Irreligion in the US: A Rising Tide

Word of God

The Guardian
19 May 2017

For the first time, the number of Americans saying that the Bible is composed of “fables” by human beings has overtaken the number who say it is the literal truth. The preponderant belief, held by about half the country, is still that the Bible is “inspired by God” but not to be taken literally. Although that figure has hardly varied over 50 years, the rise of skepticism and the decline of determined credulity marks an important shift in American culture. It takes effort, as well as ignorance, to read the Bible as if it could be literally true, and the world less than 10,000 years old. Somehow this effort has come to seem less and less worthwhile over the last 20 years, in which the number of unaffiliated adults has doubled to 18% according to Gallup’s figures. These underplay the generational change: among young Americans Christianity is eroding very rapidly. More than a third of those born after 1981 now say they have no religion. In 1957, the figure for all ages was 1%. That is lower than the corresponding British figure, but the direction of travel is the same.

The idea that the US formed a unique and lasting exception to the general secularisation of the west has been part of the conventional wisdom for a very long time. Last year, research by Professor David Voas pointed out that this has been untrue for at least 50 years. The process that hollowed out Christianity in Europe has been at work in the US too, although running decades behind. This has little to do with theology. Despite the claim that conservative churches flourish while liberal ones shrivel, conservative churches have shrunk too. In the US, the so-called evangelical churches now preach a form of nationalist and materialist Christianity where the flag is displayed far more prominently than the cross, and the preacher’s private jet is taken as a mark of God’s favour. Parents, and perhaps especially mothers, have not been passing on Christianity to their children, and especially their daughters. This has been going on ever since the second world war, slowly at first, accelerating gradually from the 60s, and now at speeds almost visible to the naked eye. The Trump presidency, and the election that produced it, have tended to make the process more salient and more powerful.

White evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Mr Trump, despite his divorces, his greed and his obvious ignorance of religion; agnostics and atheists voted overwhelmingly against him (as did, of course, black evangelicals). Catholics also split on ethnic lines: white Catholics, an elderly, shrinking group, were 60/40 for Trump, Latinos 70/30 against. At his inauguration, the preacher told Mr Trump: “God has raised you … up for a great, eternal purpose”, yet when Mr Trump goes God’s name will be as sullied as that of anyone else associated with this presidency.

If American Christianity does lose its dominating cultural position, as has largely happened in Europe, the change will be immense. It won’t be a necessarily progressive development: Christianity provided a common moral language for the civil rights movement and its opponents, for which no replacement is in sight. Large numbers of Trump voters clearly feel they have no obligation at all to those less fortunate, although they call themselves Christians. When they no longer even think of themselves as Christians, what ghosts of compassion will remain to whisper to them?

A closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious “nones”

By Michael Lipka
Pew Research Centre
13 May 2015

Religiously unaffiliated people have been growing as a share of all Americans for some time. Pew Research Center’s massive 2014 Religious Landscape Study makes clear just how quickly this is happening, and also shows that the trend is occurring within a variety of demographic groups – across genders, generations and racial and ethnic groups, to name a few.

PEW Research

Religiously “nones” – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population.

This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when 16% of Americans were “nones.” (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from 78% to 71%.)

Overall, religiously unaffiliated people are more concentrated among young adults than other age groups – 35% of Millennials (those born 1981-1996) are “nones.” In addition, the unaffiliated as a whole are getting even younger. The median age of unaffiliated adults is now 36, down from 38 in 2007 and significantly younger than the overall median age of U.S. adults in 2014 (46).

At the same time, even older generations have grown somewhat more unaffiliated in recent years. For example, 14% of Baby Boomers were unaffiliated in 2007, and 17% now identify as “nones.”

“Nones” have made more gains through religious switching than any other group analyzed in the study. Only about 9% of U.S. adults say they were raised without a religious affiliation, and among this group, roughly half say that they now identify with a religion (most often Christianity). But nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) have moved in the other direction, saying that they were raised as Christians or members of another faith but that they now have no religious affiliation. That means more than four people have become “nones” for every person who has left the ranks of the unaffiliated.

Religious “Nones” are more heavily concentrated among men than women. But the growth of the unaffiliated has not been limited to certain demographic categories; a rise in the share of unaffiliated has been seen across a variety of racial and ethnic groups, among people with different levels of education and income, among immigrants and the native born, and throughout all major regions of the country.


An evolving world. An evolving AA? Should AA meetings begin with “How It Works”, which ends with “probably no human could have relieved our alcoholism” but “God could and would if He were sought”? Should AA meetings end with the Lord’s Prayer?


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Irreligion in the US: A Rising Tide — 11 Comments

  1. Thank you for updating me/us on the latest rise of the secular “nones” movement!

    I’m elated that the new wave of truth and logic based on reason and evidence is finally sinking in. Hurray that the fall of religious ignorance and tyranny is on its way!

  2. What we can do to accommodate the “nones” that come to AA is, essentially, what we are doing already. We are here. We are organizing. We are raising our individual and collective voices. We are creating literature. We are coming together to create this growing secular fellowship. We are here for them. Simply…we are!

  3. My meeting doesn’t read How it Works; we don’t pray. If there were rules about must or must not be read or said at a meeting that wouldn’t be AA anymore, would it? It will a while before we are mostly non-theists.

    But AA is getting progressive about all kinds of bullying, intolerance and abuse, Safety and AA: Our Common Welfare.

    This came out of this year’s General Service Conference. It’s full of good meeting discussion topics.

    • There are rules, Joseph. One of the things the document says is “AA membership does not grant immunity from local regulations”. In Ontario, the Human Rights Code does not permit discrimination based on creed, and thus the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) had no right to boot your group – the Beyond Belief Agnostics and Freethinkers AA Group – out, and to remove your meetings from its list, simply because you shared a secular version of the 12 Steps. And it learned that – the hard way.

  4. Thank you, Roger.

    The 2007 Pew research and the 2014 Pew research are fascinating to read in their entirety – not the news media interpretations. Also, there have been smaller but more recent Pew studies that show the same changes within the U.S. population.

    But how does this relate to AA? If for every action there is a reaction, how will the rise of the Nones impact a religious organization such as AA?

    And then there are the ethnic and other religious changes to the U.S. pop. Hispanics have been the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S. for many years. How many Hispanics are in AA? Within 11 years, the rate of increase of Asians will be greater than that of Hispanics. How many Asians are in your home group? Islam is growing in the U.S. while Christianity shrinks and, though it will likely be three or more decades, that, too, will influence AA membership.

    The most reliable indicator of AA membership is conference-approved literature sales. Also, AA operates on money and much of that comes from literature sales. Those numbers are known to all of our Trustees as they are to us. What action, if any, will they take to revive a failing organization?

    And finally, is the rate of decline of Christianity in the U.S. the same, less than, or greater than the decline of AA?

  5. There is an element of willful, determined ignorance in the materialistic religious right, which also makes up a large part of Alcoholics Anonymous. True, the number of people who think the bible is the literal word of god is on the wane, but there is still a large number who think it is inspired by god – the same kind of people who think the Big Book is inspired by god, Bill Wilson just held the pen.

    But make no mistake about it. The big book is about god, not recovery:

    Further on, clear cut directions are given showing how we recovered. These are followed by forty-two personal experiences. Each individual in the personal stories, describes in his own language and from his own point of view the way he established his relationship with god. (BB, p. 29)

    – Not “how he recovered”.

    It baffles the mind how a country can thrive on wilful ignorance, though.

  6. Yup,Roger — thanks for posting this. Traditional AA insists on swimming upstream against the rising current of those of us who are nones, as the article points out, we who identify as atheists or agnostics, especially among younger cohorts of the population. If AA doesn’t alter its course, it shall become more and more irrelevant within North American society and culture.

    Hopefully secular AA can help alter this course of diminishing returns.

    • Exactly five hundred years ago (1571) a guy publicly vandalized a German door and set in motion a very bloody conflict between The Latin Church and those who thought they ought to go directly to power (god) without official representatives. That battle continues today in many forms!

      Nowadays we have a revolution in recovery fueled by (gasp) science, and again: people want to heal their psychology/bodies directly without the trappings of outside interference by myths, superstitions and heaps of shaming.

      In both cases, this shift marks the decline in power and authority of established institutions and especially those who self-define and receive status from those institutions. This creates great protectionist, self-interested debates, that claim to be about the poor alcoholic, but are really just egotistic power plays.

      Maybe it’s time these old institutions do wither away. There are certainly more effective and well-researched treatments out there that do not rely on superstition. Doctors and courts need to be referring to these, not some religiously based hokum.

      Most AA meetings I have attended sound more like Amway or Tupperware brainwashing events than actual practical methods for sobriety. “I love this Program, but I just kept going back out”. “I’m doing something wrong; I can’t get the white light”. “I’ll never leave The Program”. “Keep coming back”.

      As soon as AA starts becoming threatened and feeling ‘persecution’ by science, then hoo-boy the nuttiness ensues, like any defensive animal.

      Personally, I’d like to see AAAA become less reactive to AA. Are you looking for a reformation when it’s time to start afresh outside?

      Re-form as Alcohol Recovery Club or something? I think that defining the group via religion: the lack thereof, loses the focus off alcohol recovery. When we start categorizing meetings as per religion, or gender, sexuality or whatever; we will become obsolete. ALL those things are becoming much more fluid to the new generations. Can you imagine an AA for Irish only? Or AA for Republicans only? Or AA for vegans only? Or AA for Scorpios only?

      I’m sure that at some point there were folks who thought ALL of those were good ideas!

  7. I do not believe that AA meetings should end in the Lord’s Prayer. While its message is fine enough, it is indeed exclusionary to other points of view. In this current politically slanted ‘zeal’ in ‘patriotic Christianity’, it just further recognizes a few individuals on more levels than just their own recovery and that of whomever else might be in the room. We are trying to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety, not just ‘Christian’ alcoholics. It is ‘soft discrimination’. One can have a ‘spiritual’ experience without attaching ‘church’ to it. Besides, there are PLENTY of churches in which the Lord’s Prayer can be shared on a regular basis. AA is not church. It is a ‘classroom’ and the subject is sobriety, not ‘god’.

    • I just relocated to Ontario, slightly north of Toronto. Two separate AA meetings that I have attended each ended with the Lord’s Prayer. So not impressed..