We’re delighted to have the opportunity to share regularly from now on with our members blogs written by a veteran freethinker and journalist. James A. Haught was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine and was writer-in-residence for the United Coalition of Reason. We’ll be posting his columns online and emailing them to our members, starting with this piece today that discusses the biggest phenomenon of the 21st century.
The coronavirus pandemic currently seems to be the most significant occurrence in the 21st century so far. But pandemics eventually burn out and fade into history like the 1918 flu tragedy.
There’s a deeper event, like the hidden bulk of an iceberg, that bodes to have a more profound impact on the future of civilization. It’s the remarkably rapid collapse of religion in industrialized democracies. Sociologists are stunned by the abrupt downfall of supernatural faith in Western societies. This swift cultural transformation gained traction in the 1990s and then accelerated.
For example, more than half of United Kingdom adults now have no church identity, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey.
“Fifty-two percent of the public say they do not belong to any religion, compared to 31 percent in 1983 when the BSA began tracking religious belief,” The London Guardian has reported. “One in four members of the public stated, ‘I do not believe in God,’ compared with one in 10 in 1998.”
The Telegraph newspaper adds that 26 percent of Britons labeled themselves “confident atheists,” up from 10 percent in 1998. It quotes researcher Nancy Kelley as saying the surprising retreat of religion is “one of the most important trends in postwar history.”
Ironically, Europeans spent centuries killing each other over religion, such as in the Crusades, Inquisitions, witch hunts, Reformation wars, pogroms against Jews and the massacres of Anabaptists. Then Europe finally decided that faith is inconsequential.
Similar secularization is reported across Scandinavia, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the like. Religion has fizzled since the 1990s.
America traditionally was an exception in being a faith stronghold but the United States is joining the secular tsunami. A Gallup poll from last year found that church membership fell 20 percent in the past two decades. Various polls say more than one-fourth of American adults now say their faith is “none” — and the proportion is over one-third among those under 30.
A 2020 Barna report said only one-fourth of American adults now are active “practicing Christians” – down from 45 percent in 2000. So many Catholics have quit that 13 percent of American adults now are ex-Catholics. As for tall-steeple mainline Protestants, they have shrunk drastically since the 1960s. United Methodists have dropped from 14 million to below 7 million. Presbyterians have fallen from 4.2 million to 1.4 million. Episcopalians have faded from 3.6 million to 1.8 million. The Disciples of Christ have sunk from 1.9 million to 600,000. Meanwhile, America’s population has doubled.
That’s a huge drop in four decades.
The retreat of religion can be seen in evolving morality: When I was young in the 1950s, church-backed laws made it a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath, or clubs to serve cocktails, or adults to look at something like a Playboy magazine or nude scenes in an R-rated movie, or to sell a lottery ticket, or to read a sexy novel. (My hometown mayor sent cops to raid bookstores selling Peyton Place.) Gay sex was a felony. Jews were banned from many clubs. It was a crime for an unwed couple to share a bedroom.
But all those theocratic taboos shrank and disappeared. The nation’s values evolved. Religion lost its power. It occurred so gradually that few noticed.
America today is mostly a “functional atheist” society. Daily public life rolls on with not very much mention of magical gods, devils, heavens, hells and other church dogmas. The culture most often behaves as if they don’t exist.
The collapse of religion can be seen in America’s growing tolerance of homosexuality. Most of the nation now accepts gays as fellow humans — while many churches still declare them evil. (The bible decrees that gay males must be killed. “They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Leviticus 20:13.) Americans generally became kinder, leaving clerics and the bible behind. Morality evolved, but religion didn’t.
Scholars offer various explanations for the Western secular surge. Mostly, they say that religion thrives in low-income, undeveloped lands where people need supernatural comfort — but that need vanishes when life becomes affluent and secure.
Personally, I think education and intelligence are involved. Several studies have found that doubters are smarter than believers. Researchers say America’s average IQ rises by three points per decade, while tests are recalibrated to keep the median at 100. Many intelligent people can’t swallow magical claims of religion. Americans are becoming smarter, and they’re leaving supernaturalism behind.
Of course, American churches will linger interminably as congregations age. But they’re increasingly sidelined.
Like many profound culture shifts, the secular transformation is sometimes little noticed. Television still teems with big-money evangelists who buy air time to beg for cash to buy more air time. Politicians (especially Republicans) still invoke the holies and demand public displays of the motto “In God We Trust.”
Speaking of Republicans, the GOP relies heavily upon white evangelicals as its political base. As religion shrinks, the future power of the conservative party is thrown into doubt. Polls show that born-again whites were 27 percent of America’s population in the 1990s, but now they’ve slipped as low as 13 percent. Southern Baptists have lost 1.5 million members since 2006. But those who remain are intensely active in politics. They gave 81 percent of their votes to Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Why do fundamentalists embrace a vulgar, shallow, obnoxious, juvenile, self-worshiping racist who abuses women and speaks in the coarsest language? Why do they want the extreme opposite of Jesus? Wake Forest University church historian Bill Leonard says white evangelicals flock to Trump because they’re in “panic at the precipitous decline of Christianity.”
In other words, conservative Christians feel their dominance of America’s culture evaporating, and they’re desperate. For example, they spent centuries demonizing “evil” gays — yet most Americans now accept homosexuals cordially, and the Supreme Court allowed same-sex marriage. It was a crushing blow to the Religious Right. In fact, repulsive political activity by white evangelicals is a strong reason why many tolerant young Americans renounce religion.
In Western civilization, profound demographic change is happening in this 21st century. White Christian America, for instance, is fizzling away, month after month, year after year. Old Puritanical taboos are disappearing. The alliance of bible-thumping evangelicals and the Republican Party has a diminishing future, doomed to minority status. Churches are shrinking. Secularism is soaring. Humanist values wield ever-greater strength in public life.
Top Image Credit: Creativeneko / Shutterstock. This piece is adapted and updated from a Patheos Daylight Atheism column dated Aug. 5, 2019.