We're still winning

Like boy bands, religion stopped being as prominent in the 21st century.  The most recent Hartford Seminary Study confirms the extension of that trend.

American congregations have grown less healthy in the past decade, with fewer people in the pews and aging memberships, according to a new Hartford Seminary study.


The percentage of congregations with average weekend worship attendance of 100 or fewer inched up from 42 percent to 49 percent over the decade. More than a quarter of congregations had 50 or fewer people attending in 2010.


There’s even more good news about the people who are sticking with church.

In many cases, congregations are seeing not only fewer people in their pews but older ones. At least one-third of members in more than half of mainline Protestant congregations are 65 or older.

This corroborates the data from the 2008 ARIS survey.

The 18-29 demographic has 22% of the nations overall population, but it has 29% of its nones.  Compare that to the denominations known for producing fundamentalists in droves.  Baptists are losing big time in the upcoming generation and counting on the oldest generation more.  Same for Pentescostals.  Meanwhile the denominations most likely to have followers who are closer to being functional atheists, such as Eastern Religions or Generic Christians are also more popular in the youngest category.  This agrees with recent numbers indicating that even those staying in religion are replacing a fundamental belief with a more moderate approach.

There’s no way to know if this represents people using more cherry-picked versions of faith as a kind of gateway drug to the uber party that is atheism, but I hope so.  It’s no secret that those of us who deconvert from religion often do so in stages.

Also Muslims, no idea what’s up there.

Anyway, the point is that the most problematic forms of religion are getting older and the forthcoming generation is getting sharper about religion.  We’re a ways off from victory, but we are winning and the future looks as bright as a supernova.  Perhaps it’s because after several centuries of playing nice with religion, people are finally starting to figure out that religion is horseshit all by themselves.  Or maybe, juuuuuust maybe, it’s because for the first time ever the attack on religion isn’t coming from one or two prominent atheists, but from gaggles of them as well as from a significantly higher percentage of people in their everyday lives.  Where once you could change the channel if Carl Sagan was on or avoid Bertrand Russell, nowadays, wherever you go (even in church), there’s likely atheists all around you – and those atheists are more likely to be informed about religion than ever before.

There was a time, not long ago, before the internet, when the nones were a drastically lower percentage of the population.  That was a time when if you had a question about religion you went to a preacher or a priest.  Now the failings of religion are everywhere.  We all know the horrors of the bible and you cannot go far announcing the bible is a sound treatise on morality without somebody acquainting you with the monstrosity of its god.  Where once the evils of religion could be covered, they are now more conspicuous than ever.  The tactics/arguments that have been used to bamboozle layman can scarcely be uttered anymore without someone publicly taking the evangelist to task.  Can there be any doubt that decades of effort toward fostering this kind of world is what is changing the game?

I say we continue to cultivate an atmosphere where we delight in rejecting the pretensions of religion.  As I have written before:

Part of why people stay religious is because it is easy to do.  I seek to make it less easy.  I seek to create a world where people cannot open their mouths to tell someone about Jesus without wondering if, without the obligatory respect to which religion has grown accustomed, the target of their evangelism will make a public fool of them.  I dream of a world where irrationality knows no sanctuary and no quarter outside the cathedral.

The next generation belongs to the skeptics.  They are the ones who get to take the reigns of this movement with all of this momentum at its back.  As a full-time employee of the Secular Student Alliance, working with young leaders in the atheist movement gets me all psyched up to get back to work on Monday.  :)

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    I’m not so sure I share your blanket optimism. If the churches are emptying, where are all those people going to go to find the community, civic and existential services those religious spaces have typically provided? What are we offering, as a skeptical community, to replace those real benefits? And how are we reaching out to those nones who (as most polls show, most do) still believe in God?

    My feeling is that unless we start to build real secular alternatives to religious communities we will find more and more young people getting caught up in emerging churches and new age religions and other movements which offer real, local physical community with other human beings, beyond pub nights and discussions.

    We shouldn’t forget that religious communities offer real social benefits to people that are currently hard to come by otherwise (unless you’re a student, in which case it’s slightly easier).

    • JT Eberhard


      We’re working on it. :)


    • Michaelyn

      Actually, we are working on that. I know it’s not a lot, but I’m a leader in a secular student group at the University of Kansas, and our main focus is to create a welcoming community. We have socials, parties, discussions, and even do charity work together. The main difference between our community and a church community is that instead of doing good for god, we do good for ourselves and for the betterment of mankind.

      I’m aware of a good number of student groups just like us that strive to create that feeling of community that people lose when they leave religion.

      We may be small, and we can’t help everyone, but we’re working on it.

      • jflcroft

        I think meetup groups and student groups are great, but we can’t forget that the vast majority of people are not students, and that the meetup groups tend to have very few resources, no physical space to call their own, and are often discussion shops rather than real, inter-generational communities of value. The spontaneous efforts that are popping up are great, but they’re a far cry from the professionally organized, fully funded communities on offer to the religious.

        • stacy

          Good reason to support the Center for Inquiry, jflcroft. CFI-Los Angeles, where I hang out, provides “community, civic and existential services” in a space of its own. If more atheists supported CFI, they could offer even more services, and open more branches.


          (No, they don’t pay me. I do volunteer there, though.)

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    I never thought I’d read a post that started with “Like boy bands, religion”.

    I hope this trend continues, with more people leaving religion, or at the very least, moving to those denominations which favor equal rights and so on. Personally, I think there comes a point (at least, this was the case for me) when a person realizes that they disagree with so much of the religion that it makes no sense to continue being a member, so maybe they’ll become a deist.

    Also Muslims, no idea what’s up there.

    Me, either. Personally, for me, I had to put aside the fear of my parents finding out what I was reading before I started reading books and websites about atheism and other topics they would disagree with. (The concern is still there, but I decide to read these things anyway.) I wish I could offer some more insight into the large difference between the numbers for Muslims and others, but I honestly don’t know.

    • Peggy

      I wonder if the greater number of younger Muslims has anything to do with immigration. I know that new immigrants tend to be in the young adult age range. Also, it’s common for new immigrants to keep close to their religion–for at least a generation or two. Any idea if this is a major factor?

      • JT Eberhard

        I don’t know if that’s the case, but it’s the best hypothesis I’ve heard so far.

    • Enkidum

      Doesn’t it have a lot to do with the demographic makeup of the countries that most Muslims are immigrating from? If anything, these figures look slightly skewed away from the massive youth population bulge you get in a lot of the Middle East and Muslim Asia.

      And then the tendency to have largish families may take a few generations to settle down, so there may be a high number of 2nd and 3rd generation kids as well.

  • Daniel Schealler

    This makes me curious again as to what makes Islam an effective ideology.

    If you just showed me the Qu’ran and explained the beliefs I’d laugh it away as a notion that could never be taken seriously – which just shows how much I know about this kind of thing.

    There’s something going on there, some appeal Islam is making that is working… But I can’t quite put my finger on it.

  • http://politicsandpucks.blogspot.com Mike Brownstein

    I think the ARIS survey is great, but I think Pew Research has been much better at getting a consistent view of where the religious power and influences are coming from. Also, if I recall, it puts the “nones” at somewhere between 15-22%

  • mkb

    Meanwhile the denominations most likely to have followers who are closer to being functional atheists, such as Eastern Religions or Generic Christians are also more popular in the youngest category.

    I’m not sure that the Generic Christians are closer to being functional atheists.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    @Peggy: That’s a good point. Most of my relatives, when they moved here, were newly married or married with children.

    @Daniel Schealler:

    If you just showed me the Qu’ran and explained the beliefs I’d laugh it away as a notion that could never be taken seriously

    I feel that way, too; however, keep in mind that people often don’t read their holy books, but just consider themselves members of the religion from a young age.

    We’re familiar with Christians not reading the Bible but teaching their kids maybe shortened versions of the Bible stories from a young age. In Islam, since there’s such a focus on reading the Qur’an in Arabic, there are some people who don’t even know what they’re reading and some may also be hearing the shortened apologetics version of Islam, instead of reading the whole Qur’an in a language they understand.

  • Daniel Schealler

    @Ani Sharmin

    keep in mind that people often don’t read their holy books, but just consider themselves members of the religion from a young age.

    I have no doubt that this is a part of it for a great many believers.

    However, I know some very clever people who are familiar with the Qu’ran… And that sing it’s praises anyway.

    Something about reading that book makes my brain itch in a way that doesn’t happen when I read the Bible or the Diamond Sutra or even Thus Spake Zarathustra.

    For some reason the Qu’ran puts me in mind of the Malleus Maleficarum… I’m not entirely sure why that is.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    I’m wondering about what tactics various religious organizations will take in order to keep members. I’ve seen some attempts to convey their message in a different way, based on the idea that it’s just an image problem, rather than a content problem.

    @Daniel Schealler: I think I sort of understand what you mean. I’m just about finished reading the Bible (at Revelation right now) and am currently going through the Qur’an as well. Maybe the difference is the writing or the structure? With the Bible, there are stories and poems that a person can sort of enjoy as literature. The Qur’an (based on where I am so far) sort of reads like an extended version of Leviticus, a gigantic rant/list of rules from God.

  • Daniel Schealler

    @Ani Sharmin

    It’s not just that.

    I mean… Even Leviticus has the common hooks that tie into human nature. Beginning/middle/end, with links between them that make sense.

    So yes, Leviticus is a list of rules. But its a list you can follow, there’s a kind of structure there that makes sense.

    From what I’ve read of the Qu’ran, there’s a difference. Yes, it’s a list of stuff… But it’s not structured in such a way as to lend itself to the way human beings interpret and share information, there’s no narrative arc, no beginning/middle/end.

    So I find the Qu’ran exhausting to read in a way that I don’t for Leviticus. When reading the Qu’ran I feel the analytical part of my brain slowly give up on the text actually making any kind of sense. So my reading goes all passive. The words come off the page and into my brain and stream through my conscious awareness without touching the sides.

    It’s… Weird and uncomfortable. A little bit like the mirror of a zen trance – equal, but opposite.

    The Bible at least adopts the tone where it is trying to relay to us something of great value.

    The Qu’ran doesn’t actually make that attempt. The tone is more an instance of: I am not here to be understood by you; you are here to obey me. Get to it.

    I dunno if I’m making any kind of sense… Moral of the story is that the rhetorical performance of the Qu’ran creeps me the fuck out. It’s sneaky.

    • http://nssphoenix.wordpress.com drdave

      Christianity means you worship god. Islam means you submit to god.

      You are right: you are here to obey me, get to it.