Last week, I wrote about evangelicals’ absolute faith that Donald Trump would be reelected. In a way, it’s understandable that they were so certain. They love this greedy, racist adulterer as they’ve never loved any politician before; and in the past, what American evangelicals wanted, they’ve been able to get.
Historically, America has been unusually religious compared to the other wealthy, industrialized nations of the world. This country has always flattered its Christian citizens and catered to their wishes. But there’s a change in the wind, and Trump’s defeat was a foretaste of it.
To learn more about the transition that’s about to sweep over us, the University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart has just published a column, “Giving Up on God: The Global Decline of Religion“, that draws on his forthcoming book Religion’s Sudden Decline. (The essay is paywalled, but see also this summary.)
Since 2007, there has been a remarkably sharp trend away from religion. In virtually every high-income country, religion has continued to decline. At the same time, many poor countries, together with most of the former communist states, have also become less religious. From 2007 to 2019, only five countries became more religious, whereas the vast majority of the countries studied moved in the opposite direction…
The most dramatic shift away from religion has taken place among the American public. From 1981 to 2007, the United States ranked as one of the world’s more religious countries, with religiosity levels changing very little. Since then, the United States has shown the largest move away from religion of any country for which we have data.
He puts this in more concrete terms with a survey, conducted annually since 1981, which asks Americans how important belief in God is to them on a scale from 1 to 10. From 1981 through 2007, the number barely moved at all. But beginning in 2007, there was a steep decline:
Near the end of the initial period studied [i.e., 2007], Americans’ mean rating of the importance of God in their lives was 8.2 on a ten-point scale. In the most recent U.S. survey, from 2017, the figure had dropped to 4.6, an astonishingly sharp decline.
In a mere ten years, the importance of belief in God has dropped by half among the American populace! This statistic even shocked me for how huge and rapid a change it was.
Other political scientists noticed the same dropoff. Here’s corroborating evidence from the 50,000-person Cooperative Congressional Election Study:
The share of Americans who identify as Protestants has dropped from 42.8% in 2010 to 35.1% in 2019.
The decline in born-again Protestants is 1.2%, it's 6.5% for not born-again.
55% of Protestants were born-again in 2010, by 2018 it had risen to 65% pic.twitter.com/gc7d1uszM8
— Ryan Burge ?? (@ryanburge) December 4, 2020
In “The Twilight of American Evangelicals“, I cited the pastor Ed Stetzer, who argues that younger generations are just having a secular rumspringa and will return to the church as they get married and have kids. Not only is that not happening, the opposite is true: millennials and Gen Xers are getting less religious as they get older:
Here's another piece of evidence that contradicts the narrative that disaffiliation slows or reverses as people move into adulthood/marry/have kids/etc.
25% of Gen X were nones in 2008. It was 36% in 2019.
33% of millennials were nones in 2008. It was 43% in 2019. pic.twitter.com/hDsz58wMcx
— Ryan Burge ?? (@ryanburge) October 9, 2020
The number of Americans abandoning religion is snowballing. It’s not just increasing with each new generation, it’s spreading backwards to older generations. Here’s one hypothesis about why this is happening, in an article from FiveThirtyEight: “Millennials Are Leaving Religion And Not Coming Back“.
In a society where nonreligious people are rare, most of them have little choice but to marry a religious spouse, who may persuade them to return to church or convert. Even if not, the religious spouse is likely to insist that their children are raised in the faith – and that matters, because people rarely leave the religion they grow up with. In that situation, the nonreligious spouse’s ideas aren’t transmitted and die out with the next generation.
But as nonreligious people become more common and meet more often, the feedback loop goes the other way. When two nonreligious people marry, they’re almost certain to raise their children without religion, and children raised without religion are very unlikely to adopt one later in life. Freethinking ideas become self-sustaining down the generations:
In the 1970s, most nonreligious Americans had a religious spouse and often, that partner would draw them back into regular religious practice. But now, a growing number of unaffiliated Americans are settling down with someone who isn’t religious — a process that may have been accelerated by the sheer number of secular romantic partners available, and the rise of online dating. Today, 74 percent of unaffiliated millennials have a nonreligious partner or spouse, while only 26 percent have a partner who is religious.
And because we have an unfair advantage – many people decide of their own free will to quit religion, whereas no one spontaneously converts to a religion they’ve never heard of – our momentum is only accelerating. As freethought ideas become more common and more accepted, the coercive power of religion diminishes.
As both a cause and an effect of their disaffiliation, millennials are also more likely to reject the claims of moral authority that religion puts forward for itself. By a majority, they recognize that human beings are perfectly capable of telling right from wrong using their own conscience, without a dusty book of dogmas. An even larger majority recognizes that religion frequently makes people less moral and less tolerant:
A majority (57 percent) of millennials agree that religious people are generally less tolerant of others, compared to only 37 percent of Baby Boomers.
…Less than half (46 percent) of millennials believe it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. They’re also much less likely than Baby Boomers to say that it’s important for children to be brought up in a religion so they can learn good values (57 percent vs. 75 percent).
And there’s one more piece of evidence which heralds bigger changes on the horizon.
Until now, conservative evangelicals have consoled themselves that their numbers haven’t declined by as much as the mainline Protestant denominations. Their self-congratulatory explanation for this is that it’s because they’re rock-ribbed and firm in their faith, not like the squishy liberals. The reality is that it has more to do with demography.
Simply stated, the mainline churches’ membership is aging and graying. They passed the point twenty years ago where elderly and retired members outnumbered those of childbearing age, and ever since, they’ve been slowly dying off. Evangelicals and Catholics are reaching that same point now – which means they, too, are going to dwindle in the years to come:
Here's a ?? for religious people in the US:
When do retired people outnumber those of child-bearing age in a faith tradition?
For mainline Protestants it was 20 years ago.
For evangelicals, Catholics, and black Protestants the shift is happening right now. pic.twitter.com/7tx9PG5Jjq
— Ryan Burge ?? (@ryanburge) August 1, 2020
The big question is what’s driving this change. What created the initial momentum towards freethought that’s now snowballing?
The tight joining of religion to right-wing politics is one hypothesis that’s often proposed, including by me. Inglehart’s article makes another suggestion:
Social and economic development renders human survival less precarious, human suffering less dramatic — and human beings less needful of existential comfort or guidance from age-old traditions.
Inglehart notes that religions generally revolve around beliefs, and rules, about sex, gender roles and family that are “closely linked to the imperative of maintaining high birthrates.” In modern societies that have mostly conquered infant mortality — while extending life expectancy — that imperative loses relevance.
The decline of traditional religion is thus an indirect, but foreseeable, result of demographic transition and may spread to less developed countries as they modernize.
In other words, religion evolved as a coping mechanism. In a world of chaos and suffering, it makes life more tolerable. It gives people comfort and reassurance when facts alone wouldn’t lead them to that conclusion.
But the more human beings advance – the more we learn about taking control of nature, the more we succeed at making life better and fairer for everyone – the more superfluous religion seems. It’s a vestige of the childhood of our species, and we’re learning to put away childish things. It’s a transition that’s happening all over the world. But in America, because religion has always wielded disproportionate influence and power, the change is going to be especially stark. In the years to come, we’re going to witness it for ourselves.