Fading Faith: The Rise of the Secular Age

By James A. Haught

[Editor's Note: I'm proud to feature the writing of James Haught on Daylight Atheism. Mr. Haught has been an editor and columnist for the Charleston Gazette for over fifty years, as well as an eloquent and prolific freethinker and author of books like Holy Horrors. I've been a fan of his ever since I discovered him, through the Freedom from Religion Foundation, soon after becoming an atheist myself. You can read more of his work at his own website, To Question is the Answer, or in this interview on The Eloquent Atheist. This essay is from his latest book, also called Fading Faith, and is reprinted by his permission. —Ebonmuse]

Philosopher-historian Will Durant called it “the basic event of modern times.” He didn’t mean the world wars, or the end of colonialism, or the rise of electronics. He was talking about the decline of religion in Western democracies.

The great mentor saw subsiding faith as the most profound occurrence of the past century – a shift of Western civilization, rather like former transitions away from the age of kings, the era of slavery and such epochs.

Since World War II, worship has dwindled starkly in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and other advanced democracies. In those busy places, only 5 or 10 percent of adults now attend church. Secular society scurries along heedlessly.

Pope Benedict XVI protested: “Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience.” Columnist George Will called the Vatican “109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief.”

America seems an exception. This country has 350,000 churches whose members donate $100 billion per year. The United States teems with booming megachurches, gigantic sales of “Rapture” books, fundamentalist attacks on evolution, hundred-million-dollar TV ministries, talking-in-tongues Pentecostals, the white evangelical “religious right” attached to the Republican Party, and the like.

But quietly, under the radar, much of America slowly is following the path previously taken by Europe. Little noticed, secularism keeps climbing in the United States. Here’s the evidence:

Rising “nones.” Various polls find a strong increase in the number of Americans – especially the young – who answer “none” when asked their religion. In 1990, this group had climbed to 8 percent, and by 2008, it had doubled to 15 percent – plus another 5 percent who answer “don’t know.” This implies that around 45 million U.S. adults today lack church affiliation. In Hawaii, more than half say they have no church connection.

Mainline losses. America’s traditional Protestant churches – “tall steeple” denominations with seminary-trained clergy – once dominated U.S. culture. They were the essence of America. But their membership is collapsing. Over the past half-century, while the U.S. population doubled, United Methodists fell from 11 million to 7.9 million, Episcopalians dropped from 3.4 million to 2 million, the Presbyterian Church USA sank from 4.1 million to 2.2 million, etc. The religious journal First Things – noting that mainline faiths dwindled from 50 percent of the adult U.S. population to a mere 8 percent – lamented that “the Great Church of America has come to an end.” A researcher at the Ashbrook think-tank dubbed it “Flatline Protestantism.”

Catholic losses. Although Hispanic immigration resupplies U.S. Catholicism with replacements, many former adherents have drifted from the giant church. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that 20 million Americans have quit Catholicism – thus one-tenth of U.S. adults now are ex-Catholics.

Fading taboos. A half-century ago, church-backed laws had power in America. In the 1950s, it was a crime to look at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or R-rated movie – or for stores to open on the Sabbath – or to buy a cocktail or lottery ticket – or to sell birth-control devices in some states – or to be homosexual – or to terminate a pregnancy – or to read a sexy novel – or for an unwed couple to share a bedroom. Now all those morality laws have fallen, one after another. Currently, state after state is legalizing gay marriage, despite church outrage.

Sociologists are fascinated by America’s secular shift. Dr. Robert Putnam of Harvard, author of “Bowling Alone,” found as many as 40 percent of young Americans answering “none” to faith surveys. “It’s a huge change, a stunning development,” he said. “That is the future of America.” He joined Dr. David Campbell of Notre Dame in writing a new book, “American Grace,” that outlines the trend. Putnam’s Social Capital site sums up: “Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate.”

Oddly, males outnumber females among the churchless. “The ratio of 60 males to 40 females is a remarkable result,” the 2008 ARIS poll reported. “These gender patterns correspond with many earlier findings that show women to be more religious than men.”

Growing secularism has political implications. The Republican Party may suffer as the white evangelical “religious right” shrinks. In contrast, burgeoning “nones” tend to vote Democratic. Sociologist Ruy Teixeira says the steady rise of the unaffiliated, plus swelling minorities, means that “by the 2016 election (or 2020 at the outside) the United States will have ceased to be a white Christian nation. Looking even farther down the road, white Christians will be only around 35 percent of the population by 2040, and conservative white Christians, who have been such a critical part of the Republican base, will be only about a third of that – a minority within a minority.”

Gradually, decade by decade, religion is moving from the advanced First World to the less-developed Third World. Faith retains enormous power in Muslim lands. Pentecostalism is booming in Africa and South America. Yet the West steadily turns more secular.

Arguably, it’s one of the biggest news stories during our lives – although most of us are too busy to notice. Durant may have been correct when he wrote that it is the basic event of modern times.

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About Adam Lee

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

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    Great news. Once religion loses the power to force people to be religious (via the state)individuals by and large stop believing in fairy tales.

  • kennypo65

    This makes me happy to have quit smoking, so I can live to see the end of faith.

  • L.Long

    Dream On! The next big battle in the US will be religious.
    As the IsLames in the east have gained more power and hold it with terrorism.
    The Xtians if be fighting back against 1)secularism and 2)IsLame.
    They will start to use the tools that IsLame has been using to strengthen there power base. The Xtians can see the various media bowing their heads to IsLame and will be trying to make it the same for Xtians.
    Now I am a schizoid-Paranoid (paranoid enough for 2 people)so I may be reading more into this the is justified, but looking around the world does not ease my paranoia.
    I really hope I’m wrong. But with over 50% of the US NOT believing in evolution for religious reasons does not bode well for the future. Stupid people would rather shoot then think!
    And europe better be on guard as IsLame is spreading fairly well. Ya! Ya! I can hear you saying ….’But they are moderates!’ RRrriight! Keep believing there is such an animal as a moderate.

  • http://www.facepunch.com/member.php?u=298989 Jeep-Eep

    Oh look, it’s one of those guys.

  • Rollingforest

    @L.Long #3: Actually the percent of Americans who believe in Creationism is 40%. That’s still really bad, but the percentage of the US that is Creationist is slowly shrinking and the percentage that believes in evolution without God’s guidance is slowly growing.

    As secularism grows, yes the atheist/religious political battles will intensify, but I believe that there will be enough moderate religious people to stop the fundamentalists from doing any major damage.

    I agree that Europe needs to institute a policy of only allowing Muslims (or for that matter anyone) in who has shown support for Western values. The number of Muslim fundamentalists is growing in Europe and that is a major problem. The solution isn’t to ban the burqa or minorettes. Islam itself is no more dangerous than Christianity. It is the Fundamentalists of any faith that should not be allowed in Europe.

  • http://twoangryvoices.blogspot.com Aegis

    “Stupid people would rather shoot then think!”

    QFT with spelling correction.

  • Chad

    A few years ago, in bible college, I read the book The Cross Cultural Process in Christian History, whose main thrust was along these lines. The author, Andrew Wall, argued that (Xtian) religion dominated and then died out in various theatres after its founding. First, Israel, then Europe and North Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia, then the New World (in which we live). Forgive my imperfect memory, for I may have omitted significant details. Wall seemed to despair that religion had risen and fallen so quickly in North America, but took comfort in the burgeoning religiosity in the southern Hemisphere. To him, Christianity’s future was with Catholicism in South America and Protestantism in Africa, among others.

    Even while I was a Christian, I didn’t take any real comfort from the thought of the world’s Christianity being dominated even more by religious fundamentalists. My opinion, even then, was that fundamentalism was what was wrong with Christianity. At least for North America, this is good news to me.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that 20 million Americans have quit Catholicism – thus one-tenth of U.S. adults now are ex-Catholics.

    I, and the other 19,999,999, rejoice.

  • http://blog.oldnewatheist.com/ jim coufal

    Whatever the numbers and trends are, and they do look hopeful (me too, Mr. Inquisitor), I don’t think we can overlook the impact of the religious right, but more importantly that of “The Family”. While the fundamentalist right we are all familiar with is loud and boisterous, The Family purposefully works with as much invisibility as possible, having many members of congress and other branches of governments in their ranks, looking at the rich as god’s chosen, holding up Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and other such as models of how to operate, influencing governments such as that of Uganda to criminalize homosexuality, and on and on. Despite this, they receive very little notice on the atheosphere relative to christian fundamentalists, who they appear to be right of.

  • CharlesInSoCal

    For those of you who were confused (like I was), John F. Haught is the Catholic Theologian.
    James A. Haught has the cool website, To Question is the Answer.
    (And I don’t mean to sound haughty, but JAH’s website could use some work – there are a lot of broken links)

  • Andrew T.

    West Virginia is the state I grew up in, and the state where I saw the abuses of religion take flower at the expense of long-term thinking and human well-being again and again.

    My parents were long avid readers of the Charleston Gazette, and there were several reader-submitted editorials they published in the late 1990s that have stuck in my mind ever since. One was a rant by a pastor titled (near as I can remember) “Gays Don’t Deserve Rights,” and imploring them to leave the state. Another was a long-winded whinge by a student demanding that “Christians should stand up for their rights”…that is, their rights to demand a theocracy and bully non-believers into submission. Both generated a flurry of responses; but I have little doubt that a large proportion of West Virginians believe just that.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    Wow, Andrew, that’s truly awful. But you should take comfort in the fact that people like that are overwhelmingly old, and like Nazis*coughRatzitheNazicough* and the racists from the Civil Rights movement are not long for this world. And this article shows that their ideas largely die with them.

  • Eurekus

    If only I had lived in a more secular society as a child like what we have now, I may have had the joy of life long atheism. I have to say though, I take pleasure in my endevours to help irradicate the infection of religion, being brought up as a fundamentalist Christian has made me that way.

  • Anonymoose

    I wouldn’t count Christianity out just yet. While the country is undoubtedly getting less religious, America always seems to balance out periods lacking faith with large revivals (Second Great Awakening, rise of Evangelicals, etc…), so claiming the end of Christian history might be a bit premature.