There was welcome news in a recent survey (sent to me by Bill, a reader of this blog) that found that the number of people professing themselves to be Christians in America has declined while the numbers of nonbelievers has risen significantly.
According to the ARIS survey, compared to results in 1990, “The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent…”Many people thought our 2001 finding was an anomaly,” [survey co-author Ariela] Keysar said. “We now know it wasn’t. The ‘Nones’ are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.””
Furthermore, “Only 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million. Twenty-seven percent of Americans do not expect a religious funeral at their death.”
This confirms what I have said many times in the past, that many people are effectively and functionally atheists, even though they may shy away from explicitly adopting the label. I am pretty confident that even this survey is underestimating the number of nonbelievers due to the reluctance of people admit to it.
Correspondingly “The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, has now edged down to 76 percent.”
The good news is that the main result of the survey that the number of nonbelievers has risen significantly has been widely reported in the media. USA Today, in a long article with charts and graphs, said that “this category [nonbelievers] now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, “the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion,” the report concludes.” The Washington Post also made the increased numbers of nonreligious people its lede.
Such media reports will, I think, further encourage those who already harbor secret feelings that the tenets of religion make no sense to become more open about expressing their doubts.
So what could be the source of this decline in religiosity? Here’s my theory: Facebook. Not only Facebook but other social networking sites like MySpace that are exploding on the internet. All these sites are filling a niche that once used to be largely the preserve of churches, which was a place to meet like-minded people. If you moved to a new location, joining a religious group was often the best way to get to know others like you. A Sri Lankan friend of mine used to live in a small town in central Ohio. The people were friendly but almost the first question that was posed to her was to ask her what church she belonged to. When she said she was a Buddhist, they were a little nonplussed. But with the internet, it becomes far easier to find affinity groups and so the utility of churches as a meeting place and networking center has declined.
This does not mean that religion will go away. Most people will still feel the need for something transcendental in their lives, especially the need for rituals to mark landmarks like birth, coming of age, marriage/commitment, and death. I suspect that churches and priests will end up largely serving those sporadic needs, with regular weekly religious services becoming sparsely attended by aging populations.
ARIS survey co-author Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. says that today, “religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment for many.”
Over time, the US is likely to become like the Scandinavian countries. The people there belong to churches (mostly Lutheran) but do not think of the church as the place to ask the big existential questions of life, meaning, and death. They are not even much bothered by those questions at all. The church is seen as simply a place that conducts ceremonies.
And contrary to American ideas that a country without religion would be a depraved one, this article by Peter Steinfels, in the February 27, 2009 issue of the New York Times (thanks to reader Chris) says, “It is also well known that in various rankings of nations by life expectancy, child welfare, literacy, schooling, economic equality, standard of living and competitiveness, Denmark and Sweden stand in the first tier.”
Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist and author of a book on religion in Denmark and Sweden called Society Without God (New York University Press, 2008), says that he found “a society — a markedly irreligious society — that was, above all, moral, stable, humane and deeply good.”
The people were not anti-religion probably because in those countries religion is not the powerful negative force that it is in the US. There is no sense in being hostile to something that is largely irrelevant. But the secular nature of their religion is clearly evident.
The many nonbelievers [Zuckerman] interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label “atheist.” An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.
Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism.
At the same time, they were “often disinclined or hesitant to talk with me about religion,” Mr. Zuckerman reported, “and even once they agreed to do so, they usually had very little to say on the matter.”
This indifference or obliviousness to religious matters was sometimes subtly enforced. “In Denmark,” a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”
One man recounted the shock he felt when a colleague, after a few drinks, confessed to believing in God. “I hope you don’t feel I’m a bad person,” the colleague pleaded.
Social conformity or not, Mr. Zuckerman was deeply impressed with the matter-of-fact way in which many of his interviewees spoke of death, without fear or anxiety, and their notable lack of existential searching for any ultimate meaning of life.
This is the way America is going. The churches will still be there. The priests and rabbis and imams will still be there. But god, whose only purpose is to allay fears of death by fostering the delusion of a life after this one, will have largely disappeared.
POST SCRIPT: What if god disappeared?