Viewpoints: Why is faith falling in the US?

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Recently, researchers conducting a WIN-Gallup International poll about religion surveyed people from 57 countries.

The poll suggests that in the US, since 2005:

 - the number of people who consider themselves religious has dropped from 73% to 60%
 - those who declare themselves atheists have risen from 1% to 5%

What’s behind the changing numbers? Is the cause churches that chase modern trends at the expense of core beliefs? Or are those who have always been ambivalent about religion now less likely to identify as Christian? We asked two writers for their take.

Rod Dreher: Progressive churches fuel apathy

As a practicing Christian of the Hitchens sort (Peter, the good one), I welcome the news that more Americans are willing to identify as atheists. At least that clarifies matters.

I respect honest atheists more than I do many on my own side, for the same reason Jesus of Nazareth said to the tepid Laodicean church: “because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth”.

Written By: BBC News
continue to source article at bbc.co.uk

42 COMMENTS

  1. ” As a practicing Christian of the Hitchens sort (Peter, the good one),”

    Did he mean to say, ” Peter, the delusional one. “

    ” The real issue is homosexuality. “

    I suppose so. How could one look at the attitude churches take toward this issue and still believe that hogwash they are slinging!

  2. More Americans are recognizing that the religiots are not interested in the real problems we face. And we recognize that the current crop of village idiots hope to turn us all into sheep.

    Did the second opinionator misrepresent Richard’s view on saying grace?

    [edit] Jel, just mouseover the troll’s comment; you’ll see a flag at the bottom.

  3. Yes, the second commentator very much did misrepresent Richard on saying grace. He is on record as quoting a famous predecessor at New College (AJ Ayer I think, to whom I am distantly related) that he “won’t utter falsehoods, but has no problem with meaningless statements”. Although, of course, the misrepresentation was about much more than the trite formalities of saying grace, it was tantamount to a suggestion that Richard lacks any moral nuance at all in dealing with the excrescences of religion. Anyone who has read The God Delusion, or any of Richard’s other books, would know this to be a scurrilous straw man and a half.

  4. Heres an intresting thought (to me at least).  What if the drop off in church-going or the “mushy-middles” flip from religouse to None is in relation to the over steps of the right wing push in the Iraq war?  The modern day crusade that the far right bible thumpers decided to make is also one of the least popular US military operations since Veitnam.

    Most of history is pedulem swings from one extreme reaction to another.  The dark ages come from represive roman policies that lead evetualy to the fall of the empire (broad overly simplified ex this I know there where many causes but that was a main one)  It seems when viewed long term most extreme movements tend to end up spawning not only their own downfall but to an equal extent their exact oppisite reaction.  Victorian sexual represion led to the sexual revolution the sexual revolution led to the coservative movement.

    With that in mind I belive it is just a cultural pushback from an extreme over reach by a very vocal minority.  The worst thing the evangelicals did was tell their “flocks” exactly what they belived, cause then the flock found out there was just a very small angry man behind the curtain.  Empathy begins at home.  Its much easier to make a boogieman out of a faceless strawman but by now nearly everyone in america knows a gay person, is related to a gay person works with 1 ect.  We have seen the enemy and they are us.  The best example of this is our dear old friends the Westboro Baptist Church, the “God hates Fags”  group.  Durring the dateline interveiw several years ago the interviewer ask a young member about the churches belifes.  This 6 or 7 year old parroted “God hates fags”  when asked what a “fag” was the kids eyes went blank and he stammered “…. umm God hates em”  Much easier to hate what you do not know.

    Well thats my $0.02 again I am probably not entirly correct (people are not easily defined) but I think this warrents disscusion.

  5. “At some point, the Nones may discover that neither MTD nor Atheism can give them the otherworldly hope they need to endure and to triumph over true suffering”
    What a proverbial “swing and a miss” by this apologist tag team!!!!!!! The trend towards nonbelief (i.e. “getting beyond belief”) is clearly here to stay, and will begin to accelerate because it is mankind’s technology that ultimately must bring an end to human suffering, not irrational belief in some better,” mystical” place to which some perceived “imaginary friend” would prefer we all go.

  6. Dreher’s and Dickerson’s hypotheses are neither mutually exclusive nor mutually inclusive, and their comments contain occasional factual errors, so I’ll make a few critical comments.

    their willingness to radically redefine the faith is helping drive liberal Christianity to extinction

    What is liberal about liberal Christianity, if not its willingness to radically redefine what the Christian faith means? What other sorts of liberal Christianity will go extinct? Will *all* Christianity become extinct in the US?

    good news for atheism? Not really. Putnam and Campbell, writing in their much-praised 2010 book American Grace, found that atheism continues to be confined to a relatively tiny population

    The whole of this discussion concerns trends; what matters is which numbers are growing and which falling, not which numbers have gone from very very small to very small. And, in any case, non-belief is a lot more common than a willingness to self-label as atheist indicates.

    The blockbuster growth in American religion is happening among a category the authors dub the “Nones” – people who claim no religious affiliation, but most of whom believe in God. This is the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.

    This is a complete mischaracterisation of the demographics of Nones. There is no indication that most are theists or deists, and they cannot collectively be summarised as spiritual.

    Why (is irreligiosity rising)? According to the research, the young are leaving conservative churches because they disagree with traditional views on homosexuality. They’re not joining liberal churches

    Shouldn’t that be explained, if the leaving-conservative-churches observation is to be considered an adequate answer to the question? And if the origin of increasing irreligiosity is people leaving one church type without going into the other, why is the overall summary given for “the reason” for the trend that it’s said other type (liberals) at fault?

    [Moralistic Therapeutic Deism] is the default religion of nearly all American young people, both Christian and non-Christian, who are a generation of theological illiterates

    Firstly, deism cannot accurately describe people who occasionally ask God for a favour, which is the very tendency for which Dreher criticises them. Secondly, given that theists are in general unaware of more than a handful of their books’ verses, it’s unfair to pretend one can comparatively consider these alleged MTDs theological illiterates. Indeed, the atheists on which the BBC asked Dreher to comment are, according to data, disproportionally expert in theology; they just don’t buy it.

    You can see why a generation raised on MTD would have no interest in traditional religion, with its truth claims and strictures.

    But this generation hasn’t been so raised; most of the new non-theists have theist families (often much to their mutual chagrin). Further, MTD by definition makes truth claims.

    America’s religious future would belong to theological slackers who believe in a vague deity who makes no demands, and only provides psychological comfort. At least atheists have the courage of their lack of religious convictions.

    Anyone who makes claims about the nature of God has the courage of their convictions; this doesn’t change due to their beliefs differing from Dreher’s. To say God wants us to be nice and happy is to make a theological claim, and the people Dreher is critiquing often (by his own admission) think also God sometimes answers prayers, which makes their claims theist.

    if historic religion had been about therapeutic self-love and bourgeois bedlam instead of rigour, repentance and reform, neither the 19th-century abolitionists nor the 20th-century civil rights marchers would have had a thing to go on.

    This is disingenuous. “Reform” does not belong in that list, precisely because the only beef Dreher has with new, alternative religious claims is that they’re unfamiliar. Abolitionism and civil rights marches both called for changes status quos that had never hitherto been objected to on any mainstream theological basis, and the cases for them – whether explicitly religious or not, and (where explicitly religious) whether necessarily explicitly religious or not – did not in any sense owe a debt to rigorous allegiance to existing theology.

    the Nones may discover that neither MTD nor atheism can give them the otherworldly hope they need to endure and to triumph over true suffering.

    So thinking God wants us to be happy and can make it so won’t help us endure and triumph over suffering? Interesting. And if neither MTD nor atheism will do for them, what will? The only other thing, which they already left? We’ll see. But it’s improbable. Are all European nations, with far, far higher levels of irreligiosity, about to frogmarch back to theodicy levels of institutionalised theism?

    there will be some churches left to take in the shipwrecked souls. Churches that traded their faith inheritance for a pot of progressive message will not be among them.

    Make up your mind: does faith inheritance have a progressive component or not? A moment ago you said it was progressive enough in the reform it demanded that neither abolition nor 20th century civil rights movements would have been possible without it.

    Atheism in America has quintupled since 2005.

    There are any number of reasons that inference is statistically dubious. I need only note there has clearly been no consideration for error bars. Suppose for the sake of argument each figure is to the nearest percent: going from “1” % (0.5 to 1.5 %) to “5” % (4.5 to 5.5 %) could then mean multiplying by anything from 3 to 11. Why claim it’s 5? And, of course, there are plenty of sociological reasons why the number of atheists may not be precisely the number of people who admit they’re atheists, and even why the ratio of the two would change.

    Although this drop in religious identity comes during the spread of “New Atheism” in the wake of bestselling books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others, attributing this change to those works seems unlikely.

    Rather than discussing the probability it’s “all down” to that or, worse, simply “down” without clarifying what besides “all down” that could encompass, let’s discuss what proportion is down to that, and what probability distribution that quantity itself has.

    Nothing has happened in the last seven years to make the philosophical arguments for God any more or less plausible.

    Not in objective terms, no; but we are discussing sociology, remember?

    [Harris and Dawkins] both treat saying grace at dinner as if it were morally adjacent to slapping Galileo

    At least with regard to Dawkins, that is a lie; he has frequently explicitly stated that he says grace where it is socially normative as a matter of plain courtesy. And there is absolutely no evidence that Harris is any more fairly summarised in this accusation. I demand Dickerson either provide evidence that proves me wrong or retract this slander against Sam Harris, and I demand he retract his provable lie about Richard Dawkins. My demands won’t be heeded, but that doesn’t subtract from how wrong Dickerson is, to say the least.

    It can’t be the Catholic abuse scandal, because that started over seven years ago, and it’s not just Catholic churches losing members.

    Dickerson seems convinced we need one answer that explains every last new infidel, and he seems convinced also a factor cannot have gradual effects, or even gradual origins. 2005 was the year in which we gained a new pope who had personally invented the procedures used to keep abusers from harm and which exacerbated the harm they ultimately caused, and it was only in even later years that such facts came to light, and the *scale* of the problem has been at least as recently uncovered as the nature of it.

    it can’t be that people suddenly woke and realised the religious right wants to clamp down on sex, birth control and lady parts in general, as if this were some surprise tactic that only liberals were ever wise to

    What has such liberal exceptionalism to do with this? Is Dickerson arguing we know we need a liberal-only answer because only liberals are leaving faith and, if some other kind of answer is posited, we should be seeing others leaving? That the exit is purely liberal is far from true.

    The real issue is homosexuality.

    Ah; he *does* need a single answer.

    For the first time in Barna’s polling history, Americans were more likely to view Christians negatively than positively. When he asked these younger people what words described evangelicals…

    That isn’t the same thing as Christians.

    any of these critiques could have been—and have been—levelled by Christians’ enemies since at least the 1970s.

    I have news for Dickerson: not only are not all of evangelicals’ enemies also the enemies of Christians’ in general; some of them are even other types of Christians.

    the conservative Christian church, though it may still own the label “religion”, no longer owns public morality along with it

    It doesn’t own either; it doesn’t even own the label Christianity.

  7. When I read comments like Dreher’s I just get giddy. If the church is so unwilling to acknowledge why people are leaving they will never stem the tide. Dreher seems to act that this flood is coming from the nones, but any quick look at some of the recent new leaders in the Freethinking community show us that is mostly not true.

  8.  Moralistic Therapeutic Deism = 12 Step Recovery Programs 

    I wont say 12 step programs are the only factor in the increase of ‘nones’ and I wouldn’t call 12-steppers deists, per se.  However, Dreher’s desciption loosely fits the ‘spiritual not religous’ nature of 12 step programs. 

  9. Who cares why people are coming to their senses; each may have a personal reason, the main thing is that they are freeing themselves.

    I’ve just received a friendly message from my female Catholic friend who balled me out the last time she got in touch! Who knows, perhaps she’s about to come out! 

    The last email I sent her was apropos of the Playboy interview that Richard Dawkins gave recently. It read : “When you read this hear the voice of Lack Lemon or Walter Matthau in you head.

    I was expecting a blast, but she seems to have come to terms.

    I await developments with interest.

    Not too far off subject I hope.

  10. I do see something positive in the first opinion piece. It has an antagonistic air towards the “Mushy” “Liberal” Christians. The Christian political movement has been successful in uniting the separate denominations despite their differences and it has afforded them a good deal of power, however if it’s one thing that religion is good at it’s dividing. If they do become so incompatible that cooperation is difficult I think it would loosen the stranglehold they seem to have on politics in the US. 

  11. Interesting article.  I think both writers raised valid points.

    My take is, first, beware of simplistic explanations of trends among a huge population.  Any claim that this shift away from religion can be attributed to anything simple and clear is, in my opinion, an oversimplification. 

    Yes, the prominence of gay-bashing Evangelicals, Catholics, and Muslims has convinced many that saying they are ‘not religious’ represents a type of ethical solidarity with their gay, lesbian, bi and trans friends and family.  This is part of a larger trend rejecting the old assumption that being religious implied greater morality than being non-religious.  Pedophile priests and Muslim extremists are two examples of people who wear religion on their sleeve being actively evil–and have contributed to more people being willing to say “I’m not religious.”

    Yes, outspoken and prominent atheists like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris have swayed a few people (and have convinced many more that its okay to come out of the closet regarding their long-held secular beliefs). 

    And yes, the squishy sort of “I’m spiritual but not religious” types have long been a growing segment of the population.  Dubbed “MTD” in the article, I agree with the assertion that many of those who explicitly reject ‘religion’ are not rejecting all belief in a supreme being—they just prefer a vague feel-good deism to the various nasty forms of theism. 

    And there are other causes for the rise of the “not religious” category, too, I’m sure–I merely mention a few that stick out in my mind as likely being statistically significant contributors to the growth of that population. 

  12. Here’s my thoughts on why people are leaving atheism:
    (not in any order)

    1. People are less authoritarian. Kids these days don’t feel adults are at a higher level than they are. They say what they want, and even challenge adults. This started in the 1960′s and has currently peaked. On the negative side, youth have a disrespect towards adults and feel entitled. On the positive side, they question the status quo and are proactive towards being self-motivated. If they are willing to question adults face-to-face, questioning an invisible authority is no problem or even considered a stupid idea.The idea of a talking snake and other Biblical stories always bothered people.  Now they can freely say so.

    2. Homosexuality is more excepted by the general society. Most everyone has watched a TV show with a gay male decorator or strong minded lesbian in the spotlight. With more gays being visible, people catch onto the fact that they are who they are and no choice was made. Given that reality, the concept of homosexuality being a choice or immoral, is clearly untrue. If this is untrue, the Bible is incorrect in this area.

    3. Birth control. Each generation is slowly becoming more comfortable with their sexuality and sexual expression. Traditional religion is seen as backward and unrealistic especially in challenging economic times.

    4. Activity overload – People are stressed working overtime, juggling many roles and have no time for anything that is not crucial towards their daily living. Church seems unimportant because deep inside they know that the structure of the ceremony, service, or events at church are irrelevant towards their day-to-day living.

    5. Being independent is easier. It has been suggested that of the majority of people are not extroverts as previously believed. Some statistics show that introversion is around half the population. People need a church community less and less because they have found a community online, with friends, and areas other than at church. Technology has made it possible that some people can live fairly independently and also have independent views.

    6. The internet provides information and clarification for a wide variety of views. Anyone uncertain can anonymously talk with atheists and others about issues and questions that are unresolved.

    7. Hardships and challenges occur. This is a natural occurrence in life. Someone dies a painful death. Someone sends out over 200 resumes and cover letters with no response. Someone born with challenges doesn’t get a break; instead more hardships come along. Meanwhile, the attractive person born to upper middle classed parents, who was well-cared for seems to glide through life. God favoring one over another just doesn’t seem reasonable.

    8. People intuitively understand the rules of society and they don’t jell with religion.

    9. The prayer rug that came in the mail just isn’t working.

  13. I think there are quite a few factors to explain this:

    If in 1969 you had asked people in BC Canada if they were gay, you would likely have discovered there were absolutely none.  Gay lib got started in 1970, and hit the news big time in 1972 in the provincial election.  I suspect, had you polled again you would have got much larger numbers.  People felt safer to come out.  I think the same thing is happening with atheists.  It is not so much there are more of them, just they are not so frightened.

    The Internet is making it much harder for fundamentalists to restrict their children’s access to heretical religious ideas.  When I was a teen, I rebelled against my atheist parents by sneaking into churches and interviewing people trying to find out what this god thing they were so keen on was all about.  I decided they had not a clue.  Fundamentalist kids would rebel the same way.  Even exploring other Christian sects weakens the absolute rigidity.

    In rural areas the church is pretty well the only game for socialising.  Because of the Internet, people are socialising more on-line.  This weakens the hold of the church.  Televangelists have sucked dry the local churches, without providing social cohesion or involvement.

    Despite all the Christian propaganda on TV, there is also a steady stream of science, which ignores creationism, and baldly explains how things are.  It is an implied condemnation of creationism and the churches that support it. Kids are expected to hold two world views, and spout the correct one in the appropriate circumstances. This has to be weakening the power of the fundamentalists.

    Ricky Martin and friends are so sexy, so lively, so gay friendly, they are much much more appealing than the dreary hymns of the churches. Churches are a downer, and there is enough bad news already with global warming, pollution, wars, racism, extinctions…

    The whole American philosophy that you are 100% responsible for your fate, generated by guts and hard work is at odds with the religious notion that you a helpless pawn of the god Jehovah, and what happens in this life is irrelevant and not under your control.

  14. If the Americans inherited a literalist supreme court, they could rule that treating churches differently from any other institution else violates the first amendment “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.  Churches have become a giant tax dodge for con (wo)men like Joyce Meyer.

    Another way the legal system could be used to wipe them out is to sue for damages to abused children. That has the Anglican church in Canada on its last legs.  Other lawsuits should be possible — collecting money for a charitable purpose then spending on personal luxuries, for example.  Forcing them to spend giant holdings as they claim to spend them.

    It is too bad Rupert Murdoch does not stalk them like the royal family.

  15. I suspect the numbers above are not an indication of changes in the beliefs of the American population, but are an indication that many people are “at long last” indicating what they actually think/believe.

  16. We are atheists therefore we do not believe what’s written in the bible so we have no problem with homosexuality but for some reason it really bothers Christians hmmmm I wonder why??? Maybe secretly gay themselves and a mind that cannot cope with false guilt ??

  17. I believe the promotion of the wonders of science will in time persuade youngsters in education(as well as those captivated by the programs from top scientists) to drop all the fairy story nonsense of belief in imaginary deities.

  18. The assertion that I’m not convinced by is that right-wing christians are more genuine that left-wing ones. I’m sure, particularly if you take the weird conspiracy-christian fringe, there is a higher proportion who actually believe the nonsense. However, what is not true is the idea that right-wingers are the only authentic Christians, or are even more authentic. They cherry pick just like everyone else, it’s just the things they pick as sticking points differ. They ignore just as much as the left-wing do.

    The key differences are that they are authoritarian and inclined to punish those who don’t behave in what they consider an acceptable way. What is acceptable has more to do with group cohesion, moral intuition and identity than justice or considered morality. That means being an honest atheist is a lot harder in those communities.

  19. There are also, not really mentioned in the article, a fair number of people who are not theist or even deist, really, but believe some real hardcore nonsense; antivax, truthers, birthers and plenty of other odd ideas about aliens, human descent (often these are racially tinged ideas), cosmic forces, mental powers, the capabilities of DNA and so on. Some of these ideas, often warped by ideology, bleed into the mainstream and distort how people think about apparently scientific concepts. Wake up, sheeple.

  20.  Authoritarianism was a big one for me. I actually react near-violently to that sort of thing. If anyone tries to tell me what to do without having any good justifications, I’d be sorely tempted to punch them right then and there.

    This part of Dreher’s article was particularly infuriating:

    “the Nones may discover that neither MTD nor atheism can give them the
    otherworldly hope they need to endure and to triumph over true suffering”

    Suffering is like pain. It’s signals something is wrong and needs to be fixed. It’s not something to be endured, suffered through, etc. I find myself really having to ask if the religious are outright hateful towards this physical existence we share. So often they downplay what goes on in the real world.

  21. “Nothing has happened in the last seven years to make the philosophical arguments for God any more or less plausible.”
    Apart from every single one having been comprehensively debunked by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris et al.

  22. I just want to thank Science for everything that helped mankind come so far. Science has flown man to the moon. Science has enabled man to fly. Science has brought light into every man’s home and bringing daylight into the nite. Science has saved man from their illness more than what a prayer can do. If even one, just one of these scientific breakthroughs were to take place in ancient times, scientists would easily be mistaken as gods. Science has done so much more for mankind……how much really did religion do for man other than chaos and backbiting behind one another, yet they consider themselves to be the epitome morality. Science has done so much and will do even more if only mankind would give all their might to fund it. It’s time to stop believing but rather to see the truth for what it is instead of what we believe it to be.

  23. The fundamentalist views on abortion and conception are gaining. Why? The positions are irrational.  The earth is overpopulated. It desperately needs contraception. The every egg is sacred view of abortion depends on the doctrine of souls possessing fertilised eggs like ghostly little demons. Why would that goofy idea be gaining ground?

    What the heck is going on? 

    1. repeated assertion. The rational opposition has been silent.

    2. the murders, the angry chanting.  The message is, for a reason I do not understand, lots of people think it is extremely wicked to have or aid an abortion.  I don’t want those loons coming after me.
     
    3. The repeated assertion has created the illusion that nearly everyone will be strongly disapproving if I have an abortion for any reason.

    4. People when polled on their view are lying because they think it safer, more respectable in the eyes of the pollster to claim to be pro-life.

    5. Almost all American movies about death perpetuate the ghost/soul/afterlife doctrine, even silly ones like Checking Out. This unconsciously perpetuates nutty ideas about abortion. I think they do this to put a happy ending on a film where the hero dies. They get to have both a sad and happy ending.

  24. I guess its because Americans are being bombarded with so many different beliefs and religions that they’re now just choosing to give up the whole idea of having belief in anything of the sort.

  25. Perhaps they will follow the lead given by the Welsh?

     
    Dwindling congregations at chapels across Wales are transforming the
    landscape for worshippers, as more and more buildings are forced to
    close.

    Chapels are being lost at the rate of one a week and church leaders fear that hundreds more may have to shut their doors. – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-1

  26. I was born in 1977 to a free will baptist religious family in East Tennessee, US.  Even though I was saved multiple times (out of fear not love) I never felt anything from a higher being.  I was the grand-daughter of a preacher and the niece to his son, a missionary.  As my struggle with belief continued I was increasingly mentally abused by my family for years.  I was raised as a christian for 18 years of my life.  Since the age of 18 I would consider myself to have been a Non.  Since the age of 25 I am an Atheist, and proud of it!  Upon my grandmother’s death (father’s side) I was told I would never see her again because I was going to hell.  When her husband passed years later I was told I was fat.  When my grandfather finally passed, I was told I had been disinherited from the family.  My response, thanks the gods, I didn’t want that blood money on my head.  Needless to say grandmother hasn’t spoken to me since.  As an American I just want to say it is possible to come from a religious family and still be a critical thinker!  I would like to thank my teachers and college professors for the chance to learn the truth!

  27. I do find it interesting that the two most religious countries are also two of the most poor and illiterate, while the most atheist country is the new power in world finance and America’s new master!

  28. I would like to think its because of the open public speaking by people such as Richard Dawkins.

    I feel more should ‘speak out’, so our future children can at last see the beauty of our natural existence within this magnificent universe.

    Richard (and all others) please continue to help guide others as often as you can, you can never have enough intelligent debate where human survival is of concern. Plus I seriously cannot wait for the next Richard Dawkins youtube film clip or another book of facts.

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