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.

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.

  • LindaJoy

    Well Adam, I would love to be as optimistic as you, but I live in the south so it’s hard to see that decline you are talking about. I read a book of letters written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. After Jefferson and Adams patched up their differences in retirement, they sent an amazing series of letters to each other on the subject of religion. Adams left Congregationalism for Unitarianism which reflected his growing skepticism. Anyway, in one set of exchanges both men agreed that since they had helped to found what they predicted would be the most educated and enlightened country in the world, the population would eventually give up the mythologies of the Trinity religions, and that the largest church in the US would be Unitarian. Too bad they were so off on the prediction. They forgot, I guess, how agressive and arrogant Christianity is as a movement. Anyway, religiousity seems to wax and wane in our history, but never has given up the balance to atheism or freethinking. I am wondering though, based on what you have said, if the Internet will play some kind of new role in changing that balance. I think we all just have to continue to throw those freethinking questions into the cyberworld (and the local newspaper) and hope that some of it sticks. What you do here is very important to that end, so I’ll borrow your optimism, at least for today.

  • bestonnet

    Original Post:

    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.

    Probably a lot of deists in there (who are basically just atheists that believe in a god).

    Original Post:

    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.

    That’s just a coincidence that our time in the US non-religion and really religion are of about equal power (even though rather sadly only one has actually been using it).

    LindaJoy:

    Well Adam, I would love to be as optimistic as you, but I live in the south so it’s hard to see that decline you are talking about.

    This process is slow and that takes place over many generations which is probably why you find it hard to see.

    Religion very much is dying out it’s just that the process is taking a lot longer than was originally expected.

    LindaJoy:

    Anyway, religiousity seems to wax and wane in our history, but never has given up the balance to atheism or freethinking.

    Oh it very much has, we still have a long way to go, but we have forced religion into retreat to the point at which much of religion has stopped trying to explain the universe and it has a lot less political power than it once did (i.e. the Church is no longer the state).

    There is still the myth that religion has something to do with morality other than opposition and there are still people who think that religion gives life meaning or a hope of immorality but even in those areas religion is in retreat.

  • http://www.currion.net Paul C

    Interested readers may be further interested in this article. It’s light on citations, and I strongly suspect that the authors are deliberately overlooking weaknesses in the global data; but the conclusions do fit with my own feelings on the correlation between material security and religiosity.

  • LindaJoy

    Bestonnet- As for your point on political power- please read “The Family” by Jeff Sharlet. Elite fundamentalism has had much more behind the scenes power in the US government than anyone has realized for about the last 70 years. It’s a pretty scary book, but I highly recommend it as an understanding of the history and influence of fundamentalism since our founding. Hopefully Mr. Sharlet’s expose’ will help flush out some of this group’s power and weaken it. Now I feel like we all have to ask our reps and candidates if they pray with “the family” to find out if they actually believe in democracy or not. I’d recommend that everyone who comes to this site reads this book.

  • MisterDomino

    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.

    I think that the generational aspect is crucial in this case, Ebon. Remember that just fifty years ago, atheism was tied to the fear-mongering surrounding communism. To many Americans of the McCarthy era, atheists were communists, and vice versa. Now that the Cold War is over, the religious extremists are looking for a new boogeyman through which they can channel their power. This could explain why the teaching of evolution in schools is receiving so much flak from the fundies; by using the term “Darwinism,” religious propagandists can equate evolution with social darwinism, which they tenuously link to genocide and — you guessed it, communism (or insert political extremist movement of your choice).

    People are beginning to distance themselves from such ideas, and as each new generation grows further and further from the Cold War, so too will they stray from religious extremism based upon rabble rousing.

    @ LindaJoy:

    I would love to be as optimistic as you, but I live in the south so it’s hard to see that decline you are talking about.

    Granted that the South isn’t the whole country, though.

    Going back to what I mentioned earlier, I think that many of the voters and figureheads in politics are stuck in that World War II / Cold War era in which atheism was somehow equated with radical political movements. The “new” atheism emerging in the United States is life-affirming and politically sound; this is what scares the religious right, and they are reacting harshly in an attempt to salvage their stranglehold on any future generations. Without such momentum, they lose generations of potential proselytizers.

    It won’t happen overnight, and probably not even in my lifetime, but there will come a day when religious fundamentalists are regarded as mentally unstable by the majority. There will come a time when talking to imaginary beings (i.e. prayer) is regarded for what it is: delusional behavior. And I am confident that some day, a long way down the road, one’s religious affiliation will be as unimportant as what kind of toothpaste he uses.

    Time is against them. They just don’t realize that they’re fighting a losing battle.

  • Polly

    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

    This does not sound like happy news. It kinda supports what I sometimes fear: That atheism is an extreme position in a spectrum of religiosity, with fundamentalists being at the other end. Sort of a 0-10 scale of faith. Extremes are almost always forever marginalized. Although, I’d like to see a lot more marginalization of Fundies.

    By “extreme” I, of course, don’t mean that atheism is out of bounds as a rational conclusion given the dearth of evidence for the existence of god. I mean that it’s further than most people seem willing to go. It could be that affluent societies can reach a static equilibrium in which the population is just moderate enough not to be oppressive, but “spiritual” enough to relegate atheists to the fringe and, maybe, dopey enough to accept the teaching of pseudoscience in classrooms.

    But, seeing as the US is one of the most religious 1st world countries, I am still optimistic that our ranks are due for a swelling.

  • bestonnet

    Paul C:

    Interested readers may be further interested in this article. It’s light on citations, and I strongly suspect that the authors are deliberately overlooking weaknesses in the global data; but the conclusions do fit with my own feelings on the correlation between material security and religiosity.

    Getting good statistics about religion is very difficult so that’s to be expected.

    LindaJoy:

    Elite fundamentalism has had much more behind the scenes power in the US government than anyone has realized for about the last 70 years.

    The reason they have power right now is because the fundamentalists can give votes to candidates that support their agenda.

    Atheists in the US are probably a larger group than the fundamentalists and almost as good at voting which means that the power wielded by atheists is actually about equal to what the fundies have.

    The only difference is that the fundies have actually been using their power.

    There is also the fact that the fundies are growing slower than the non-religious. Once Obama’s 2 terms are up it should be time for politicians to pander to atheists.

    MisterDomino:

    I think that the generational aspect is crucial in this case,

    It is, but for a different reason, namely that most people decide what whether they’ll be religious or not in their teenage years and stick to it for the rest of their life.

    MisterDomino:

    Now that the Cold War is over, the religious extremists are looking for a new boogeyman through which they can channel their power.

    They’re trying to use Islam but along with overestimating the threat it poses (not that it doesn’t pose a threat but just like with communism they overestimate how much of one it poses) and they are trying to claim that Christianity is somehow the answer to it despite Christianity not being different enough to have an advantage over Islam.

    Going back to what I mentioned earlier, I think that many of the voters and figureheads in politics are stuck in that World War II / Cold War era in which atheism was somehow equated with radical political movements. The “new” atheism emerging in the United States is life-affirming and politically sound; this is what scares the religious right, and they are reacting harshly in an attempt to salvage their stranglehold on any future generations. Without such momentum, they lose generations of potential proselytizers.

    It’s more likely to be that atheists are starting to assert the political that they have in opposition to the ultra-religious and the greater number of non-religious means that the fundies actually have less power than their biggest enemies.

    Polly:

    This does not sound like happy news.

    It’s a coincidence, for atheism to go from almost non-existent to dominant it gradually increase in numbers and at some point along that increase it will approximately equal the number of fundies.

    Polly:

    It kinda supports what I sometimes fear: That atheism is an extreme position in a spectrum of religiosity, with fundamentalists being at the other end. Sort of a 0-10 scale of faith. Extremes are almost always forever marginalized. Although, I’d like to see a lot more marginalization of Fundies.

    Given that other countries have higher proportions of atheists I wouldn’t worry about that.

    Even in the US the youth are far more atheistic than they are fundamentalist.

  • http://ecstathy.blogspot.com efrique

    There seems to be an inconsistency between the quote and your discussion of it.

    To be specific, the quote contains three statements:
    ( a) 1939-2005: 37-49 percent report “attended church/synagogue in the week before”
    ( b) 1992-2005: 28-36 percent report “attended once per week”
    ( c) 1992-2005: 9-14 percent report “attended almost every week”

    (b) appears to be stronger than ( c), since not attending in a week would rule you out of (b) but place you in ( c).

    Meanwhile, your discussion has:
    “the percentage … who reported church attendance every week – 9 to 14 percent”

    This category appears to correspond to (b).

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    The book’s original discussion of that point was confusing to me as well, efrique. I gave as much of the quote as I could so as not to give a misleading impression. In any case, the fact that people tend to overstate how often they attend is a factor that needs to be taken into account in all of these numbers.

    LindaJoy: The decline in Christianity may be hard to see on the individual level, but on the demographic level, there’s no doubt. The number of atheists is growing in every generation, and the number of believers is steadily declining. Protestants will soon be less than 50% of the country’s population for the first time ever, if they aren’t already. Even the vaunted Christian megachurches represent consolidation more than growth.

  • bestonnet

    efrique:

    To be specific, the quote contains three statements:
    ( a) 1939-2005: 37-49 percent report “attended church/synagogue in the week before”
    ( b) 1992-2005: 28-36 percent report “attended once per week”
    ( c) 1992-2005: 9-14 percent report “attended almost every week”

    (b) appears to be stronger than ( c), since not attending in a week would rule you out of (b) but place you in ( c).

    Along with the fact that a lot of people who say yes are lying there is also the possibility that once per week was interpreted to mean “Once per week every so often” by most respondents which would actually be quite a bit weaker than almost every week.

  • Alex Weaver

    Those results would make perfect sense if the question had been in a multiple choice/”Radio button” format.

  • http://dangerousintersection.org/ Erich Vieth

    I have no statistics to back this, but I’ve long suspected that the majority of Americans are closet atheists/agnostics. It seems like your statistics bolster my anecdotal experience. This widespread lack of serious belief often becomes apparent when I have opportunities to speak with individuals about their religion, one-on-one, not in a church. Away from church and when not threatened by the glare of a fellow believer, numerous “religious” people have admitted to me that they sometimes wonder whether there is a God. Over my lifetime, I’ve had at least three priests admit to me that they wondered whether there was a God. On Sundays, though, they are always back at that pulpit acting like they have no doubts–is that the power of the paycheck or what??

    Perhaps Daniel Dennett (“Breaking the Spell”) had this same experience with the many closet agnostic/atheists out there, resulting in his declaration that most religious people don’t really believe in God. Rather, they believe in belief. They believe that they are supposed to believe in God.

  • bestonnet

    Erich Vieth:

    I have no statistics to back this, but I’ve long suspected that the majority of Americans are closet atheists/agnostics.

    Wouldn’t be all that surprising if that were the case, probably more likely in a country that’s ahead of the US though.

    Though getting statistics on that would be very hard to do.

    Erich Vieth:

    Over my lifetime, I’ve had at least three priests admit to me that they wondered whether there was a God. On Sundays, though, they are always back at that pulpit acting like they have no doubts–is that the power of the paycheck or what??

    It’s not like God provides their food (belief in God by other people might though).

    Erich Vieth:

    Perhaps Daniel Dennett (“Breaking the Spell”) had this same experience with the many closet agnostic/atheists out there, resulting in his declaration that most religious people don’t really believe in God. Rather, they believe in belief. They believe that they are supposed to believe in God.

    I suspect that most people do believe in a god, just not the one that the religion they claim to follow worships (the god that most people worship would be close to deistic).

    Even then a lot of people who consider themselves non-religious will be counted as Christians because they picked the Christian denomination of their parents or grandparents instead of the non-religious option.

  • LindaJoy

    Ebon- thanks for your statistics of comfort!

    Bestonnet- the fundamentlist voters in this country are not related to the elite fundamentalist group represented by The Family. The Family is immune to democratic processes. Plus, Barack Obama has prayed with this group and has been a featured speaker for them, according to his campaign. I again recommend that you read Sharlet’s book. Also, the Cato Institute did an online interview with Jeff Sharlet. It’s about an hour long- go to http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/11164 .

  • bestonnet

    The only reason The Family has any power is because there are a lot of fundamentalist voters and a perception that there are a lot of them.

    LindaJoy:

    The Family is immune to democratic processes.

    How they run their organisation may be but their success in attaining their aims very much isn’t.

  • LindaJoy

    Bestonnet- I am not clear on what you mean by that on how successful they are. Have you read the book?