Irreligion in the US: A Rising Tide
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.
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.