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.

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About Adam Lee

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