According to a forthcoming book, religion is disappearing in the United States at a faster clip than anywhere else on earth.
Forty percent of Americans now self-identify as “nones,” citizens with no formal affiliation with any religious tradition, University of Michigan scholar Ronald Inglehart reports in a Foreign Affairs article this month previewing his soon-to-be-published book, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Next (Oxford University Press, January 2021).
But he further explains that America’s rapidly proceeding religious deconstruction, though currently world-beating, is just part of a global trend.
Since 2007, Inglehart writes in his Foreign Affairs article (“Giving Up on God: The Global Decline of Religion”), 43 of 49 countries he studied for his book grew less religious and that booming secularization was not only experienced in high-income nations but across the board.
“Growing numbers of people no longer find religion a necessary source of support and meaning in their lives,” Inglehart concludes in his Foreign Affairs piece. “Even the United States—long cited as proof that an economically advanced society can be strongly religious—has now joined other wealthy countries in moving away from religion. Several forces are driving this trend, but the most powerful one is the waning hold of a set of beliefs closely linked to the imperative of maintaining high birthrates. Modern societies have become less religious in part because they no longer need to uphold the kinds of gender and sexual norms that the major world religions have instilled for centuries.”
The U.S. religious decline was “astonishingly sharp” during 1981-2007, Inglehart reports, and that although it was long one of the world’s most religious nations, rich or poor, it today ranks as the 11th least religious society. On a 10-point religiosity scale where 10 designates the most faithfulness, America was 8.2 in 1981 but has plummeted to 4.6 today, he notes.
Ingelhart explains that previous conventional (but fallible) “wisdom” that broader education in wealthier, more advanced countries has particularly led to less religiosity is only partly right. He stresses that the change is mostly about evolving national security and birth rate priorities.
“For most people, religious faith [is] more emotional than cognitive. And for most of human history, sheer survival was uncertain. Religion provided assurance that the world was in the hands of an infallible higher power (or powers) who promised that, if one followed the rules, things would ultimately work out for the best. In a world where people often lived near starvation, religion helped them cope with severe uncertainty and stress. But as economic and technological development took place, people became increasingly able to escape starvation, cope with disease, and suppress violence. They become less dependent on religion—and less willing to accept its constraints, including keeping women in the kitchen and gay people in the closet—as existential insecurity diminished and life expectancy rose.”
Inglehart stresses that transformation of “norms governing human fertility” is “perhaps the most important force” driving growing secularization in the world.
“For many centuries, most societies assigned to women the role of producing as many children as possible and discouraged divorce, abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and any sexual behavior not linked to reproduction. The sacred writings of the world’s major religions vary greatly, but as Norris and I have demonstrated, virtually all world religions instilled these pro-fertility norms in their adherents. Religions emphasized the importance of fertility because it was necessary. In the world of high infant mortality and low life expectancy that prevailed until recently, the average woman had to produce five to eight children in order to simply replace the population.”
So America’s continuing culture war over sexual contraception and abortion is understandable if not justifiable, considering that conservatives — people who instinctively cling to traditions — see the relatively new freedom of women to choose when or if to get pregnant, or even terminate a pregnancy, as a threat to “traditional” family values and, thus, national cohesion.
In fact, this fear is front and center during the current confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate for associate justice nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett — a devout Catholic who has long opposed abortion and has referred to the high court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide as “barbaric.” Yet, she is virtually assured of becoming the court’s ninth justice, replacing late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died earlier this year.
The majority of Americans, however, have moved on from traditional, reflexive opposition to abortion that stems from religious ideology of the so-called “sacredness” of all “life” no matter how preliminary as well as the cultural shifts noted above.
Inglehart says the secularizing trend is natural, in that as society becomes sufficiently stable economically and in terms of national and personal security, “younger generations grew up taking that security for granted, and the norms around fertility receded.” But it happens not quickly but at a “glacial pace” over generations, he points out.
In his recent article, Inglehart, a professor emeritus of democracy, democratization, and human rights at the University of Michigan, asserted some unintuitive facts about religious and less-religious nations. For instance, he said his research shows that the murder rate in the most religious countries is 10 times higher than in the least religious ones. The reason?
“It is not that religiosity causes murders, of course,” he writes, “but that both crime and religiosity tend to be high in societies with low levels of existential security.”
Likewise, Inglehart’s research revealed that religious countries tend to be more corrupt than more secular states.
“The highly secular Nordic states have some of the world’s lowest levels of corruption, and highly religious countries, such as Bangladesh, Guatemala, Iraq, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, have some of the highest,” he writes. “Clearly, religiosity does not cause corruption. Countries with low levels of economic and physical security tend to have high levels of religiosity and also high levels of corruption.”
Despite the surging trend worldwide toward more secular societies, it’s not necessarily game over, he warns.
Events that shake any country’s collective sense of security — such as deadly, intractable pandemics — can abruptly shift demographics back toward more primitive realms of belief.
For example, when the officially atheistic Soviet Union imploded in the 1990s, Inglehart writes, interest in religion in post-Soviet societies, including Russia’s, suddenly surged.
For the moment, fortunately, that’s mostly not happening elsewhere.