Religion is declining throughout the Western world - here's why we should be glad about it.
After holding almost total power for centuries, organized religion is losing ground throughout the Western world. It’s dwindling like the retreating tide. The signs are everywhere.
As of 2021, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans don’t belong to any house of worship. Americans who say their religion is “none” are now as numerous as evangelicals or Catholics. The Millennials were the least-religious generation in American history, until our successors, Gen Z, broke that record and set one of their own.
The Roman Catholic church and the Southern Baptist Convention, the two largest Christian denominations in the country, are hemorrhaging members. Some smaller ones, like the Episcopal church, are facing outright extinction.
What fading faith looks like
What, in practical terms, does the decline of religion look like?
It looks like this: As congregations close their doors, historic church buildings are being resurrected as bookstores, breweries, concert halls and restaurants. Beautiful church-owned properties, sold off to pay the bills, are being repurposed as parks and wildlife preserves.
It looks like this: Construction of new churches has plunged in the last two decades, and has bottomed out even as the construction industry as a whole has boomed. Across the U.S., more churches are closing than opening, and the pace of closures is accelerating.
It looks like this: Overwhelming popular support for progressive policies, like comprehensive sex ed, LGBTQ rights and cannabis legalization, in states where nonreligious voters are most numerous. The growing secular vote may well have tipped the 2020 election.
Why is religion declining?
The million-dollar question is why this is all happening. Why is religion declining? And why now, rather than in any other time?
A change this big and this widespread is unlikely to have only one cause, and some sects have reasons unique to them. For example, the exposure of the horrendous child-molestation scandal among Catholic priests, and the decades-long coverup by the bishops, has severely undermined that church’s moral standing and led to an exodus of members.
However, there are some bigger trends which are affecting many religions at once. Here are the most likely candidates:
- Better education/more access to information. Surveys consistently find that higher levels of education correlate with reduced religious belief. And humanity is more educated and intelligent now than it’s ever been.
I don’t think this effect is because religion is stupid, per se. Rather, it’s a matter of broadened perspective. When your own culture’s beliefs are the only ones you know, they blend into your background knowledge of the world, and it’s natural for them to go unquestioned.
But when you know more, you can see them for what they are: one brushstroke in the palette of human creativity. And that makes it harder to take them literally. It’s easier to notice how every religion is a product of its place and its time, or to see how people of the past were just as passionately devoted to faiths we now regard as obviously untrue.
Widespread internet access has assisted by opening up the spigot of information. Where believers of the past might never have encountered a different perspective, the internet has put the testimonies of deconverts and the best atheist arguments from all of history at their fingertips, in a way that’s impossible to censor. Needless to say, more than one denomination’s leaders have raged against this.
- Political polarization. This is likely the biggest factor in the United States. Beginning in the civil rights era, religious conservatives schemed to blast a gap in the wall of separation between church and state. They made abortion, gay rights, creationism and other pet causes into political wedge issues to energize their flocks to vote and thereby attempt to ensure their own political dominion.
But the religious right undermined themselves by tying church membership so tightly to a political platform. They sent the message that if you don’t believe in preemptive war and lower taxes for the rich, you can’t be a Christian. Liberals and moderates heard that message loud and clear and headed for the doors, and that’s still going on.
- Less need for coping mechanisms. Although enormous inequality persists, an overlooked trend of the last few decades is the sharp worldwide decrease in poverty, along with decreases in war deaths, child mortality and other evils. The world is getting wealthier, more stable and more secure.
This is weakening religion, which has historically offered comfort in a chaotic world. When ordinary people’s lives are besieged by disease, war and want, the churches have taught that God will make sure their sacrifices are rewarded. That’s an appealing proposition to people who have no other source of hope. But when their lives are better and happier, people feel less need for that illusory consolation.
- The atheist movement. This one comes last, because I don’t want to give us too much credit. While atheist and secular organizations do good and important work, they’ve never had anything like the wealth or media reach of large churches. It seems likely to me that the growth of organized atheism is more an effect than a cause of religion’s weakening.
However, I think atheist activism can play a small but vital role in creating a positive-feedback loop. The more nonbelievers who write books, lobby politicians and otherwise spread the word, the more people become aware that there is an alternative, that religious belief doesn’t have to be the default. That can help win over people on the margins who already had doubts.
These are all hopeful trends, and we have every reason to believe they’ll continue. Religion isn’t the cause of every evil, but it’s been a deadweight drag on humanity’s moral and technological maturation for ages. A world where it exercises less influence will be a world that’s freer, more tolerant and more intellectually open, and that’s a state we should all devoutly wish for.
But the decline of religion has a dark side – and it’s not, as apologists would claim, that immorality will run wild and society will disintegrate without their beneficial influence. Next time, I’ll talk about the dangers that come along with this opportunity.