect is not small.
The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?
The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.
Which gets us back to a recent blog post and associated discussion—on whether the fact that people were religious was a reason to expect them to behave in irrational ways, hence a reason not to want a religious person as President. Judging by at least the evidence in the article, it's the other way round. It is the non-religious President we should be worried about—because who knows what he believes instead. He might convert a two foot rise in sea level to a hundred foot rise out of pure faith in an avenging Gaea.
Fortunately, he isn't running this time.