Religion is collapsing faster in America than in any other nation, according to a top researcher.
Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine — in a piece titled “Giving Up on God: The Global Decline of Religion” — University of Michigan Professor Ronald Inglehart stated: “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.”
Inglehart’s article was drawn from his recent book, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Next.
Why has supernatural religion declined rapidly in Western democracies, especially in America in recent years?
Many sociologists attribute the transformation to prosperity, good health and the governmental safety net. Affluent, secure, comfortable people have less urge to seek divine help, they contend. In contrast, religion remains strong in poor, unhealthy, less-developed places where life is difficult. This theory seems plausible to me.
A different explanation is offered by social analyst Mary Eberstadt of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington. Eberstadt contends that the sexual revolution weakened American families, making them less likely to be church stalwarts. She outlined her premise in How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization and extended it in a newer book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics.
The renowned sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s — triggered initially by the birth control pill — gave women greater freedom and undercut old Puritanical taboos. Female careers became more common. Female college-going soared. Divorce lost much of its stigma. Indirectly, this eroded religion.
Eberstadt explained in an interview: “Consider what often happens when parents divorce and children are put in custody arrangements where they see mom and dad on alternate weekends. This regimen alone throws a monkey wrench into the common Christian practice of churchgoing, because if mom and dad live in different places, it’s less likely that children will be taken consistently to the same church. … Family disruption breeds religious disruption.”
Her explanation likewise seems logical.
Two other explanations are cited frequently: Tolerant young Americans are repelled by fundamentalist attempts to pass hidebound Puritanical laws, especially against gays. And never-ending child-molesting cases by clergy show church members that religion doesn’t produce higher morality.
I’d like to offer a fifth possible explanation: Maybe the fading of religion is tied to rising intelligence, better education and greater science knowledge. Brainy people are less likely to believe in magical gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, prophecies and other church dogmas.
Various studies find that doubters have higher IQ than religious believers do. Also, the Flynn Effect asserts that IQ averages climbed significantly, about three points per decade, in the latter half of the 20th century. Young people who were given tests from the past scored higher than the old 100 norm. (Some recent findings imply that the Flynn Effect is reversing in some nations, but not the United States.)
If smarter people doubt supernatural claims, and Americans have gotten smarter, that’s a formula for church decline. I hope some researchers explore to determine whether better brainpower undercuts religion.
This column is adapted from a piece first published in Canadian Atheist on Dec. 12, 2021.