A Huge News Story, Barely Noticed

The following essay was submitted by James A. Haught, editor of the The Charleston Gazette and author of Fading Faith: The Rise of the Secular Age.

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.

Faith in Decline

Pullquote: Little noticed, secularism keeps climbing in the United States.

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.

The Age of Secularism

Pullquote: Gradually, decade by decade, religion is moving from the advanced First World to the less-developed Third World.

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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  • Custador

    This is one of those where I have to admit that change never seems to be fast enough for progressive people. But still, it is excellent that things are changing.

  • Peter Cross

    Read some Robert Ingersoll for perspective. He was crowing about the death of religion 130 years ago, so I try not to get overly optimistic about current developments. And about those “mainline” losses – the church hierarchies became more “liberal,” dropping opposition to evolution, for instance, but the unwashed masses didn’t. Many of those who dropped out of the mainline churches went seeking something more conservative, giving rise to the fundamentalist and evangelical movements with their inherent stupidity.

    • mj

      True, but 130 years ago it was easier for revival tent preachers to magically heal people and do miracles. That avenue to religious reawakening is much narrower these days. And even is we’re not witnessing the begining of the death of religion, we are trending a in a positive direction.

  • UrsaMinor

    Secularism is strongly correlated with socioeconomic security. My money is on a reversal of this trend if standards of living continue to fall in the U.S.

    • Custador

      I’m not sure it’s that straight forward; the US has the best average standard of life in the world by economic measures (not by happiness, though) and is one of the most religious developed nations…

      • UrsaMinor

        Economic security is the key, more than just standard of living. We have a social safety net, but not nearly as comprehensive a one as many liberal European democracies. If you lose your job, the unemployment benefits are limited. If you don’t have health insurance, one trip to the emergency room can wipe out your savings. If you do have health insurance, a lengthy hospitalization can still bankrupt you when you hit the payout limit. A falling standard of living in an already debt-ridden country will mean a cutback on social services and safety nets, which decreases individual economic security and raises anxiety. And you must also look at the distribution of wealth in the U.S., which is rather lopsided and getting more so. The phrase “average standard of living” means less and less every year as the middle disappears.

        I’m sure there are many confounding factors besides economics. I’m just saying that if our economic prospects worsen, I would not be at all surprised if religiosity rates begin to climb again.

      • Revyloution

        Custador, the statistics on US wealth are really tricky. The US is the wealthiest nation in the world, but we also have the widest range of wealth. The ridiculously wealthy top10 percent really skew the figures. We also have pockets of people with an average life span of 45, and the highest infant mortality rate among all the developed countries.

        Just taking the gross wealth of the US and dividing by 300mil will give you a wrong impression of wealth in the US.

        • Custador

          True; I have no direct experience of it, but I strongly aproved of something a friend of mine did a few years back. Took his kids to Disney in Florida, which is obviously somewhat of a sheltered environment, but the trade-off was that they had to go with him on a road-trip through some of the areas that we don’t get to see on TV. Something of an eye-opener, he tells me. His kids are not the Amerophiles that they used to be, anyway.

          Top Gear did somehing similar on their last episode, which was another US road-trip one:

          “We went to WASHINGTON DC! [stock footage of DC] But…. It wasn’t like it is in the films [cut to shots of very obviously poor, high-crime neighbourhoods] – So we left again” [cut to Maryland sign].

          I’m glad that they have a social conscience :-)

        • http://nomad-spacebook.blogspot.com/ nomad

          Absolutely, Revy. Custador, on the only trip I have ever made to the US capitol, I was shocked to find it adjacent to a slum. That’s America in a nutshell.

    • nazani14

      I dunno. The receding of religion in Europe is often attributed to loss of faith triggered by the devastation of the First and Second World Wars. Lots of people continue to identify with a religion due to family pressure and custom. We’ll have to see if the recession splits up families or brings them closer together.

  • Bill

    Just looking at my little corner of America, I’m not sure I’m buying this. If this change is happening, it’s happening veeeeery slowly,

    • http://nomad-spacebook.blogspot.com/ nomad

      At this rate it probably won’t happen before the second coming.

  • Alexis

    “Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate.” should read “Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an encouraging rate of five to six times the historic rate.”

    • Francesc

      I just remembered: why they always explain the rate, but never the change of rate? Think of 2nd derivates! Is this rate increasing, or is it constant?

      And what is going to happen when christians are finally not the vast majority of US population? One could expect this dropping out rate to rise dramatically.

      • UrsaMinor

        I suspect you are right. Once the percentage of Christians drops below some critical threshold value, the social/legal stranglehold will be broken. It will then be much easier to opt out of religion.

        I find it rather curious that although we are now experiencing the highest rates of dropout and have the highest proportion of nonreligious people in the population in our entire history, we are also living in a period where politicians feel compelled to trumpet their religiosity. It’s a de facto requirement for public office in many places. You can either wear your religion on your sleeve, or artfully sidestep the question with vague mumblings about spirituality, but you cannot declare yourself nonreligious if you want to be elected. I’m hoping that we are approaching that point where there are enough vocally nonreligious voters so that such behavior becomes a political liability and abruptly ceases to be practiced.

        • Revyloution

          Ursa, the real problem is that the only reliable voting base is old people. Youth are traditionally very unreliable in elections. Look at the last election in the US. College age students couldn’t be bothered to get out and vote. People didn’t change their minds in the US in the last election, they just had different enthusiasm levels.

          Old white people turned out in droves, while the young, the minorities and the liberals sat in the corner and stewed that Obama never delivered the magic rainbow unicorns like he promised.

          • Francesc

            stewed that Obama never delivered the magic rainbow unicorns like he promised.

            1.- Did he promised magic rainbow unicorns?
            2.- Did he delivered them?

            So, why is it that your statement is voluntarily ridiculizing the non-voting option? I’m a little fed up of politicians promising one thing and doing another one, that means two things:

            1.- They, and their analysts, epically failed to understand what is and what is not feasible in the society they wanted to rule. And yet, we are relying in them in the close future.
            2.- They knew their promises would not be possible to reach, but anyway they promised it because…
            a.- If they lose, there is no matter what did they promise
            b.- If they win, hey, objective acomplished. Does it matter yet? 4 years is a lot of time for people to remember.

            I don’t like the second option, I don’t like to be treated as an idiot every four years.

            P.D.: Of course, the answer for a more socially fair government is not, and never has been, to vote republicans :p

            • UrsaMinor

              I’m not too fond of the second option either, but I continue to vote, if only to keep the Republicans out of office. I haven’t voted for a political candidate in years; I vote against the one I deem to be the greater evil.

  • Nelly

    as much as I find this article encouraging, I find it alarming as well.
    Many fundies are also ignorant and bigoted. They can be influenced by a charismatic preacher to take up arms in the face of the growing “threat” by satan……(read: non-believers usually of color, or sexual orientation).

    I just hope that our government is keeping tabs on this in silence. It may get really bad before it ceases to be an issue. Perhaps “ceases” is a bad choice of words. It will never go away as long as there is fear that will drive ignorant people to do anything they are told by someone they believe to protect them.

    I truly hope it’s much less of an issue in the foreseeable future.

    • Revyloution

      Don’t worry Nelly, not all liberals are gun hating shrinking violets. Some of us have arsenals to rival any Chuck Norris worshiping redneck. :)

  • JayKen Knotstirred

    Ex-Catholic # 16,845,0420 reporting…
    The number of Ex-Catholics may be low.
    4 of my 5 siblings Do Not report for duty every Sunday.
    That’s an 80% failure rate.
    Sorry Benedict, the Church failed us.

    • siveambrai

      I’m right there with you. Out of my direct family 4 of the 5 of us don’t attend Church. But if they were directly asked I think I would be the only one to say that I was no longer Catholic.

    • John C

      ‘the Church failed us’

      As it only could, as it was designed to. That is not the ‘Church’, its a mere man-made, oppressive, external religious institution, void of inward transformative power, void of love. There is One however who will never fail you. Now that you’re free of ‘religion’ you are in a much better position to step into the Truth Himself who is Love and is internal. All the best.

      • Custador

        Honestly, I have no idea why you weren’t banned as a troll years ago, but I’m kind of glad :p

  • Michael Jeffcott

    One thing I’m always surprised to NOT see mentioned, is the Internet.

    The free exchange of ideas (literally free exchange, we can reproduce ideas at basically zero marginal cost) has (1) historically led to ridiculous prosperity and (2) keeps people (mostly young, but some old) from being close-minded and ignorant, necessary conditions for religion to thrive.

    On the other hand, there are many features of humanity which secular society does not address at all. Community (real community, where people LIVE together and share with each other) is a fundamental human need that is barely recognized in secular America. We’re not cats…we lived in tribes of hunter-gatherers for most of our evolutionary history.

    “Human beings will be happier – not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia.” – Kurt Vonnegut

    The Internet is solving that problem, too, in a way.

    So ultimately, it’s a double whammy against religion – open mindedness, and open communities mean fewer preachers indoctrinating the young.

  • grumpygirl

    In my little part of the world, I see a rise in Christian hatred. Hatred against anyone who isn’t a “Christian”. Hatred against gays, against atheists, against Islam, Democrats, liberals, illegal immigrants, non-white Americans… Not that there aren’t genuine Christians who follow Christ’s “peace and love others” message. But the US is full of it’s own brand of Christianity that doesn’t follow the bible.

    My own observation, speculated on by others, is that we are experiencing another “Great Awakening”. And like the 2nd Great Awakening, being a Christian doesn’t have anything to do with studying the bible. Instead, it’s the charismatic, “You just gotta BELIEVE!!!” brand of Christianity.


  • grumpygirl
  • UU4077

    Maybe the personal definition of what is religion has changed but the demographers haven’t kept up.

    Does being religious mean going to church? Can it be categorized as “Christian” or “Catholic” or “Buddhist” or whatever … – or, maybe it has become some much less formalized combination of beliefs.

    Is “secularism” a religion?

  • http://kendrickbrix.com Kendrick Brix

    In my own interactions with people in the Dirty South, I find they claim a religious belief, i.e. “I have a personal relationship with Jesus” but don’t base it on anything. They’re not going to church on Sunday because they’re getting ready to drink beer and watch football, but they wear a Jesus loves them and their tattoos T-shirt. They haven’t read the Bible but may wear a crucifix or have a Jesus Fish on their car.

    I don’t know what this means for the future of religious belief in America, but if these folks don’t indoctrinate their kids in an actual religion, perhaps we’ll continue to evolve out of organized religion.

    This could only be labeled as progress.