Why is religion declining in the US?

I have referred before to the WIN-Gallup survey of 57 countries that showed a decline in religion worldwide and a rise in disbelief. When you have a global phenomenon, the reasons for it are likely to be global in scope as well. My argument (made in a series of posts titled Why Atheism is Winning) is that it is the inevitable march of modernity that is slowly but surely killing religion. Religion has no escape. It is anchored in the past by its holy texts and that anchor is a major drag on it, causing it to steadily fall behind even as science and technology are rapidly moving the world forward.

Several readers sent me an article in which the BBC invited two writers to find more specific reasons for the decline in religion in the US, based on local factors. One of them David Ellis Dickerson argues that conservative churches are losing the moral high ground and that what is driving disaffection with religion is the issue of homosexuality. He says that he too started out as a conservative Christian and later became an atheist and that what started the shift was the recognition that the religion’s generally disparaging view of gay people could not be squared with his own experience. “It was only when three of my friends came out of the closet in one month that I was forced to look at the consequences of my theology. It was The Literal Bible As I Understood It v My Friends, and my friends won. Historically, friends always win.”

He argues that religions will have to become less conservative in their moral outlook if they are to not continue to lose members.

Dickerson is right that lived experience tends to trump abstract beliefs, which is another facet of how the routine acceptance of science in everyday life will win over the abstract rejection of it required by religion. But he is wrong when he discounts the influence of the best-selling books by the New Atheists. Those books have brought these discussions of science and religion out of the rarified intellectual world and into the public discourse and made nonbelief seem like a viable option that is within the mainstream. That is a huge advance.

The other point of view was by Rod Dreher who argues the opposite, that the reason for the decline is religion is because they are changing too much with the times, driven by a mushy, non-rigorous, post-modern religious sensibility being led by the mainline Protestant denominations. “America’s postmodern religious future, then, would appear to belong to theological slackers who believe in a vague deity who makes no demands, and only provides psychological comfort. Who needs that mush?” Although he does not say what exactly should be done, the inference from his critique is that the churches should offer a clear and rigorous alternative to the lure of atheism. He seems to be calling for a return to the orthodoxies of the past, in which religions unequivocally laid down the rules that must be followed and did not change with the times.

One thing that struck me was that Dreher supported his view by saying ” At least atheists have the courage of their lack of religious convictions… I respect honest atheists more than I do many on my own side, for the same reason Jesus of Nazareth said to the tepid Laodicean church: “because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth”.”

In my readings of the Bible, I could not recall Jesus ever saying such a thing. It also did not make sense since during Jesus’s time he did not set up a ‘church’ even in his own area, let alone in distant places. So where did Dreher get this quote? I looked it up and found that it is in the Book of Revelation, 3:14-16. For those not familiar with the Bible, this is the last book of the New Testament and it is easily the nuttiest. It reads like hallucinatory tract written by someone high on drugs and is the basis for much of the violent imagery favored by those who believe in the Rapture and the end times. It is purportedly a report of the visions experienced by someone named John who claims that Jesus was speaking through him about the end of the world. Most reasonable people treat that book like the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving, someone who is usually kept out of sight and ignored but cannot be excluded at formal functions but whom you hope won’t embarrass you.

When people use Jesus to support their views, they stick with the Gospels. I had never met anyone before who actually took John’s ravings at face value as equivalent to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. To have to go to the Book of Revelation to find a Jesus quote to support your point of view would normally be seen as a sign of desperation. Maybe this is Dreher’s attempt to get rid of the mushy cafeteria Christianity, by making all of the Bible be treated as equally authoritative.


  1. says

    I question your premise. In fact, it it probable that there are fewer atheists per capita today than there were forty years ago, worldwide. See a post I wrote after conducting a survey in north-central China, “Atheism in China, is it doomed?” Extrapolate back to the Maoist era, when atheism was force-fed every level of society in China, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. A few more Gnus here or there hardly compensates for the loss of hundreds of millions in former communist countries, and (to a much lesser extent) among revolutionary movements elsewhere.

    In the West, the level of religious interest seems to rise and fall.

  2. says

    “America’s postmodern religious future, then, would appear to belong to theological slackers who believe in a vague deity who makes no demands, and only provides psychological comfort. Who needs that mush?”

    This guy is either an idiot, or a flaming bigoted liar. There are plenty of people in “mainstream” denominations who believe their God does indeed make demands — remember all that “love thy neighbor” and “do unto others” stuff? Drehr and the fundies have spent the last few decades ignoring all those teachings and pretending they aren’t really as important as Jesus seemed to think they were. That’s how Drehr gets to “a vague deity who makes no demands” — he’s deliberately forgotten the demands that mainstream Christians still recognize, therefore, in his eyes, mainstream Christians don’t worship a God who makes demands of them.

  3. slc1 says

    Dreher’s position is, apparently, the position being taken by the current leadership of the Raping Children Church. Let the cafeteria Catholics take a hike, leaving behind the true believers.

  4. raven says

    One of them David Ellis Dickerson argues that conservative churches are losing the moral high ground and that what is driving disaffection with religion is the issue of homosexuality.

    This is true but way too one dimensional and simplistic. The Southern Baptists have lost members for 5 years straight and have done surveys. Results below, from 2007.

    lifeway research (SBC) 2007:

    Fifty-eight percent of church dropouts selected at least one church or pastor-related reason for leaving church. Most common was, “church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical” (26 percent). Another 20 percent “didn’t feel connected to the people in my church.”

    The final category of reasons, “religious, ethical or political beliefs,” contributed to the departure of 52 percent of church dropouts.

    Two reasons for leaving reflect this category: “I disagreed with the church’s stance on political or social issues” (18 percent) and “I was only going to church to please others” (17 percent).

    Retention rates of young people in the SBC are 30%, low.

    They leave for a lot of good reasons. Hypocrisy, disagreement with right wing extremist politics, disagreement with the nonstop hate and lies, disagreement with the science hatred.

    To say the fundies ever had the moral high ground is just wrong. The SBC was founded to support slavery and opposed integration a century after that.

  5. raven says

    This guy (Rod Dreher) is either an idiot, or a flaming bigoted liar.

    Dreher is both.

    It’s haters, liars, and idiots like Rod Dreher who are destroying the US xian religion. When xian became synonymous with hater, liar, ignorant, crazy, and sometimes killer, a lot of people didn’t want to be one anymore.

    We should all send him a thank you card.

  6. raven says

    Rod Dreher:

    I respect honest atheists more than I do many on my own side,

    Dreher is just a hater.

    When the fundies get tired of hating everybody, they hate each other.

    We all know the rules. The Catholics hate the Protestants and vice versa. The fundies hate everyone. Everyone hates them back.

    Hate is the basis of fundie xianity. It works or they wouldn’t use it for tribal cohesion and motivation. But hate just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

  7. mnb0 says

    MS, for me you’re Tha Man. I read Revelations a few years ago in its entirety and to me it looked like the reflection of an LSD-trip. I thought it hilarious.
    Forget about all the nonsense that it’s such a difficult book. It isn’t as soon as you recognize it for what it is: the product of an overheated fantasy.
    The problems only arise when you try to make sense of it, try to find a deeper meaning.

  8. says

    It’s Rod Dreher. We already know the answer to that one.

    Seriously, very few things in life gratify me more than hearing that the opposite position to one I consider reasonable is taken by Dreher, the stupidest man on earth.

  9. says

    I had never met anyone before who actually took John’s ravings at face value as equivalent to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels.

    Lucky you! I have a few acquaintances from college who do…acquaintances that I suspect were raised in Evangelical communities in South Dakota.

  10. jamessweet says

    Ironically, attitudes like Rod Dreher are actually one of the biggest causes. Dickerson’s explanation is a little bit tunnel vision-y, but there is no doubt that this is a HUGE factor, possibly even the dominant factor: Old time-y religion is badly out of step with modern values, and with the pace of social change accelerating, it just gets worse and worse for them. If mainstream religions were more willing to adapt to humanity’s evolving morality, a lot fewer people would be motivated to start asking the questions that lead to a loss of faith.

    I do not think the Internet should be underestimated. It makes it very difficult for religions to play man-behind-the-curtain anymore. If you start asking questions… the answers are right there waiting.

    I was in the Mormon church until around the time I left for college — but I never knew what they actually did in the adult temple ceremonies! I never knew a lot of the history of the early church outside of the approved narrative, either. Fast forward a few years, one day I realized, “Ho shit, I can look all of that stuff up on the Internet now!” So I did. Couldn’t have done that just a few mere decades ago.

    In my case, I had lost my faith already, so that was just to satisfy curiosity. But the point is, one can pull back the curtain in a way that was nigh impossible before, and all it takes if a few seconds of Googling. At the time my faith started to wane, it would have been very difficult for me to find out what goes on in the temple endowment ceremonies. Five years later, it was relatively simple. Today, it is absolutely trivial — it’s on Wikipedia for crying out loud!

  11. astro says

    You’re kidding, right?

    How is state enforced atheism of china and russia anything like atheism arrived at by reason. Would you think that state enforced belief in Santa was possible? Of course people would claim to believe in order to save their necks. And the stats ALL point to a rise in non-belief and a drop in religious belief. Are you one of those ‘Stalin and Pol Pot were atheist’ people?

  12. 'Tis Himself says

    Revelations is one step up from “wow, man, have you ever really looked at your hand?”

  13. lpetrich says

    There’s a difference between top-down, officially imposed atheism, like what Communist countries have had, and bottom-up, “organic” atheism, like what much of the industrialized world has been having more and more of over the last few decades.

  14. says

    I disagree in part with your characterization of Dreher. I don’t agree with him entirely, but I understand the part of his argument about how mindless belief without works is pretty meaningless. I’ve met a few so-called Christians who think that as long as they accept Jesus as their personal savior, they’re good. No good works are required to back that up. Neither, for that matter, is agreeing with or living out the “love they neighbor” stuff. For the record, I was raised Catholic, but I grew up with military chaplains and not bishop-bound boy-raping priests. We were encouraged to think critically and to act morally (despite some obviously dogmatic inconsistencies). I’m now a Unitarian Universalist, and a good half of my congregation is a bunch of atheist humanists. We still like the idea of congregating to share community and intellectual pursuits with a sense of awe at the universe in common. We come together to try to change the bigotry and injustice in the world. It’s pretty cool. Rigorous science and intellectual discussion are vital, but our organized community doesn’t diminish that.

  15. Austin says

    Revelation is a highly symbolic book of poetry. Poetry is something that drives scientists like yourself up the wall. To understand much of the Bible you need to understand literary techniques, a field empiricists disdain as worse than useless.

    Your comment about Revelation is a straw man–your ignorance about religious literature is appalling.

  16. Mano Singham says

    I am not sure what you mean. Are you saying that it was written as poetry by an anonymous author and that it was never meant to be taken as a report of Jesus speaking through John? If the former, then why would Dreher treat those words as if Jesus had said them?

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