The Coming Secular Era

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The most important changes don’t come in the form of attention-grabbing headlines, but subtle trends that quietly gather momentum until, by the time they finally burst into public view, they’re unstoppable. Such is the case with the most important, and paradoxically most underappreciated, trend in American religion today: the long-term, across-the-board decline of Christianity and the corresponding rise of atheism, which has been going on behind the scenes for more than twenty years and is now well underway.

The mainline Protestant churches, once the dominant cultural power in the United States, have already dwindled to shadows of their former selves and are well on their way to extinction. The largest Christian denominations remaining, including Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist, are likewise shrinking and struggling to come up with ways to reverse the decline. Evangelical megachurches, for all the media attention they’ve attracted, represent consolidation, not growth; and minority religions like Mormonism have poured enormous effort into evangelism with little to show for it. Meanwhile, the up-and-coming generation, the Millennials, are the least religious in American history – and unprecedentedly, they’re getting less religious as they get older.

There’s no single cause for this. But a big part of it is that the world has made moral progress, while the churches haven’t. Their clinging to cruel and archaic views, like demands for women’s subordination and intolerance of homosexuality, makes them seem like relics, outposts of prejudice that more and more people reject. Many of the largest denominations have taken a sharply conservative turn, driving out liberals and moderates and imposing litmus tests of political orthodoxy, which has only accelerated the decline.

And, having gotten themselves into this hole, the only solution they can conceive of is to dig deeper: doubling down on the same cruel and irrational rules, demanding that their members preach and proselytize more. Little do they realize that if widespread rejection of their ideas is the problem, then working harder to spread their message is going to make that problem worse, not better.

Beyond the self-inflicted wounds, there are outside factors driving religion’s decline. Most obvious is the rise of the atheist movement, which has made the case that you don’t need religion to live a happy, meaningful life or to be a moral person. Even though atheists are still a minority (although a larger minority than you might think), that message also travels beyond the boundaries of our community, and resonates to some degree even among people who don’t explicitly call themselves atheist or agnostic.

Another factor is the growth of multiculturalism and increased ease of communication, facilitated largely by the internet. When your own religion is the only one you know, it’s easy to view it as part of the immutable order of things. But when you come into contact with atheists, or even with other religious people who believe differently, you can see it for what it is: a mere hypothesis about the world, just one proposed explanation among many.

The solution proposed by many religious leaders has been to try to confine their membership to self-imposed ghettos: like the ultra-Orthodox Jews who rented an entire stadium to rail at their men about the dangers of the internet; or the Muslims and others who march to demand web censorship; or the increasing evangelical push toward homeschooling to isolate their children from all outside influences. But this is, at best, a futile attempt to build barriers against a still-rising tide.

I wouldn’t venture to guess what the coming secular era will look like: whether religion will become a hard core of fundamentalism raging against a largely irreligious world, or whether it will fade to a common but largely inconsequential hobby. What I am confident about is that many people who are alive today will live to see it – and that the next generation will witness a transformation of the world as unimaginable as the changes we’ve witnessed would have been to those who came before us.

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here.

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  • L.Long

    Even if they change to a deist view where gawd started everything then went away is OK. The important point is atheism so much as a more rational even humanist view where we must live together and solve our problems. And as bigotry, hate, & fear are not religious views but religion supports those views, so religion will never vanish as long as those three things rule the minds of more then 3 people.
    The main problem with religion is since it supports the 3 terrors (see above), even if the people following a religion for warm fuzzy reasons, eventually one or more of the terrors will start to control the followers and then the schite hits the fan again, history has shown this time and again.
    The only way to control this is secular rules & laws that show no more or less “respect” for for any section, As in you make profits you get taxed, you say you do charity work ALL such must do the appropriate forms and show this, ALL public education is secular, rational, with real science, if your beliefs look foolish because of science, your problem.

  • OldAtheist

    “I wouldn’t venture to guess what the coming secular era will look like:”

    Well, this wouldn’t be the first secular era in human history, so you could, I dunno, look up what they’ve been like before and make some educated extrapolations. :)

  • Jeff

    Good news, as far as it goes. But I won’t feel really hopeful about the future until I hear reports of the growing secularization of the Middle East.

  • Johnny

    Israel is pretty secular. But it has zero impact on the wider Middle Eastern cultural development.

    I think Iran is the best hope in the longer term, as it has historically hugely influenced the culture of the region, and it has a growing young population that seems to be increasingly secular (Richard Dawkins is very much googled there). However Iran is also a part of the Shia crescent (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah) so a regime change there could have huge geoplitical consequences and could get really messy (just look at its neighbours).

  • Azkyroth

    Israel is pretty secular. But it has zero impact on the wider Middle Eastern cultural development.

    Israel, in fact, represents a deliberate discontinuity in the cultural landscape of the Middle East, so for the purposes of gauging the cultural development of the region as a whole, it can arguably be ignored except as an influence to be reacted to.

  • J-D

    Israel is a lot more secular than other Middle Eastern countries, but it’s a lot less secular than, say, the Czech Republic.

  • BeaverTales

    We have to remember the distinction between secularism and irreligion: i.e. you can be religious and still be a secularist. Even if the number of atheists were to double tomorrow, we would be less than 5% of the US population-likely not enough to influence social trends significantly. I’ve accepted that religion will probably always be with us, and will be content enough just to see the younger generation lose its taste for conflating religion and politics in my lifetime.

    That said, freethinkers have prematurely predicted the demise of political religious fundamentalism before: During Robert Ingersoll’s Great Awakening of the late 1800s, during the Scopes Monkey Trial, after the Supreme Court ruled against prayer in schools, after the gains in personal freedoms that led to the sexual revolution…only to see reversals happen again and again.

    Your analysis makes me feel optimistic and I sincerely hope you are right, Adam… but religion has had a lot of experience being thwarted in the public sphere, only to regroup and resurge in numbers and popularity later with opposition to yet another cycle of social changes. Lately, the Supreme Court has certainly tried hard to help religionists when and where it could. Perhaps we are instead on the path that Europe has taken…where religion is still important to a majority of people, but has mostly yielded to secularism and respect for separation of Church and State.

  • vector_ray

    A Brave New World

  • arensb

    Allow me to make a prediction: when and if the US, or the world, enters a secular age, it will not be an age of rationality.

    Alt-med, horoscopes, climate change denialism, anti-vaxxism, and other forms of woo will still be around. Heck, they may even become more popular as religion declines, if there is any kind of Principle of Conservation of Credulity or something.
    Religion is not the only form of superstition and irrationality by any means. But it is currently the biggest, most powerful one. If the religious impulse were channeled into a million smaller forms of woo, we’d still be better off.

  • Adolf Verloc

    Good point. Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton reportedly said: When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” An admittedly subjective approach I use is to compare the philosophy, religion and New Age sections of bookstores like Barnes and Noble or Half Price Books. There is certainly a Principle of Conservation of Credulity at work between the religion and New Ages, with philosophy running a distant third.

  • arensb

    Chesterton got it backwards: humans are born with the ability to believe the most extraordinary woo. That’s just how our kludgey brains evolved. We naturally see faces in clouds; we have to be taught to recognize that that’s not a good way to learn about the world.
    Right now, religion vacuums up woo-seekers to its side before they’ve had a chance to wander over to its competitors.

  • Tige Gibson

    Both anti-vax and climate-change denialism have near term consequences which will make their long term future irrelevant.

    I’m not expecting people to start dying from horoscopes though.

    Alternative medicine might go the same way as anti-vax, but its popularity with people who are already dying and desperate would be the force that preserves its niche rather than woo-seekers in general.

  • Ann Kah

    I hope that rational thought will win the day, but expect to be disappointed in that, I’m afraid. But your post is making me think: is there such a strong tendency for people to fall into two categories, the leaders and the led? And are the ones who are to be led the ones who go for religion and/or mysticism and magic thinking?

    Are these rhetorical questions, or is there a known psychological basis for this oversimplification? It could be that divide will always be part of human nature.

  • Nes

    For some people, yes. It’s been several years since I’ve read it, and I’ve heard unremembered criticisms of it, but Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians (link is to a PDF) is worth a read.

  • arensb

    I don’t think it’s as simple as a “leader/follower” dichotomy. A person who’s a boss at work can be a follower in church.

    There also isn’t a simple dichotomy between “rational thinkers” and “people who believe woo”. I think we all believe woo of one flavor or another. It’s a matter of whether we recognize it as such, whether we want to try to be rational or not.

  • Bdole

    I’ve always seen the world in terms of leaders, followers, and “independents.” I’m an independent. I have a really strong aversion to leading and following. I’m also not that social and I think that has to do with my not having one of those two complementary personality types. I would also say this is the reason I’m not a “joiner” of clubs, org’s, whatever.
    Edit to say I didn’t get this idea from anywhere except observation of those around me and myself; there’s no science to back this up.

  • Pauly CC

    With so much information and misinformation on the Internet and increasing numbers of options available to first world citizens might the next couple generations develop greater skepticism? Be they taught it or recognizing it from experience to second source claims, to question thoroughly to make sense of the world? To carefully sip from the firehose.

  • Johnny

    I agree, and this is why I identify as a skeptic rather than an atheist (though I certainly am both). The god question is just one particular issue, and after a while there is not a lot more to say about it. I actually think one of the reasons for “atheism plus” is that these people felt the god issue was pretty much dealt with and wanted to move to other venues.

  • arensb

    Yeah, that’s an issue that every atheist group, podcast, show, etc. has to deal with at some point: “Okay, so there aren’t any gods. Now what.”
    That’s why having an atheist bowling league or knitting circle or ballroom dance club or whatever makes sense: it’s something that people can coalesce around, other than mere atheism which is more of a “we’re not in that group” sort of thing.

  • Adolf Verloc

    It is easy for secularists to become discouraged with the persistence of supernatural beliefs. I always am encouraged by reading Andrew Dickson White’s “History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom.” Even though the book is almost 120 years old, it is fascinating to see his numerous examples of how supernatural explanations in numerous fields have faded away to be replaced by naturalistic ones.

    Here’s a free link from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/505/505-h/505-h.htm

  • Asemodeus

    We have to remember and be wary that religion only grows when there is widespread human suffering. It is the reason why it is so popular in third world countries while decreasing in stable industrial countries. When people are well fed and comfortable they do not feel compelled to pray for additional help since they don’t need it.

    Which is why we are seeing republicans today going for the burning the world ideology in their politics. They are very well aware of the decline of religion in America and the best way to reverse this trend is widespread human suffering. This is why they have been trying over the past few years to kick start another depression.

  • HematitePersuasion

    As lovely as those trends of decreasing religious belief and practice are, the more those trends become obvious, the more desperate religious leaders will become (and for the True Believers, the thought of ‘losing‘ is both intolerable and ‘inconceivable‘). We should consider what kind of extreme actions these desperate persons may take — especially if they are secure in the knowledge that ‘God will not let them fail‘.

  • http://www.calgarysecularchurch.org/ Korey Peters

    I wonder about this too, but I see it going the other way: The Christian faith has never been grounded in reality. Why would they let reality impinge on their faith now?

    My prediction? Christians will continue to claim that the Christian faith is growing until it no longer exists.

    My close family is conservative evangelical, and they often talk about the wonderful things that God is doing and how people are coming to the Lord and it’s all very exciting. There is absolutely zero recognition about the larger demographic trends.

    For example, I know a pastor who would consider his church to be growing, but the people coming into it are already Christians who just happened to have moved there from another country. He considers their tiny shift in attitude from “Conservative theology A” to indistinguishable “Conservative theology B” to be a significant conversion. But it is not. It’s like saying “I know someone who used to like Heirloom tomatoes who now likes Roma tomatoes. The love of tomatoes is growing!” No. Not it’s not.

    As another example, I grew up in a small town which was the location of a Bible school. In my 20 years there, I do not recall a single community member not already associated with the Bible school becoming a Christian. But the constant influx (and eventual “outflux”) of Bible students seemed like growth. It was not. Even numbers of students shrank every year.

  • Matt G

    I wonder if interfaith marriages are involved in the decline of religion. What happens when people of different faith traditions (or faith with non-faith) marry? I assume in many cases the marriage works because one (or neither) partner cares all that much about belief so that friction is kept to a minimum.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    True, I think it’s both a cause and an effect. When religion declines in importance and society becomes more multicultural, interfaith marriages are more likely to happen. Parents in those marriages are probably even less likely to try to indoctrinate their children.

  • Southern Skeptic

    One thing is for sure, as religion declines, the remaining fundamentalists will become more desperate, and more vicious.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    You may well be right, although I hope not. In Europe, which seems to be a little bit ahead of us on the secularization curve, religion has faded away peacefully for the most part (save for the important exception of Muslim immigrants).

    Of course, we can’t draw the conclusion that the same thing will happen in America. Our fundamentalists don’t seem like they’ll be content to go quietly into that good night.

  • https://medium.com/@andreatorti90 AndyT

    In my opinion, Europe’s secularization is going faster because of the stronger role public institutions have when it comes to citizens’ lives, such as school, health system. Even in more traditionally “religious” countries (I live in Italy), most people see their religion as a cultural
    matter, with little to no impact on their beliefs and behaviours.
    In U.S. the “less State!” approach may be good for entepreneurship but it has given birth to “monsters” such as homeschooling as well.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

    One argument is that religion thrives when conditions aren’t good. With a more socialist state, conditions improve, and religion falls away.

    This puts religion in the role of wanting to keep social conditions bad.

  • at78rpm

    I’m currently reading a very depressing book, Mao’s Great Famine (by Frank Dikötter) which details the disgusting inhumanity of Mao and millions of Chinese sycophantic collaborators during the “Great Leap Forward.” No horror unleashed by Christianity, Judaism, or Islam has been as heartless and brutal as that little bit of coercion. Humans seem to need to feel insignificant in the face of power; I just don’t get it. I don’t believe in any supreme being because it simply seems most logical to me that way. But I don’t necessarily hail the disappearance of the religions we know, because the only belief common to both religion and hero worship (i.e., Mao et al) is that Utopia is just around the corner. The closest to Utopia we’re ever going to get is having three meals a day in a home with indoor plumbing.

  • J-D

    If people stop believing in religion, it won’t fix everything.

    But it will fix some things.

  • MNb

    “I wouldn’t venture to guess what the coming secular era will look like”
    Why don’t you look at western Europe to get an idea? There the process of secularization took off in the 60’s. Because of the

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_the_handicap_of_a_head_start

    the USA might end up with relatively more unbelievers; let’s say 50 – 60%.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

    That’s an encouraging trend. My own hope is that Christianity follows the route of Judaism in some circles, where a distinction is made between religious belief and culture. It would be refreshing if I could attend a church as an out atheist, and that would be seen as a stable (not transitory) position. I might go for the community, the Saturday projects helping other people, the music, the sermons, or the philanthropy.

    This kind of cultural Christianity would provide a gentle landing place for today’s Christians.

  • OldAtheist

    You mean UU?

  • https://medium.com/@andreatorti90 AndyT

    The real problem is that these fundagelical folks are trying to make up for their declining power via neo-colonization in distant countries such as Brazil, Uganda, Nigeria…
    The polarization we witness in U.S.A. (and, to a much lesser extent, in Europe) is going to become worldwide.

  • Omnicrom

    Reading this reminds me of a talk Greta Christina gave for the Secular Student Alliance at my college: Someday Atheism will not be exceptional.

    Right now Atheism is not a default mode of thought, and choosing to be an atheist is a exceptional in that it is in exception to the standard modes of thought. Her point was that right now the people of the SSA were something special for having thought through the issues of religion to make their decision, but that eventually there will be plenty of Atheists who just coast by with Atheism as a default assumption the way many Christians in America do.

    It was both encouragement and warning, the secular movement will succeed when the secular movement is mainstream and not really a movement anymore. Personally I’m all for it. A world where religion is no longer dominant will not be a Utopia, but it will be a world without one of the humanity’s oldest and most destructive bugbears. And that’s a good start.

  • JamesMMartin

    I can remember when Baptists were characterized as hard shell and not hard shell, depending on whether they permitted congregants to dance, play popular music, smoke, or drink intoxicating liquor. We always said, “Show me four Baptists and I’ll show you a fifth.” They were the biggest hypocrites alive. Jimmy Carter is one of the way few who transcends that mold; he is more in the vein of Gandhi than Graham. The First Baptist Church in my city just erected an electronic sign outside, one of those marquee advertising signs with digital print out, but they have heavy competition from the feel good megachurch confidence men peddling what is called the Prosperity Gospel. Forget camels passing through needle eyes, Jesus wants you to get rich: the Gospel of Gordon Gekko. All this must pass. Religion is imploding upon itself. When people are threatened, they panic. That explains all the “First Amendment” bullshit they come up with. Their cause is existential. They who have lobbied for ages for a Rushdoony world of Death.

  • solovoice

    I agree with the author, but he left out the role science has played that proves there is no room for a god according to the evidence presented…

  • Nullifidian

    When religion dies out, so will atheism.