By James A. Haught
By now, it’s clear that religion is fading in America, as it has done in most advanced Western democracies. Dozens of surveys find identical evidence: fewer American adults, especially those under 30, attend church — or even belong to a church. They tell interviewers their religion is “none.” They ignore faith.
Since 1990, the “nones” have exploded rapidly as a sociological phenomenon — from 10% of U.S. adults, to 15%, to 20%. Now they’ve climbed to 25%, according to a 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). That makes them the nation’s largest faith category, outstripping Roman Catholics (21%) and white evangelicals (16%). They seem on a trajectory to become an outright majority. America is following the secular path of Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and other modern places. The “Secular Age” is snowballing.
Various explanations for the social transformation are postulated: the Internet exposes young people to a wide array of ideas and practices that undercut old-time beliefs: That family breakdown severs traditional participation in congregations. That the young have grown cynical about authority of all types. That fundamentalist hostility to LGBTQ+ persons and abortion has soured tolerant-minded Americans. That clergy, child-molesting scandals have scuttled church claims to moral superiority. That faith-based, suicide bombings and other religious murders horrify normal folks.
All those factors undoubtedly play a role. But I want to offer a simpler explanation: In the scientific 21st century, it’s less plausible to believe in invisible gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons — plus virgin births, resurrections, miracles, messiahs, prophecies, faith-healings, visions, incarnations, divine visitations and other supernatural claims. Magical thinking is suspect, ludicrous; it’s not for intelligent, educated people.
Significantly, the PRRI study found that the foremost reason young people gave for leaving religion is this clincher: they stopped believing miraculous church dogmas. For decades, tall-steeple mainline Protestant denominations with university-educated ministers tried to downplay supernaturalism — to preach just the compassion of Jesus and the social gospel. It was a noble effort, but disastrous. The mainline collapsed so badly it is dubbed “flatline Protestantism.” It has faded to a small fringe of American life. Now Catholicism and evangelicalism are in the same death spiral. One-tenth of U.S. adults today are ex-Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention lost 200,000 members in 2014 and 200,000 more in 2015.
I’m a long-time newspaperman in Appalachia’s Bible Belt. I’ve watched the retreat of religion for six decades. Back in the 1950s, church-based laws were powerful: it was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. All public school classes began with mandatory prayer. It was a crime to buy a cocktail, or look at nude photos in magazines, or buy a lottery ticket. It was a crime for an unwed couple to share a bedroom. If a single girl became pregnant, both she and her family were disgraced. Birth control was unmentionable. Evolution was unmentionable. It was a felony to terminate a pregnancy. It was a felony to be gay. One homosexual in our town killed himself after police filed charges. Even writing about sex was illegal. In 1956, our Republican mayor sent police to raid bookstores selling Peyton Place.
Gradually, all those faith-based taboos vanished from society. Religion lost its power — even before the upsurge of “nones.” Perhaps honesty is a factor in the disappearance of religion. Maybe young people discern that it’s dishonest to claim to know supernatural things that are unknowable.
When I was a cub reporter, my city editor was an H.L. Mencken clone who laughed at Bible-thumping hillbilly preachers. One day, as a young truth-seeker, I asked him: You’re correct that their explanations are fairy tales, but what answer can an honest person give about the deep questions: Why are we here? Why is the universe here? Why do we die? Is there any purpose to life? He eyed me and replied: “You can say: I don’t know.” That rang a bell in my head that still echoes. It’s honest to admit that you cannot explain the unexplainable.
The church explanation — that Planet Earth is a testing place to screen humans for a future heaven or hell — is a silly conjecture with no evidence of any sort, except ancient scriptures. No wonder that today’s Americans, raised in a scientific-minded era, cannot swallow it. Occam’s Razor says the simplest explanation is most accurate. Why is religion dying? Because thinking people finally see that it’s untrue, false, dishonest.
White evangelicals tipped the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump, giving an astounding 81% of their votes to the crass vulgarian who contradicts church values. But white Evangelicals, like most religious groups, face a shrinking future: their power will dwindle.
It took humanity several millennia to reach the Secular Age. Now it’s blossoming spectacularly.
(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine.)