Two Poles

While reading Richard Sloan’s book Blind Faith, I came across a passage that jumped out at me:

[Gallup Polling] also indicates that from 1939 to 2005, 37 to 49 percent of those surveyed reported that they attended church or synagogue in the week before they were surveyed. From the period to 1992 to 2005, those who reported that they attended once per week ranged from 28 to 36 percent. For those reporting attendance almost every week, the range was 9 to 14 percent.

What I noticed is that the percentage of Americans who reported church attendance every week – 9 to 14 percent – is virtually identical to the percentage of Americans who are non-religious. Although a large majority of Americans state that they believe in God and attend religious services at least periodically, the number who are actually committed to religious belief and observance and consider it a major part of their lifestyle seems to be much smaller. It’s tempting to speculate that, in America or any other society, the number of people who are fiercely religious tends to be about equal to the number who are not religious at all, with a majority in between that holds tightly to neither pole of opinion.

It’s a well-known phenomenon that, when asked by pollsters, people dramatically overstate how often they attend church. Since it’s widely believed that religion is a marker of good character, and since people naturally want to think of themselves as good and appear good to others, they tend to give false answers to this question. (This is why surveys announcing that “90% of the population believes in God!” should be taken with a grain of salt.) If this misleading data was stripped away, the reported number of people who are religious might shrink by a startlingly large amount.

These facts are a counterweight to those who claim that atheism is unnatural and will never be popular. What they show is that, far from being an ineradicable trait deeply ingrained into the minds of all humanity, religious belief is very much a cultural phenomenon. There’s a small minority which is truly religious, but there’s a much larger number whose level of religious commitment is low or negligible. Since religious belief is the dominant social norm, many of these people go along with the crowd, or call themselves religious to fit in. But if it were not the prevailing prejudice that being a good person requires religion, most of the people in this group would have little to stop them from leaving.

It’s plausible that this middle group can be influenced by those at either pole, depending on which group is more successful in the court of public opinion. Given that American religiosity has been declining with each new generation, it’s not out of the question that we will come to a tipping point where the majority will be atheists, not believers. Any such transformation is still a long way off, but there is good reason to think it is at least possible.

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