secular wave | James Haught
By James A. Haught
The long-awaited secular age is coming at a gallop. Survey after survey, there is a dramatic increase in the number of Americans who say their religion is “none.”
The American Family Survey 2017 found that the “no’s” exceeded one-third of American adults – the highest ratio on record. These people without a church have become the largest category of faith in the country.
Released in November by Brigham Young University, the national poll found that 34% of those polled said they were atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” They were ahead of Protestants (33%), Catholics (21%), Jews (two percent), Muslims (two percent), Mormons (one percent), Hindus (one percent) and “Other” (four percent).
Meanwhile, a 2017 Pew Research poll found that the ratio of Americans who identify as religious has fallen to about half. Only 48% chose “religious and spiritual” – 27% chose “spiritual but not religious” – 18% chose “neither religious nor spiritual” – and six percent said they are “religious but not spiritual”.
Also in 2017, the Public Religion Research Institute released a report saying:
“Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian. In 1976, about eight in ten Americans (81%) identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination.
Of course, part of this astonishing decline stems from demographics. A flood of Asians, Hispanics, Blacks, Pacific Islanders and others swells the American population, reducing the ratio of traditional European whites. However, the relentless retreat of religion is also a major factor of change.
Based on a survey of more than 100,000 respondents in all 50 states, PRRI said those who openly respond that they have no religion now constitute a quarter of adults, overtaking Catholics (21% ), white evangelicals (16%) and all smaller groups. .
Several previous studies have found a relentless retreat of religion in Western democracies. It started in Europe after WWII, then spread to Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, etc. At first America seemed like an exception – but the trend came in full force.
The first American victim was mainstream Protestantism, with seminary-trained ministers and progressive political views. Major denominations began to collapse in the 1960s and lost millions of American members. Then, Catholics deserted their churches in droves – an exodus so great that one-tenth of American adults today are former Catholics. Finally, belatedly, losses began to hit the white evangelicals.
PRRI founder Robert P. Jones, author of The end of white Christian America, commented :
“This report provides strong evidence of a new and second wave of decline in white Christians that is occurring among white evangelical Protestants just over the past decade in the United States. Prior to 2008, white evangelical Protestants appeared to be immune to waves of demographic change and disaffiliation that were eroding the basis for membership of white Protestants and white Catholics. We now see that these waves simply peaked later for white evangelical Protestants. ”
PRRI research director Daniel Cox said young Americans in particular are abandoning religion – many of them are disgusted by the intolerant and fanatical values of fundamentalists who speak out against homosexuals, try to ban abortion, protest Hollywood sexuality, want to keep marijuana illegal, etc.
“Young people are much less likely to believe this is a ‘Christian nation‘ or to favor Christian identity,” Cox said. “It is no longer the case with young people that being religious is necessarily a positive attribute.
Gays themselves renounce religion at nearly double the rate of “straight people”. The PRRI study found that 46% of them say their faith is “none”.
The losses of the American church have political implications. White evangelicals are at the heart of the Republican Party, while younger, college-educated ‘no’s’ figure prominently in the Democratic base. The GOP segment is shrinking while the liberal group is growing. Unfortunately, many “no’s” do not vote, but their rise nonetheless changes American culture and values.
Western civilization goes through eras – the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the colonial era, the rise of democracy, etc. I think the West is now firmly in the secular era, when supernatural religion is fading into a discredited fringe. The Muslim world remains mired in magical faith, with tragic consequences, but the West turns to mental honesty.
(Haught is editor-emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and an editor of Free survey magazine. This article originally appeared in Free survey, June 2018.)