The Great Decline: 61 years of religiosity in one graph, 2013 hits a new low

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By Tobin Grant

Religiosity in the United States is in the midst of what might be called ‘The Great Decline.’ Previous declines in religion pale in comparison. Over the past fifteen years, the drop in religiosity has been twice as great as the decline of the 1960s and 1970s.

Read more here.

63 COMMENTS

  1. This appears to be good news, but it seems strangely out of kilter, because, apparently, 40% of Americans believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, a belief which stems directly out of religion.

    RecklesMonkey, those publications are a bit of a long shot I think.

  2. This data is not global, but I’ll briefly comment on the international situation. Fans of religion love to crow about the fact that Time predicted the imminent end of religion (I think it was c. 1960). But the fact that they were wrong about how soon it would happen (actually, did they predict a timetable?) does not mean religion will last indefinitely. You’ve seen predictions of the future; they often underestimate how long change will take, but it does still happen. Eventually most of the world’s population will live in societies similar to Scandinavia, which will make religion whither (if not become extinct quite yet) for well-understood sociological reasons.

      • Religion will certainly continue to decline in affluent Western societies, but I doubt that it will do so globally. Consider that Islam and Roman Catholicism are vastly increasing their active memberships in Africa and other Third World areas as both religious groups compete to out-breed one another. Ultimately, this is likely to have implications for the West if one considers the consistent influx of immigrants and guest workers from the Third World.

  3. Less religiosity seems like a good thing to me. Even with all the data that produced this graph it still depends a large amount on perception and opinion. Religiosity seems a particularly hard thing to quantify with any meaning.
    Lancshoop-As there seems already to be an over abundance of Vegas Elvises, we would simply run out of sequins.

    • James, I beleive the plural of Elvis is simply “Elvi”. Would would indeed run out of sequins at that rate of Elvi, however, we would first run out of toilets for them to die upon.

      We are entering a new age of enlightenment. Never before in the history of mankind has so much information and knowlege been so redily available to so many people. This is exponentially greater than the invention fo the printing press. No longer is learning a privilege only allowed to the upper class. Religious leaders no londer have the power to keep followers isolated, ignorant, and controlled. I believe that we are going to see a very rapid decline of religiosity over the next few decades.

      Sadly though, there is a portion of the population that will always feel the need to follow, to believe the unbelievable. Whether it’s one religion or another. They will be a minority, but they will always be there.

      I would digress into the effect of the information age on declining population growth, but I would rather talk about the need for more Elvi.

      • Well-said.

        “I believe that we are going to see a very rapid decline of religiosity over the next few decades.”

        One can only hope. I, personally, believe that the resurgent religious Right and its “unholy” alliance with corporate America is the most dangerous struggle we as Americans are facing right now.

      • Eric Aug 11, 2014 at 8:47 am

        Sadly though, there is a portion of the population that will always feel the need to follow, to believe the unbelievable. Whether it’s one religion or another. They will be a minority, but they will always be there.

        Ah! The Fox-nooosists! It was on TV so it must be troooooo!!

  4. I think there will come a point where we will hit critical mass in the states. You see, leaving a religion is a bit like getting a divorce. You know you are unhappy, but you are afraid to change, until you get assurances that it is okay to change. This is why some people have pointed out that divorce seems to be contagious. When one couple in a group gets a divorce, very often that will send a signal to other unhappy couples that it is okay to do so as well. Especially when Paul and Sara split, and the world does not only fail to end, but they both seem to be a lot happier. People are often the same way when they see someone leave a religion, from what I have seen from being a part of ex-Mormon and ex-religious support groups. Often they state that they were struggling with beliefs, but having family and friends who went ahead of them makes it easier. Religion teaches you that you must never look into your doubts, because to doubt religion is a sin that God will punish you for, not just in the next life, but in the here and now. Church leaders expend a lot of time talking about how unhappy and miserable unbelievers are, so often the best thing you can do to help others leave a faith, is to be open about your own atheism, and to live a happy life.

    • I think you have come closest to hitting it on the head. There are many who continue to identify as religious who lack total conviction. They are actually being swept along by “social inertia”.

      I was raised catholic, my dad was even in the Knights of Columbus, and my mother was in St Vincent DePaul. I was skeptical all of my life, and in high school started reading A.C. Clarke, Heinlein and Vonnegut. By seventeen I was a fully committed atheist. What helped was that about midway through high school, my parents stopped going to church weekly. My father would admit to being skeptical toward the end of his life, and had not attended church, other than for weddings and funerals, for forty years. My mother would eventually embrace Native American paganism, in part because of her fractional Apache roots.

      I suspect that the numbers of non believers has skewed to the low side for years due to the multitudes who are like my parents, and many like me who are only now coming “out of the closet.” Recently Bernie Saunders had a “Second Coming” out, and wait for it. . . It’s beginning to look like George Takei is prepping us for his “Second Coming” out.

      • Thank you. I’m hoping that once the number of out of closet atheist hits the right number in America, it will be safe for other questioning adults to come out, and our numbers will start to look more like Europe. I would like to point out there are some places in America already like that, including areas that were founded by religious zealots.

  5. Conclusion: the hallucinogen known as religion is finally starting to wear off.

    …but we’re not out of the woods yet. The patient must be monitored, and continue with a daily regimen of knowledge. Equally important is to reinforce the confidence in feeling the freedom of asking any question without fear of retribution or condemnation.

    Validation: when people stop committing acts of violence or oppression in the name of some imaginary divine entity……we’ve got a long way to go

  6. That’s good news but even when all religion is gone, we still have to deal with the aftermath of the harm done by millennia of religion indoctrination and the spinoffs of religion (superstition, pseudoscience, quackery, sexual taboos, etc.). The “irrationality as a virtue” mentality can prevail and even flourish for a few more centuries unless science education and critical thinking become compulsory in the school curriculum.

    Sorry to rain on your Cyber-Corn Flakes people but we still have all our work ahead of us. The real enemy is ignorance.

  7. If the rest of the developed world sneezes, America catches a cold !

    Of course it’s on the cards, – religion is a spent force where people have to be educated, i.e. the more advanced countries. Science denial is all very well for for the shysters like the Christian TV evangelists, whose names I will not mention. But then these people are conmen, liars and cheats, whose business depends upon spreading falsehoods. They have the bloody pearly gates on their mansions ! It’s in their interests to keep the religion “industry” going.

    Heartless, cynical bastards, – the lot of them.

    • Mr DArcy . If the rest of the developed world sneezes, America catches a cold !

      At first glance I thought your intention was the complete opposite with this line, though I suspect that was your cunning plan. Of course, mistaken though I was, I began to lament the fact that we copy everything to come out of the US. It can take 10 to 20 years, but if it happens there fairly soon it’s happening here!
      The evidence in the graph showing a rather slight decline, is offset by some rather weird practices such as a restaurant chain offering discounts to grace-sayers and a business imposing it’s views on contraception onto its workers. If anything the Christian element seems to have ramped up its visibility.
      When all aspects of religious observance are factored in ( church attendance, census questions and extensive surveys), the results are nothing to write home about. I don’t know that I’d say it’s a ‘spent force’ quite yet.

  8. Well the day USA gets an open Atheist president; I’ll go to church and light a candle.
    Though at the moment there is more chance of gay Nigerian women getting voted in?
    Odd that religion seems to be on the back foot, but it’s a multimillion dollar business over there, so I wouldn’t Count my crucifixes’ just yet, and We must not forget the radical ( Creationists) in Texas, rewriting history as we speak.
    We must not underestimate the new religious crusades against the (ISLAMIC FUDEMENTALISTS) (not against Muslims) this might give the diehards in the US some false rallying point.
    Can I get a hallelujah! Or a hell Yeah!

  9. Do you think cognitive dissonance would explain the comments of Stafford Gordon (the number of YEC) and John and Dave (non-religion critical mass)?
    As people with weakly-held religious beliefs are exposed to conflicting information they

    become less religious (spiritual but not religious -> agnostic -> atheist) or
    stay religious but believe religious texts are more allegorical (it doesn’t really mean seven 24 hour days) or
    stay religious for other reasons (religious people live longer, etc)

    All of this erodes religious critical mass over time (using John and Dave’s comments)

    But as people with strongly-held religious beliefs are exposed to conflicting information they begin to rationalize away the conflict and increase prosthelytizing. This could explain why we now have YEC, ID, AIG, creation museum, etc. (Stafford Gordon’s comment)

    • Yup. However you look at it, a 10% decrease in 50 years is pretty pathetic. Way too slow and unimpressive to shout out to the rooftops with much pride. It’s like the Gallup polls on biblical literalism and creationism: might be a decrease, but colour me unimpressed all the same.

      Tell them to wake me when it really starts dropping, and I might be convinced this is a bona fide trend rather than a mere faddish fluctuation.

      • Also, if you compare the progress of atheists with some other groups, the reasons to not shout about our success become more obvious. Think about woman’s liberation, gay rights, or civil rights. If you asked questions about the rights of women in the US in the fifties people thought you were a communist. It was completely a fringe idea. The same for gay rights, even just expressing in the 50’s that gay people should have the same basic civil rights as everyone else was a fringe idea. Now those ideas are mainstream, the progress is a LOT more than a 10% shift. My guess is if you did a poll on gay marriage in the 50’s you would have gotten about 1% supporting it where as now I think it’s around 50% or so.

        BTW, I don’t see this as such terrible news. I think it just shows that these things take time and atheists now are roughly where feminists and gay rights advocates were in the 70’s. It takes time but I think it’s more or less inevitable.

      • My guess is if you did a poll on gay marriage in the 50′s you would have gotten about 1% supporting it where as now I think it’s around 50% or so.

        In Australia, polls regularly produce results showing mid 60’s percent of people support same sex marriage, and rising. Yet not one parliament in Australia, and we’ve got 8 of them, will pass a law to allow it. A few have been tried, and the conservative parties, impose party discipline, which forces the parliamentarians to vote against the law, or get expelled from the party. So much for democracy.

        http://www.australianmarriageequality.org/who-supports-equality/a-majority-of-australians-support-marriage-equality/

        This is because the political influence of the religious within political parties far exceeds the religiosity of the general population. They’re stacking both parties. I wrote more about this down lower in this forum.

        • I think what you are describing there is an example of a more general phenomenon that also happens a lot in the US. And that is that the politicians take positions and pass (or more often don’t pass) laws that are inconsistent with the majority opinion of the population as indicated by objective polling. In the US the polls show strong support for real separation of church and state, a non-interventionist foreign policy, support for investment in infrastructure and schools, more action on gun control, etc. But the politicians for the vast majority stick to far more conservative policies than what the polls show the people actually want.

          I think one of the main reasons is more or less what you said about the religious right only applied more generally as well. There are other special interest groups like the NRA for guns that can orchestrate very powerful single issue campaigns when the politicians don’t vote the way they want and the US politicians are for the most part intimidated by them.

  10. Keep in mind we’re talking about religiosity. When polls shows that a large percentage of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, you presume these people are also religious. This isn’t necessarily so. I know it seems odd, but a lot of people just don’t think about it one way or the other.

  11. The concept of a personal supernatural creator is dying, even in the most retrograde of developed countries, the United States. There’s nothing surprising about this information and displaying it in a graph highlighting the change which has taken place in less time than an average lifetime isn’t inappropriate.

    P.T. Barnum couldn’t have done it better! (“This way to the egress.”)

    • I wondered if the rise in the 1950s is due to the Cold War. It was Christians vs (Atheist) Commies and In God We Trust was put on the money to prove it. Such propaganda (and fear of nuclear armageddon) could have increased religious sentiment. At the very least, admitting to being an atheist in the McCarthy era was tantamount to declaring yourself a Soviet spy so it wouldn’t be surprising in atheists kept their heads down.

      • I think you are probably correct. The early days of the cold war almost made atheist a synonym for commie or traitor which probably resulted both in more religious commitment from the population as well as a greater tendency for people to self identify as religious.

        • Red Dog Aug 17, 2014 at 12:10 pm

          I think you are probably correct. The early days of the cold war almost made atheist a synonym for commie or traitor which probably resulted both in more religious commitment from the population as well as a greater tendency for people to self identify as religious.

          Stalinists and Maoists were anti-imperialist and anti-theist, while the USA was into McCarthyism at that time.
          ( Joseph McCarthy was born into a Roman Catholic family)

          To fundamentalists (whose grasp of religions and politics is usually simplistic in the extreme), lumping atheists with anti-theist communism, was as good a way of making dismissive disparaging comments as any.

  12. What were the respondents to this survey answering?

    Because there is a huge difference between “being religious” and “believing in god(s)”. In Brazil, for instance, according to the 2010 Census, there are 14,595,979 non-religious people. But only 615,096 atheists and 124,436 agnostics.

    I am not sure that all of this “decline of religion” translates into “decline of superstition”. If for no other reason, because our way of life directly induces many sorts of weird beliefs.

  13. We Australians are doing our part.

    The number of people reporting no religion in Australia has increased substantially over the past hundred years, from one in 250 people to one in five. In 1911 there were 10,000 people (0.4%) who chose the option ‘No religion’ on their Census form; in 2011 there were just under 4.8 million (22% of Australians). As a single response to the question on religion, only Catholic was higher at 25% of the population, with Anglican third highest at 17%.

    We’, the non religious, are now the second most popular group in the 2011 Australia wide Census. We’ve passed the Anglicans. Now for the Catholics. And we’re rapidly growing so look out Pope.

    This link shows more details and some graphs.

    http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features30Nov+2013

    Sadly, our politicians don’t reflect this profile. A by product of Australia’s democratic system is electorates with one of those huge pentecostal churches. They decide which candidate wins. They can swing 1000’s of votes on command. So the politicians in those electorates have to be lapdogs to these organizations if they, or their party want to get elected.

    This is a problem we’ve discussed before in this forum. That fundamentalists religions punch above their statistical weight in politics through this ability to “Command” followers to vote one way or the other.

    “We’re all individuals. Yes. We are all individuals. I’m not.”

    Huge in America. Distil this down. It is a religion, imposing their views on other people. That’s what I fight to prevent. That’s what I am militant about.

    Religion should be practiced by consenting adults in private.

    • David R Allen.
      When you take measurements other than the reply to a census question, the number appears even lower. At my last observation regular church attendance was 8% and falling fast. Churches of all denominations are being converted to other purposes and those left standing hold services once a month or so, usually to a tiny handful of people.
      Survey respondents have blurred the definition of belief as well. Many have a definition of god that is so broad that I’d call them atheists, though they insist they believe in a god. Definitions such as ‘ god is nature’ or ‘ a force in the cosmos’ etc. are common; very few hold to the actual god of the bible.
      The exceptions seem to be those who were born overseas. I think they have close ties to their respective places of worship.

    • I hope so because I just watched ‘Jesus Camp’ the other night and it scared the shit out of me! Total brainwashing.

      I’ve just watched the trailer. I can’t believe what I have just seen. This is what Hitchens was on about. This, is child abuse. No wonder America is on the way to becoming a failed state.

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