By James A. Haught
Last fall, the 2017 American Family Survey by Brigham Young University found that churchless people have become the nation’s largest segment. Asked “What is your present religion, if any?”, five percent replied “atheist,” six percent said “agnostic” and 23 percent chose “nothing in particular.”
This religionless total of 34 percent outstripped Protestants (33 percent), Catholics (21 percent), Jews (two percent), Muslims (two percent), Mormons (one percent) and all smaller groups.
The AFS findings were the highest yet in the snowballing trend of Americans who say their religion is “none.” Previous polls put the growing unchurched tally at about one-fourth.
Whatever the correct ratio, it’s clear that religion is collapsing in the United States as it did in other Western democracies. We live in the long-foreseen Secular Age when gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, messiahs, prophecies and other church dogmas fade into myth. Church membership and attendance are dropping relentlessly.
The trend began in Europe after World War II. Decade after decade, churchgoing dropped until only a fringe of old people worshiped. Pope Benedict lamented: “Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience.” Columnist George Will called the Vatican “109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief.” Today, what’s left of European religion consists mostly of fervent Pentecostalism among tropical immigrants and Islam that is alien to much of society.
Ironically, Europe spent centuries killing people over religion — in Crusades, Inquisitions, witch-hunts, Reformation wars, pogroms against Jews, massacres of Anabaptists, etc. Then finally it decided that faith is inconsequential.
The secular tsunami spread to Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and other advanced societies. At first, America seemed immune, but the trend blossomed in the 1990s and has increased steadily. At first, only about eight percent of American adults told pollsters their faith is “none,” but the ratio rose with remarkable swiftness.
Southern Baptists lost a million members in the past decade. So many Catholics have quit that one-tenth of American adults now are ex-Catholics. As for tall-steeple mainline Protestants, they have shrunk drastically since the 1960s. United Methodists dropped from 14 million to below 7 million. Presbyterians fell from 4.2 million to 1.4 million. Episcopalians faded from 3.6 million to 1.8 million. The Disciples of Christ sank from 1.9 million to 600,000. Meanwhile, America’s population doubled.
Although this country is called a “Christian nation,” church statistician David Olson says only 17 percent of Americans now attend worship on a typical Sunday — and he expects a drop to 10 percent by 2050. Thus nine-tenths of people won’t be in pews. Churchgoing will become a fringe activity.
Western civilization evolves through epochs: the Renaissance, the Age of Kings, the Enlightenment, the Colonial Era, the Industrial Revolution, the spread of democracy, etc. Now the Secular Age is blooming.
The relentless retreat of supernatural religion is transforming America’s culture, although most people hardly notice. The metamorphosis has deep social and political implications.
Those who abandon faith mostly are young, and they tend to hold liberal social values. They generally support gay marriage, the public safety net, legal marijuana, women’s right to choose abortion, acceptance of minorities and immigrants, etc. They shun politics and hardly vote — but they hold the potential to change America’s moral climate.
White evangelicals are the core of the Republican Party. They tipped the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan, the 2000 election to George W. Bush and the 2016 election to Donald Trump. Strangely, those fundamentalists contradict the values of Jesus. He taught followers to help the poor, heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted — basically the agenda of the liberal Democratic safety net. Yet white evangelicals back the GOP, which tries to slash the safety net. In effect, they oppose Christ.
However, white evangelicals keep shrinking, along with other faith groups. I hope their power to sway elections disappears. A 2017 report by the Public Religion Research Institute said:
“Today, only 43 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81 percent) of Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination.”
That’s a stunning drop in four decades. Of course, part of the decline stemmed from the “browning of America” — the flood of Hispanics, Asians, blacks, Pacific Islanders and others who constantly whittle the white majority.
Pew Research projects that Islam eventually will become the largest religion globally. As for America, it expects churchless ranks to grow to 62 million by 2020, and 101 million by 2050.
Scholars offer various explanations for the western secular surge. Mostly, they say that religion thrives in low-income, undeveloped lands where people need supernatural comfort — but that need vanishes when life becomes affluent and secure.
Personally, I think education and intelligence are involved. Several studies have found that doubters are smarter than believers. Researchers say America’s average I.Q. rises by three points per decade, while tests are recalibrated to keep the median at 100. Many intelligent people can’t swallow magical claims of religion. Americans are becoming smarter, and they’re leaving supernaturalism behind.
Of course, American churches will linger interminably as congregations age. But they’re increasingly sidelined. Around the world, religion remains powerful in Islamic lands, and Christianity is booming in less-developed tropical places — where faith mostly involves charismatic Pentecostal worship. In fact, the latter is so strong that one-fourth of all the world’s Christians now “speak in tongues.”
Culture change isn’t clearly visible while it’s happening, but I think the Secular Age is rolling in western democracies. Every American city remains graced by lovely church spires pointing heavenward. However, the supernaturalism behind them is fading.
A half-century ago, in The Age of Reason Begins, philosopher-historian Will Durant wrote that, if Christianity dies in western civilization, it will be “the basic event of modern times.” That basic event seems to be in progress.
(Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. This article previously appeared in Freethought Today.)