The Inevitable Growth of Atheism: Six Predictions

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Humanism. Read other perspectives here.

Given the obvious and continued decline of religion in the U.S., as reported in the recent Pew Study, the question is not if religion is declining but what shape the decline is taking and how it will play out. We offer six trends to watch — and a final proviso.

1) The internet will continue to influence falling way from religion, and it will snowball, since the new transparency penetrates almost all firewalls. For instance, the Mormons are confronted by DNA evidence challenging their 19th-century claims of the lost tribes of Israel being American Indians and the Roman Catholic Church can no longer bury its secrets. The internet also enables new institutions, such as The Clergy Project, offering a private meeting place for non-believing clergy no matter where they live. (In 2007 we couldn't find anything on the internet about non-believing clergy and now Google shows 844,000 results.)

2) Humanist communities will continue to grow. There is plenty of pressing work for local communities to do, especially as "lifeboats" to turn to if the internet (and the power grid) ever collapse, as many experts predict. Avoiding panic for, say, forty-eight hours, while the technicians scramble to get it running again would avoid the sort of chaos envisaged in all the end-of-civilization movies, and well-prepared humanist groups could lead the way, keeping their neighbors informed and calm and sheltered. Sunday Assembly and the new groups set up by former clergy, Jerry Dewitt and Mike Aus, may thrive — or may not. It depends on how many people feel the need for a regular dose of communal ceremony and moral reaffirmation, and as family ties to these traditions are loosened, generation by generation, this practice may become ever rarer.

3) Christian denominations will continue to decline as more people become "cafeteria believers" who no longer associate belonging to a church or receiving the sacraments with being a Christian in good standing.

4) The "nones" and other stepping stones to frank atheism will grow as the stigma of not belonging to religious institutions declines. More people will identify as spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) and more SBNR will move to the agnostic category as openly questioning religion becomes more commonplace. Others will roll over into atheism with the same ease and none of these nones will raise their children in a religion. Religious customs and holidays will persevere, though, and perhaps the term "secular Christian" will catch on, with the same acceptable non-religious connotation as "secular Jew."

5) Liberal clergy will continue to lead the move away from biblical religion. They are humanists' natural allies — in the forefront of all progressive causes — anti-slavery, women in the clergy, LGBTQ. They do this not to tailor their image, but because it's the right thing to do. They are losing members while preserving their integrity. We predict they will keep discarding bits of Christian doctrine until it's gone. This is already happening via the "human Jesus" studies of the Westar Institute that focus on Jesus as a first-century "Jewish wisdom teacher," not as a God. But why would people choose to devote themselves to one ancient human when there are so many wise humans throughout history to admire?

We agree with the liberal clergy in our study: the human Jesus is a transitional figure. Once Christians shed their obsolete attachment to supernatural beliefs and belief in the Bible as anything other than stories, their next stop is humanism. Many already don't hold such beliefs or don't hold them very firmly. It might even be true that liberal churches, by straightforwardly disavowing all supernaturalism as nonsense, will reverse their membership decline, bringing in people who would be embarrassed to be associated with supernaturalism, however traditional, but who yearn for participation in a socially valuable community.