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Is America on Verge of Secular Tipping Point?

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.

Comments

  1. robert79 says

    “those with no explicit religious affliation, but who still believe in some kind of higher power”

    This sounds like what I’ve always referred to as something-more-ism, the idea that many of my peers (30ish, European) express that “I’m not religious, but there must be something more out there!”

    For all intents and purposes they are indistinguishable from agnostics and non-activist atheists. Often enough they don’t think the whole issue is really worth thinking about and cite a childhood-inspired gut feeling.

  2. says

    Ed,

    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.

    I have long thought so too. To the extent that this is true, we are not seeing a decline in religious belief but an increase in honesty about one’s beliefs (or rather one’s lack of beliefs). I view this as a win-win. Personally, I thank those who work to make atheism acceptable and to remove any stigma associated with atheism.

  3. mikeyb says

    I think an understudied area is the fact that many megachurches are more akin to spiritualized self-help with a healthy dose of entertainment added. There is no attempt to even try to defend traditional doctrines, just find platitudes that serve as practical guidelines for life – we might call this the “Purpose Filled Life” transformation of evangelicalism. In a way this is a form of secularization of the practices of believers. Preaching traditional dogmas don’t seem to have the effects they used to. I think this is in a way a symptom of the secularization of society that isn’t understood well enough yet.

  4. raven says

    If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

    Show me a cynic and I’ll show you an ex-optimist.

    1. I’ve been following the numbers for as long as I’ve been an ex-xian. It’s pretty steady at xians dropping about 1% a year, 2 million people.

    The last Harris poll has xians at 68% of the population, down from 90% a few decades ago.

    2. Assume a steady trend. In 18 years, xians drop below 50%. This would be 2032. I might still be alive then but it is highly doubtful (Boomer age).

    3. It’s more complicated than that. It is known that some xians are just box checking census xians. Source: The UK ipso mori poll and Barna has US post xians at now 37% of the population.

    4. That the trend remains the same is a bit questionable. It could accelerate, deaccelerate, or reverse.

    Best guess, xianity does go below 50% by 2032. Reliability = unknown.

  5. raven says

    Who has been declining the fastest are the mainline and/or moderate xians. This isn’t good news inasmuch as it has left the Oogedy Boogedy fundie extremists as the public and visible face of xianity.

    1. My natal sect has been closing churches. Their big causes weren’t destroying science, hating gays, or hating women. Half the ministers are women. It was eliminating poverty and world peace.

    One closed about a year ago. It was a grand old building from the 1920′s, from the era when churches had money and people. A few decades ago they had over 1,000 members. And that number just dropped until they couldn’t keep the building up.

    2. An old friend called me a while ago and was complaining that his church was getting smaller. They’ve lost half of their members.

    3. My parent’s medium size church same thing. They have a Sunday school. Quite often there are no kids in it. All the members are old and they die often. I know they are down a lot.

    4. The denomination publishes their numbers occasionally. The drop is considerable every year.

    More stories than data but it is clear that they are in a long term downtrend.

  6. abb3w says

    From what I can see in the GSS data, so far it looks mostly like a simple demographic turnover with a logistic curve on birth cohort driving it. That still makes for a serious shift to be expected in the next couple decades.

  7. tomh says

    I’ll believe that secularization is growing in America when religious privilege is no longer built into the laws of the land, almost automatically, and without any real challenge. Regardless of beliefs, same-sex equal treatment couldn’t become reality until laws started to change, which we’re just beginning to see. When religious privilege is successfully challenged in areas like taxes, land use, medical treatment, child abuse, and dozens of others legal areas, then I’ll believe secularization has a chance. Even one instance (for example, remove the exemption that allow parents to deny medical care to their children), would give me hope. Like raven, I’m sure I won’t be alive to see it.

  8. anubisprime says

    raven @ 6

    Assume a steady trend. In 18 years, xians drop below 50%.

    As you point out in point 4 of your post, it is not necessarily a linear projection.

    It seems the history of the sociological view of religiosity highlights the intense insular situation and the power of tradition in church and the church elders that wield fear of ostracism, or worse, on those few, and indeed their immediate families, that do not tow the ‘company’ line.

    No one , or at least extremely few, were in any position to buck the trend.

    Peer pressure has always been an instrument of control in the black hearted tool bag of religious indoctrination.
    In fact it seems it was a technique perfected by the RCC, and is still practised with enthusiasm in the enclaves.
    Given such suffocating social controls it is no wonder religious dumbfuckery continues to this day.

    But, and this is the kicker, when a social meme gets visibly badly cracked, and I suggest that according to several fairly recent national polls it has indeed been badly cracked, the final implosion of the meme accelerates at a truly alarming rate, well alarming for the befuddled anyways…

    It is a cascade affect from a trickle…and the damn is creaking and cracking.

    18 years…no I do not think so…look again in 5 yrs…it will surprise you.

  9. Synfandel says

    The ‘quiet revolution‘ of the 1960s in Québec provides an example of how fast things can change. What had been a deeply religious and conservative Roman Catholic society for centuries became Canada’s most secular and liberal province in the course of a decade.

  10. dhall says

    Over the last few years, I’ve read articles in venues such as Free Inquiry magazine suggesting that the current strident, in-your-face militancy on the part of the religious right might be the desperate reaction of a shrinking group. They know they’re losing numbers and influence, and what we’re seeing is a sort of rear guard action. It sounds good, but I have a hard time believing it. Sure, they’re losing the battle about same-sex marriage and discrimination, but they seem like the mythical hydra. Chop them down in Dover, PA, they sprout up with a “museum” in Kentucky. Make it illegal for companies to discriminate, and then an individual pharmacist decides on his own whether or not a company can sell a pill. Wherever they’re knocked down, they seem to pop up elsewhere, just as eager to have at it again. But that’s anecdotal evidence, and not entirely reliable either. Guess I’d rather see stronger evidence of a genuine sea change. However, that kind of change is hard to measure. Self-reporting can be notoriously unreliable when it comes to asking people if they attend church or how often, and those who try to categorize people according to their beliefs or lack thereof often disagree on the categories and the labels.

  11. noastronomer says

    Raven @ 7

    This isn’t good news inasmuch as it has left the Oogedy Boogedy fundie extremists as the public and visible face of xianity.

    Au contraire! That’s very good news!

    Mike.

  12. sharonb says

    The Christianists are doing a pretty good job of setting the tone for their eventual extinction by poisoning the brand (c.f. Special Rights for Bigots bills). Pretty soon enough, all that will be left will be the authoritarian core.

  13. iknklast says

    I would be surprised if we were on the verge of a secular tipping point (though I can hope), but maybe that’s because I live in Christian Central. Even here in the wilds of the midwestern corn belt, where everyone is a Christian, I’ve managed to get 23 people signed up for my meetup group (and not lots of people in our area, so that’s great!).

  14. anubisprime says

    Synfandel @ 11

    Exactly my point…another example is a whole country…Belgium.
    Sunday mass attendance had dropped to 5.4 % in 2009, as opposed to 42.9 % in 1967, it has become so devastating that the RCC now hide the attendance stats….
    That trend is well past tipping point and therefore is irreversible and the faithful core are the aged 75 + and they are the last generation of that country that can be said to be defined by its religious belief.

    There is no new meat…simples….and the RCC is withering on the vine!

    Ireland is hot on Belgium’s heels…In Ireland, a poll conducted in 2005 suggested 69% considered themselves religious in 2012 that had plummeted 22 points to 47 percent !

    Those two examples come from the two countries that were the jewels in the Roman Catholic crown just a decade ago!

    The UK, never particularly religious, the decline has really accelerated to a point that George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, recently warned that Christianity in Britain is “a generation away from extinction”

    That is devastatingly fast for the bunnies and they cannot stop the world from turning they are giddy and unbalanced and there is no way to reverse it…it is the end times indeed!

    Once it tips, so top heavy it is doomed…I suggest it has tipped in the USA….the contents have just started to dribble over the lip of the jar but it is picking up momentum in its downward arc.

    It is a downward trend everywhere in Europe and it is picking up pace.

  15. D. C. Sessions says

    Over the last few years, I’ve read articles in venues such as Free Inquiry magazine suggesting that the current strident, in-your-face militancy on the part of the religious right might be the desperate reaction of a shrinking group. They know they’re losing numbers and influence, and what we’re seeing is a sort of rear guard action. It sounds good, but I have a hard time believing it.

    The Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, and that was supposed to close the book. Instead we got Jim Crow, and it’s not at all obvious to me that their influence has waned since 1964.

    But I’m willing to be persuaded. For instance, by a Supreme Court decision on today’s Texas case that doesn’t depend on Kennedy’s reading of the 2016 tea leaves.

  16. says

    “Over the last few years, I’ve read articles in venues such as Free Inquiry magazine suggesting that the current strident, in-your-face militancy on the part of the religious right might be the desperate reaction of a shrinking group.

    I’m with D.C. Sessions on this. I remember reading about some strident, in-your-face militancy (pogroms, mass murders of huegenots, with hunting–past and present–and the like) from about, oh, 400 CE until, well, now.

    I think that heddle is correct in his assessment of the situation. Not that I think more committed christians is a bad thing, I’m afraid that there are many of them, KKKristianists, who ought to be committed.

  17. dingojack says

    “… I remember reading about some strident, in-your-face militancy (pogroms, mass murders of huegenots, with hunting–past and present–and the like) from about, oh, 400 CE until, well, now”.

    I always guessed you were a newspaper-reading, grumpy old man Demo, but never guessed you were well over 1600 years old!

    ;) Dingo

  18. Ichthyic says

    I’ll believe that secularization is growing in America when religious privilege is no longer built into the laws of the land, almost automatically, and without any real challenge.

    +1

  19. leonardschneider says

    I feel like I’ve discussed this before, but the socially progressive churches — call them secular if you’d like — are actually growing. The Unitarians continue to attract members, almost certainly because of the complete lack of dogma. The Congregationalists (a.k.a. United Church of Christ, or UCC) have taken a secular, skeptical view of the Gospels for a long time; the Old Testament is unofficially treated like the creepshow it is. The Episcopals are… Well, they hold onto the old-school liturgy in services, but organizationally are very progressive, selecting gays and lesbians as priests and bishops. They also accept and support the fact that faith is a personal thing, with the dogma reflected by the church being very loose.

    The megachurches mentioned by Mikeyb (#5) do take a modernized, contemporary approach to their services, however, in my experience they are very evangelical and socially conservative. I don’t care about the awesome sound system and snazzy PowerPoint displays they have: they still consider homosexuality as a “sin,” something that must be fixed. Their faith is way outta line for me, too: they’re still concerned about a minor Greek god named ‘Satan,’ or the Devil. Nope. Sorry, but the Devil doesn’t exist. Never has. Evil exists, sure, but evil is entirely created by humanity, not some imaginary guy with horns and a sunburn. (You can probably guess the sort of reaction I got when I told ‘em I was a Deist. May as well have said, “Jesus? Boy, what an ego. Forget that jerk.”)

    I welcome a more secular world: maybe there’d be a lot fewer people using their religion and collective faith as a cudgel against people they don’t understand, and refuse to understand, because of a five thousand year old book.

    IMHO, having faith is like masturbating: just fine in moderation, but keep it to yourself… And don’t even think about sharing it in front of children.

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