Receding Waters

Earlier this month, I wrote a post titled “The Roar of Many Waters“, a frank recognition of the despair I sometimes feel in the face of an overwhelming tide of anti-rational and confrontational religion. But although I closed that post on a brighter note, I did not within it provide any concrete reasons for nonbelievers to have hope. I would like to do so now.

But before I do that, lest I be accused of trivializing what atheists must still overcome, I would like to make it as clear as I can precisely what we are up against. No phenomenon of our society better exemplifies the opposition to atheism than that of the Christian megachurch. While many denominations’ numbers are flat or declining both here and worldwide, this is one of the few sectors that is showing substantial growth. And indeed, the Christian megachurches currently springing up across the American landscape seem frighteningly large and imposing. Essays like this Daily Kos diary chronicle in alarming detail the growth of megachurches like the 20,000-member Southeast Christian Church, whose 100+ acre campus has eight parking lots, four basketball courts, a fitness center with an indoor track, and a seven-and-a-half-story sanctuary with five massive video screens and stadium riser seating that can accommodate almost 10,000 worshippers. As the diary points out, Southeast Christian takes in tens of thousands of dollars in donations every week, and uses most of this to promote missionary activity, fund anti-choice groups and homophobic organizations that claim to be able to “cure” gays, and support at every turn efforts to fuse religion with right-wing politics and tear down the wall of separation of church and state. Another, Saddleback Church, has 22 weekly Sunday services and attracts 20,000 worshippers each weekend. A New York Times article from last year, “The Soul of the New Exurb“, describes the Radiant megachurch, which has a 1,000-student private school and encourages its members’ children in public schools to challenge teachers who discuss evolution. Some of these megachurches are so large they have been nicknamed “Six Flags Over Jesus“.

At first glance, stories such as this might seem to give an atheist a reason to despair. These megachurches and others like them are enormous, extremely well-funded, highly influential, and actively hostile to freedom of religion and other constitutional liberties. Worse, they seem designed to foster an insular, cult-like atmosphere – in essence, a theocracy unto themselves – by providing so many different services that members need never interact with anyone outside the church (Southeast Christian offers everything from scrapbooking clubs to whitewater rafting clubs to motorcycle clubs, which is typical of the brand), thus making it easy to spread their distorted message and virtually impossible for dissenting opinions to be heard. And of course, beyond the megachurches, there are many more smaller denominations and churches that preach the religion of darkness, of ignorance, and of hatred of the outside world.

And yet, this is not the whole story. The apparent strength of the megachurches belies the underlying truth: the United States of America is undeniably becoming less religious and specifically less Christian.

The strongest evidence for this comes from the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, which found in that year that almost 30 million Americans claim to have no religion – about 14% of the population, and more than double the number from ten years earlier. In a story discussing this good news, USA Today points out that the number of Americans who declare themselves non-religious is more than the number of professed Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians combined. The story also provides a Flash graphic showing the survey’s findings about religious affiliation in the individual states. And as readers can verify for themselves, the non-religious rank among the largest identifiable groups in virtually every state. One has to search diligently to find a state where they are not at least the third largest group, and in a surprising number of states – including some in the heart of the Bible Belt – the non-religious rank second or even first.

Other studies and polls corroborate this finding. Even the Christian Post admits that a Gallup poll taken in May of this year reveals “a 10 percent drop over the past three decades of Americans who believe the Bible to be literally true”. This drop was paralleled by a rise in the number of Americans, from 45% to 49%, who think the Bible is inspired by God but not necessarily to be taken literally – but there was a larger rise, from 13% to 19%, of Americans who believe the Bible is an “ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man”. Significantly, the two groups that have the lowest percentage of belief in a literal and inerrant Bible are the highly educated and the young. The older demographics with higher rates of fundamentalist belief are dying away, and the people replacing them are consistently less religious. Another study, this one in 2004 by the University of Chicago, found that the number of Protestants in the U.S. is decreasing and may, for the first time ever, be less than 50% of the total population by the end of the decade. (Delightfully, the study’s director noted, “It is clear that many of [the people who profess no religion] are former Protestants”).

In the light of evidence such as this, stories about the rise of megachurches can be appreciated in context. The rise of these institutions is not due to growth of Christianity itself; it may simply be a symptom of the greater polarization of our society. As the tide turns against them, more fundamentalist believers are retrenching, joining together in larger churches to isolate themselves from the outside world, but their numbers are not growing. If anything, their absolute numbers are actually decreasing.

Are non-believers the majority in the United States? No; far from it. For one thing, there is still the important question of how many of the 14% of citizens that profess no religion are actually atheists, as opposed to how many are theists who belong to no organized church. Even beyond this, it is undeniable that the majority of Americans are still religious in a conventional sense. But the trends are on our side, and they show every sign of continuing into the foreseeable future. We have a very long way to go before we can truly forge a society built on reason, but we should not overlook the progress that has been made so far, nor should we pass up the chance to draw hope from it. We are not drowning in a sea of faith. That may have been the case in the past, but although the waves still fiercely batter us, there are unmistakable signs that they are beginning to recede; our voices are starting to be heard. And when those dark waters draw back entirely, as one day they will, the rock of reason will be left standing unbroken.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Landis Schmitt

    The seeming growth of fundamentalist Christian cults in this country is a mirage. Most of the people who join these groups are desperate for some kind of meaning in their troubled lives. Eventually, many of them will come to reallize there is no solution to their problems in prayer or megachurch. They will fall away from the megachurch and, hopefully, some of them will reallize that they must take responsiblity for their own problems and mistakes.
    The great evolutionary river of time will erode this false truth and the course of humnan endeavor will proceed on towards enlightment. They will come to reallize that human beings are responsible for their own growth and well-being, not some magical sky god.

    Landis of Oregon

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    “…but although the waves still fiercely batter us, there are unmistakable signs that they are beginning to recede; our voices are starting to be heard. And when those dark waters draw back entirely, as one day they will, the rock of reason will be left standing unbroken.”

    We’ve seen this prediction before, though. Throughout the 20th Century various people made predictions such as these and yet, here we are in 2006, and these predictions are still being made.

    To add to your analogy of faith as battering waves, I think that this sea of faith and religiocity has tides. In the 50′s we had the Red scare and such events as adding ‘under God’ to the Pledge of alligience; in the 60′s and early 70′s the tide receeded with the backlash against the 50′s and later against Vietnam; yet since Roe v Wade the tide has been rising once again. Has it now begun to receed? Possibly, given the numbers you’ve shown. However, I think its very premature to think we are going to see the day when “those dark waters draw back entirely.” Those very words could possibly have been spoken in 1906, yet here we are. I take these numbers with a grain of salt: I see them simply as the tide receeding. Unfortunatly, I’ll belive the “rock of reason” has arrived when I see it.

  • http://www.gibsonian.blogspot.com Ian B Gibson

    For one thing, there is still the important question of how many of the 14% of citizens that profess no religion are actually atheists, as opposed to how many are theists who belong to no organized church.

    I think you hit the nail on the head there. I’m sure that only a small fraction of that 14% would actually describe themselves as atheists. More importantly, most people who have no organized religion are probably no more rational than their religious contemporaries; it’s more likely to be indifference or never having been indoctrinated into a specific belief system that puts them in that 14%. Furthermore, you also have to take account of all the new-age and non-denominational beliefs that so often take the place of formal religion for many people, as well.

    So whilst I’d love to think that people are becoming more rational in their thinking, you are going to have to show me more evidence first, I’m afraid.

  • SpeirM

    On the other hand, I’m convinced that an even more appreciable percentage of those who claim to believe in God haven’t really thought it through. They’ll answer polls saying they’re Creationists, for instance, when they couldn’t even properly define the term. Many of these people don’t live their lives as though they were religious. If they tell you they’re religious, it’s because they think that’s what they’re supposed to say.

  • Archi Medez

    Re percentage of atheists.

    http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html

    Top 50 Countries With Highest Proportion of Atheists / Agnostics
    (Zuckerman, 2005)
    http://www.adherents.com/largecom/com_atheist.html

    Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist 1.1 billion
    http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html#Nonreligious

    “Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman compiled country-by-country survey, polling and census numbers relating to atheism, agnosticism, disbelief in God and people who state they are non-religious or have no religious preference. These data were published in the chapter titled “Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. by Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK (2005). Different type of data collection methodologies using different types of questions showed a consistent pattern: In most countries only a tiny number of people (zero to a fraction of 1 percent) will answer “atheism” or “atheist” when asked an open-ended question about what their religious preference. A slightly larger number of people will answer “yes” if asked pointedly if they are an atheist. A slightly larger number than that will answer “no” when asked if they believe in any type of God, deities, or Higher Power. A slightly larger number answer “no” when asked simply if they “believe in God” (omitting wording indicating more nebulous, less anthropomorphic conceptions of divinity). Finally, a larger number of people answer “none” or “non-religious” when asked asked an open-ended queston about what their religious preference is. Although figures vary for each country, average numbers indicate that roughly half of the people who self-identify as “nonreligious” also answer “yes” when asked if they believe in God or a Higher Power.”

    Some Canadian and Canadian vs U.S. stats:

    28% (of Canadians) following other religions or no religion

    Religion data from the 2001 Canadian census
    http://www.religioustolerance.org/can_rel0.htm

    Religion: U.S. compared with Canada
    http://www.religioustolerance.org/canus_rel.htm

  • SpeirM

    There was something I found encouraging in your last link, Archi. In the U.S., 71% responded that “There are many true religions.” Now, while I would fall into the 5% that say there is no true religion, at least such an overwhelming number of people who aren’t likely to try to impose a particular religion has got to be a relatively good thing.

  • http://rightside.fissure.org Shishberg

    Just to play devil’s advocate (or god’s advocate) for a second… is it possible that the number of people who are willing to say that they’re nonreligious is increasing, rather than the number of people who actually are nonreligious? Social stigmas can make people lie in a survey, or at least shift the benefit of the doubt (as in “I haven’t been to church in twenty years, and I haven’t really thought about what I believe, but if I did to I’d want to end up on the Christian side so I’ll say that”).

    Question: has atheism become significantly more or less of a stigma in the last ten years in the US? I get the impression that it’s always been more serious than it is here in Australia, but I’m not sure which direction it’s moving, especially after 2001.

  • Alex Weaver

    In the light of evidence such as this, stories about the rise of megachurches can be appreciated in context. The rise of these institutions is not due to growth of Christianity itself; it may simply be a symptom of the greater polarization of our society. As the tide turns against them, more fundamentalist believers are retrenching, joining together in larger churches to isolate themselves from the outside world, but their numbers are not growing. If anything, their absolute numbers are actually decreasing.

    In other words, they’re getting desperate? ^.^

    How much do you suppose a complex like that 100 acre thing costs, to build and per year?

  • andrea

    The rise of the megachurch reminds me of the rise of political parties in the 30’s. It seems that many humans need to feel part of a herd. With these megachurches, they can get both the feeling of pious “rightness” and political power. They can have what feels like a massive “us” in response to the increasing “them”. Their rallies are not so much different than those in Nuremberg. How many of their “members” actually go for the religion, and not just the “perks”?

    I also wonder if their 100 AC complexes are all tax-free in that they are supposedly “churches”? It’s always unpleasant to see churches suckling off the teat of public services when contributing nothing to support them.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    For Doug:

    We’ve seen this prediction before, though. Throughout the 20th Century various people made predictions such as these and yet, here we are in 2006, and these predictions are still being made.

    I agree that setting specific dates for the end of religion is a fool’s errand. (I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime, though it will be intriguing to see how much more progress nonbelievers will make.) But I don’t think those earlier predictions were wrong, just a little premature. I’m confident that it will happen eventually.

    Unfortunately, what we lack is a good set of survey data showing the percentage of the non-religious in, say, Ingersoll’s time, or at the country’s founding. That would help calibrate our predictions by giving a good sense of whether the absolute percentage of nonbelievers has been rising and falling over time, or whether it’s been steadily growing all this time and it’s just the greater or lesser degrees of organization among them in various historical eras, and therefore the presence or absence of an effective opposition to fundamentalism, that produces the appearance of tides of faith washing in and out.

    For Ian:

    I think you hit the nail on the head there. I’m sure that only a small fraction of that 14% would actually describe themselves as atheists…. Furthermore, you also have to take account of all the new-age and non-denominational beliefs that so often take the place of formal religion for many people, as well.

    While only a small fraction of that 14% would describe themselves as atheists – no doubt because of all the slanderous stereotypes that have been attached to the word – the open question is how many actually are atheists, in either a philosophical or a practical sense. I would point out that the 2001 ARIS survey included New Age and non-denominational Christian as specific options (percentage breakdown of the findings is here), so I do think it’s reasonable to assume that most of the people who answered as non-religious do not consider themselves as belonging to either of those two groups. For this reason I’m confident that, if perhaps not a majority, then at the very least a significant plurality of the people identifying as non-religious would agree that they were atheists if the religious stereotypes around that word were cleared away.

    For SpeirM:

    Many of these people don’t live their lives as though they were religious. If they tell you they’re religious, it’s because they think that’s what they’re supposed to say.

    Indeed. :)

    For Shishberg:

    Just to play devil’s advocate (or god’s advocate) for a second… is it possible that the number of people who are willing to say that they’re nonreligious is increasing, rather than the number of people who actually are nonreligious?

    That’s quite possible. But even if that’s the case, it’s still a very good thing – it means that the nonreligious are becoming increasingly willing to speak out, and it implies that there may be even more waiting in the closet, if we can persuade them to step out as well.

  • Archi Medez

    Shishberg,

    You question (re % declared vs % actual) is a fundamental one and I suspect people like Zuckerman and others have addressed it.

    I haven’t seen the methodology myself, but I would make an educated guess that in gathering data for most of the questions about religious beliefs, in western countries, the responses are anonymous (i.e., person cannot be identified with their responses) and perceived as such by the participants. Such factors are likely to be taken into account in any such research, in western countries, at least as far back as the 1950s. Anonymity reduces the social desirability effect on responses. There still might be some degree of stigma effect in anonymously classifying oneself an atheist, i.e., an internalized stigma. There may also be plain ignorance–many people are de facto atheists but do not realize that they fit the atheist category better than other categories.*

    *(For example, in my own case, I had been a non-believer from the age of about 11 or 12, but was not explicitly aware that I had been an “atheist” until about 20 years later, when I actually looked up the definitions for atheist, and compared them with those for agnostic, deist, pantheist, etc.).