We’re all familiar with the survey data that shows that more Americans are secular-minded (not necessarily atheist) than ever before. But Peter Foster writes in the Telegraph that the trend toward secularization may be going faster than we think and that we may be on the verge of a major shift akin to what has happened with support for same-sex marriage.
After several decades of doubt over the data, says Chaves, it is now clear beyond reasonable doubt that America is secularizing, but that doesn’t answer a much trickier – and more interesting question: how far, and how fast?
America still feels highly religious on the surface, but is it possible that attitudes to religion in the US could undergo a sudden shift – as they have, say, on gay marriage – or is religion so fundamental to the US that any change will continue to be incremental?
Right now, the shift in attitudes to religion is, according to the famous “nones” Pew survey, driven by so-called “generational replacement” – ie the younger generation slowly becoming less religious and their attitudes filtering into society and the polling data, as their parents and grandparents die off.
If that trend continues, then change will be very slow. But there is another scenario, which is when a shift in attitudes leaps across generations, as happened with gay marriage, precipitating a much sharper change which has seen those in favour of gay marriage leap from 33pc a decade ago to 55-57 per cent today. (More trivially, a similar cross-generational shift in attitudes has been seen, say, in attitudes to smoking in bars, or wearing seat belts, or drink-driving.)
Analysis of European secularisation might provide us some pointers for the US going foward. There, according to analysis by David Voas, a sociologist at Essex University, it is clear that the rise of so-called “fuzzy fidelity” – ie those with no explicit religious affliation, but who still believe in some kind of higher power and go to church on Christmas – has proved to be a “staging post on the road from religious to secular hegemony”.
“Indifference,” Voas writes in his 2008 paper The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe, “is ultimately as damaging for religion as scepticism.”
If that’s the case in the US, then the belief among many Evangelicals that the “nones” are still fundamentally religious may prove to be wishful thinking.
There’s a lot of speculation here, but there’s at least a solid hypothetical basis for it. I have long believed that a sizable percentage of churchgoers are there for reasons that have little to do with their actual religious belief. They are there because it’s what they know, what is expected of them, because it’s their primary social set and they define themselves as members of that tribe. But the actual beliefs have little influence over their lives, to the extent that they think about them at all. Richard Dawkins likes to refer to these people as “functional atheists,” a term I don’t much care for.
So how do we help get those people out of that situation, if we should bother to do so at all? By building secular communities that provide similar types of support and camaraderie. The more people who identify as non-believers and the stronger those communities are, the more likely these types of believers will find it safe to leave their churches behind.