Every city skyline is graced by stately steeples, spires, bell towers, domes, minarets and other outlines of cathedrals, temples, mosques, synagogues and sacred edifices of many sorts. The array seems majestic — until you realize that it represents an extravaganza of lies.
The holy architecture proclaims a supernatural realm of gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, prophecies, angels, demons, saviors, blessed virgins and other magical entities that actually don’t exist. Intelligent, educated, modern people know that the whole rigmarole is imaginary, purely fictitious. Yet the panorama dominates each cityscape — a graphic testimonial that humanity lives with myths.
Suppose an extraterrestrial landed and inquired about the religious facades. Could you explain that they represent a past era when humans believed supernatural claims, but many no longer do? The ET might notice that people still attend the worship places. Could you explain the attendees as leftover stragglers from the age of blind faith — people who haven’t yet adopted scientific thinking?
To be truthful, the stragglers aren’t insignificant. They’re huge, although shrinking. More than half of American adults still call themselves Christians. The nation has around 400,000 houses of worship of all types. American believers donated $127 billion to religion in 2016. The internet has innumerable websites espousing faith.
Amid all this religiosity, a few voices say: Wait. Don’t take it seriously. It’s just a chimera, a fantasy rising from the human imagination. It has no actual reality. It’s a game played by our culture, just like with Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, Halloween witches and the Easter Bunny.
Fortunately, millions of young Americans no longer take it seriously. Since the 1990s, an astounding number of educated people have turned their backs on supernaturalism, declaring their religion to be “none.” The “Nones” have climbed rapidly to around one-fourth of U.S. adults and at least one-third of those under 30. American churches have lost 20 percent of their members in two decades.
The United States is following the secularization that swept Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and the rest of Western democracy since World War II. If the snowballing trend continues, religion will shrink to an inconsequential fringe in the West (not in Muslim lands, however).
Although Europe has lost most of its religion, mighty cathedrals still grace European cities. They’ve become mostly tourist attractions, not citadels of faith. I hope that’s the future for spire-laced American cities as well.
This piece is adapted from a column written for the August-September 2020 issue of Free Inquiry.