By James A. Haught
Why is religion collapsing in all Western democracies — and most rapidly in the United States?
A prominent researcher asserts that rising personal freedom — discrediting outdated church Puritanism — is a major reason. Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan expounds on this in his new book, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It, and What Comes Next?
Inglehart says all major religions spent centuries enforcing “pro-fertility norms” that require women to stay home raising babies, subservient to husbands — and also demonizing birth control, homosexuality, masturbation, divorce, abortion “and any other sexual behavior not linked with reproduction.”
Churches presented these taboos as divine commands from God, with violations punishable by eternal burning in hell. But the Sexual Revolution freed multitudes to make their own choices without fear. Inglehart writes:
Since the Enlightenment, the struggle for human emancipation — from the abolition of slavery to the recognition of human rights — has been a defining feature of modernization. This struggle virtually always aroused resistance from reactionary forces. …
The recent legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage in many countries constitutes a breakthrough at society’s most basic level: Its ability to reproduce itself. These changes are driven by growing mass support for sexual self-determination, which is part of an even broader trend toward greater emphasis on freedom of choice in all aspects of life. …
In 1945, homosexuality was still criminal in most Western countries; it is now legal in virtually all of them. In the postwar era, both church attendance and birth rates were high; today, church attendance has declined drastically and human fertility has fallen.
Page after page, Inglehart outlines how religion has fizzled and secularism has soared — mostly since 2007 when churchless people reached a “tipping point” that guaranteed escalating change:
In the earliest U.S. survey in 1982, 52 percent of the American public said that God was very important in their lives; in 2017, only 23 percent made this choice. …
In 1982, only 16 percent of Americans said that they “never or practically never” attended religious services; in 2017, 35 percent said that. …
In 1982, 46 percent of Americans said they had “a great deal” of confidence in their country’s religious institutions; in 2017, only 12 percent said this — only about a fourth as many as in 1982. …
[Internationally] in high-income countries, the younger birth cohorts are much less religious than their older compatriots; among those born between 1894 and 1903, 42 percent said that God was very important in their lives; among those born between 1994 and 2003, only 11 percent said this.
On and on, Inglehart spells out the relentless march of secularism.
The professor doesn’t declare specifically that religion will die in Western democracies in the coming decades — but all his findings hint strongly toward that future. Hurrah.
FFRF Member James A. Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. He has won two dozen national newswriting awards and is author of 12 books and 150 magazine essays. He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine and was writer-in-residence for the United Coalition of Reason.
This column is adapted from a piece published at Daily Kos, OpEd News and Daylight Atheism, among other places.