U.K. Telegraph Writer Says America May Be ‘Turning Secular Much Faster Than We Realize’

Peter Foster, the U.S. editor for the British Telegraph, says we may all have been missing a tantalizing trend.

Data from a 2012 Pew Research Center study

According to Mark Chaves, a divinity and sociology professor at Duke University and author of “America Religion: Contemporary Trends,” it seems that Evangelicals are now succumbing to the same forces of secularization [that have plagued mainstream Protestants].

Using data from the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, Chaves discovers that among White Evangelicals born in the decade 1981-90, some 22 percent now say they have no religion, a figure is close to the 24 percent of mainstream Protestants born in the same decade who say the same.

What is interesting is that if you go back a decade and look at White Christians born 1971-80, just 12 percent of Evangelicals say they have no religious affiliation, compared with 19 percent of mainstream Protestants: the secularization trends are clearly converging.

This tallies with the anecdotal evidence that we picked up in Virginia that suggested that non-belief was rising among the young Christian community much faster than headline polls suggested.

Foster thinks that the so-far slow but steady progress of secularization may be the harbinger of a relatively sudden seismic shift, analogous to what happened with the nation’s views on equal rights for LGBT people. He explains:

Right now, the shift in attitudes to religion is, according to the famous “nones” Pew survey, driven by so-called “generational replacement” — i.e. the younger generation slowly becoming less religious and their attitudes filtering into society and the polling data, as their parents and grandparents die off.

If that trend continues, then change will be very slow. But there is another scenario, which is when a shift in attitudes leaps across generations, as happened with gay marriage, precipitating a much sharper change which has seen those in favor of gay marriage leap from 33 percent a decade ago to 55-57 percent today. (More trivially, a similar cross-generational shift in attitudes has been seen, say, in attitudes to smoking in bars, or wearing seat belts, or drink-driving.)

Analysis of European secularization might provide us some pointers for the U.S. going foward. There, according to analysis by David Voas, a sociologist at Essex University, it is clear that the rise of so-called “fuzzy fidelity” – i.e. those with no explicit religious affiliation, but who still believe in some kind of higher power and go to church on Christmas – has proved to be a “staging post on the road from religious to secular hegemony.”

Indifference,” Voas writes in his 2008 paper The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe, “is ultimately as damaging for religion as scepticism.”

It’s a pleasant thought, but is it realistic? In matters of religion, can a European trend be applied to the short-term future of God-belief in America? Has Foster truly understood how pervasive and politically powerful religion is in the United States? In other words, does he know what we’re up against?

Yes, and he’s seen it before, he says, including in North America:

[Y]ou only have to think of Ireland, where attitudes to the Catholic church have shifted sharply in the last decade, or Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, to realize that religion is not immune to such changes.

I have little doubt that in the United States, religion-as-a-cudgel, religion as a sure-fire path to easy entitlement and cultural privilege, will eventually become a minority pursuit. It won’t die out, but it’ll come to be seen the way that Western Europeans already regard it: as something intensely private, turning into something ever-so-slightly embarrassing and irrelevant if it is trotted out in public.

I suspect we’ll be on the cusp of the 22nd century by the time American Christianity has been well and truly cleansed of the twin toxins of arrogance and power. Still, it would please me tremendously to see such a social revolution take place within a generation, and I appreciate Foster’s encouraging take.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.


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