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Philosopher and atheist Daniel Dennett, Moscow, 2019. (Dmitry Rozhkov, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Depending on your way of thinking, Daniel Dennett back in 2015 was either simply wrong or just way too under-optimistic about the future prospects for religious decline in the United States.

In a 2015 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Dennett, a prominent American philosopher, cognitive scientist and atheist, predicted that with the then-quickening pace of religious decline in the United States he expected “nones” — people without religious affiliations — would by 2050, as the estimable Pew Research Center had concluded, comprise a quarter of the entire population (they represented just under a sixth at the time, according to Dennett).

The headline and subhead of the piece — “Why the Future of Religion Is Bleak: Religious institutions have survived by controlling what their adherents know, argues Tufts Prof. Daniel C. Dennett, but today that is next to impossible” — summarizes his thinking at the time.

“If this trend continues, religion largely will evaporate, at least in the West,” Dennett wrote in his Journal piece. “Pockets of intense religious activity may continue, made up of people who will be more sharply differentiated from most of society in attitudes and customs, a likely source of growing tension and conflict.

He was on the right track but in the wrong decade.

In fact, the rise of U.S. nones has been somewhat stratospheric in historical terms, not as relatively glacial as Dennett’s assessment.

Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at California’s Pitzer College, and author of Society Without God (2008, second edition 2020), asserts that nones (including atheists, agnostics and even folks who “do believe in a higher power” but don’t subscribe to any religion), have been aggressively surging in numbers since the early 1970s.

Zuckerman says the nones’ proportion of the population has soared from a paltry 5 percent in the ’70s to a robust 23 percent in 2019 — “a remarkable change in a largely religious country.”

“Note that their rise has largely been at the expense of mainline Protestants, with the rest of the faiths holding steady or showing a slight decline,” Zuckerman added, referencing a chart that is embedded in this post.

The separate proportions of nones, Protestants, evangelicals and Catholics are now roughly on par with each other. Unfortunately for nonreligious Americans, however, they continue to punch below their weight politically; evangelicals were a hugely effective political base for Donald Trump in his surprise 2016 election, while secular voters proved — as they generally do — largely irrelevant.

Academics, atheists and authors, from right, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, together at a La Ciudad de las Ideas conference in Mexico before Hitchens death in 2011. (Werther mx, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

But this expansion of nones in the U.S. bodes well for their future political fortunes and how government may respond with a more secular impetus to public issues in the future, according to the website hosted by author and evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True (2009).

“[A]s the nation becomes less and less religious, we’ll see the effect of humanism in our laws,” Coyne writes on his website, referencing Zuckerman’s book. “Phil also notes that secular Americans are significantly more likely to support same-sex marriage than are believers (especially white evangelicals). The same goes for initiatives involved in women’s reproductive rights, the DACA program, and assisted suicide, while secularists are more opposed to the death penalty than are believers. (Zuckerman gives links to all these claims.)

In his 2015 op-ed, Dennett tried to predict what might happen in the future:

“Could anything turn this [religious] decline around? Yes, unfortunately. A global plague, a world war fought over water or oil, the collapse of the Internet (and thereby almost all electronic communication) or some as-yet unimagined catastrophe could throw the remaining population into misery and fear, the soil in which religion flourishes best.” [boldface mine for emphasis]

Well a global plague happened (coronavirus) with little apparent effect on sagging religiosity in the U.S., although a lot of Americans are now furious with Christian Right, evangelical, white supremacist nationalists who stormed the U.S. Capitol in an insurrection on Jan. 6 at outgoing President Donald Trump’s inciting behest. That event isn’t expected to make religion suddenly more popular in the nation.

We’ll check after any other catastrophes to see if they give a shot of adrenaline to faith.

Although underestimating the swiftness of U.S. religion’s denouement back in 2015, Dennett understood the historical dynamics at play, writing:

“With hardly any significant exceptions, religion recedes whenever human security and well-being rises, a fact that has recently been shown in numerous studies but was suspected by John Calvin in the 16th century. [Calvin] noted that the more prosperous and comfortable his Genevans became, the less dependent they were on church. Presumably, those who deplore the decline of religion in the world today would not welcome the sort of devastation and despair that could give religion its second wind.”

But religion, particularly Christianity, has been nothing if not resilient and enduring in Western history. Once Roman Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD) gave Christianity its first wind by formally acknowledging it’s right to operate in his realm, the faith never looked back on its astonishing evolution into ultimately the monolithic spiritual and temporal power in medieval Europe. Even the scientific revolution, Renaissance and Enlightenment didn’t much slow it down for long centuries.

In fact, it wasn’t until late in the 20th century that irreligion began to make serious inroads in the national consciousness. And its picking up steam today.

As Dennett explains, the “rain of information” that assaults Americans today (and people nearly everywhere) and tests their beliefs, even in cartoon shows, is the enemy of hidebound, ancient religions that inflexibly grip falsely foregone conclusions.

Laughter is particularly subversive. A Mormon watching the episode of ‘South Park’ that lampoons the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t just see some outsiders poking fun at her religion. She learns that vast numbers of people find her religion comical, preposterous, ludicrous, as confirmed by the writers’ decision to belittle it and the networks’ decision to broadcast it. This may heighten her loyalty, but it also may shake her confidence, and as soon as she even entertains the hypothesis that belief in God might be a life-enhancing illusion, not a rock-solid truth, she is on the slippery slope.

“The late computer scientist John McCarthy, a founder of artificial intelligence, once said, ‘When I see a slippery slope, my instinct is to build a terrace.’ That’s what theologians have been doing for hundreds of years, shoring up whatever they think they can salvage from the rain of information eroding their ancient peaks of doctrine. In some denominations the clergy are obliged to swear to uphold the “inerrant truth” of every sentence in the Bible, but this is becoming more of an embarrassment than a shield against doubt.”

Hopefully, religiosity in America and elsewhere will one day go the way of cigarette smoking — an unhealthy and preposterous addiction even pre-teens will criticize their parents for after learning the truth about it in school.

Daniel Dennett didn’t know how right he was almost six years ago.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...