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Viewpoints: Why is faith falling in the US?

image captionThousands attended an atheism rally in Washington DC this March

A new poll suggests that atheism is on the rise in the US, while those who consider themselves religious has dropped. What's the cause? Two writers debate.

Recently, researchers conducting a WIN-Gallup International poll about religion surveyed people from 57 countries.

The poll suggests that in the US, since 2005:

  • the number of people who consider themselves religious has dropped from 73% to 60%
  • those who declare themselves atheists have risen from 1% to 5%

What's behind the changing numbers? Is the cause churches that chase modern trends at the expense of core beliefs? Or are those who have always been ambivalent about religion now less likely to identify as Christian? We asked two writers for their take.

As a practicing Christian of the Hitchens sort (Peter, the good one), I welcome the news that more Americans are willing to identify as atheists. At least that clarifies matters.

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".

Take this summer's General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the triennial gathering of the main American branch of the Anglican Communion.

The church's legislative body approved a liturgy for same-sex unions and removed impediments for transgender people to serve as priests.

During the debate on transgender clerics, one bishop said the proposal, if adopted, would bring about theological confusion. Another rose to say that confusion is precisely why the measure should pass. As it did, easily.

At a special communion service after the victories, a lesbian bishop of the church recited an offering prayer thanking the "Spirit of Life" for "disordering our boundaries", and asking the non-specific, non-patriarchal spectre "to feel your laughter".

Laughter indeed - but not the sort the liberal bishop was looking for, I fear.

This is not to make fun of the dignity of sexual minorities, but rather to marvel at the way these Episcopal elites run like lemmings off the cliffs of progressive extremes.

Like Wile E Coyote of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, one of these days the bishops are going to look down and see that there is no ground beneath their feet.

They are nearly there already. The Episcopal Church, like all of America's mainline Protestant denominations, is in steep decline, and has been for decades.

Yet as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat laments, progressive Christians and secular media sympathisers are unable to admit that that their willingness to radically redefine the faith is helping drive liberal Christianity to extinction.

Douthat points out that the media freak-out over the Vatican's chastising liberal American nuns conveniently ignored the complete collapse in female vocations. Over 90% of US nuns are 60 or older. Conservative women's religious orders are the only ones growing.

Conservative US churches may be doing better, but can't gloat. According to exhaustive social science data analysed by Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell of Notre Dame, all organised American religion is in demographic decline.

So, good news for atheism? Not really. Putnam and Campbell, writing in their much-praised 2010 book American Grace, found that atheism continues to be confined to a relatively tiny population, disproportionately concentrated in academia and media.

The blockbuster growth in American religion is happening among a category the authors dub the "Nones" - people who claim no religious affiliation, but most of whom believe in God.

This is the "spiritual but not religious" crowd. About 17% of America belongs to their number, three percentage points higher than mainline Protestantism.

But the Nones number is deceptively low, understating the generational wave now breaking upon the US religious landscape. Among young adults aged 18-29, 30% are Nones, and their numbers are rapidly rising.


According to the research, the young are leaving conservative churches because they disagree with traditional views on homosexuality. They chafe at those churches' association with the Republican Party.

They're not joining liberal churches, the ones that make a big deal out of welcoming and affirming gays. Instead, young adults increasingly see no reason to go to church at all.

image captionA mourner attends a funeral service in Mt Vernon, New York, for the noted restaurateur Sylvia Woods

This rapid and widespread falling away of the young from institutional Christianity is the first harvest of what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton dub "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism".

According to Smith's research, MTD is the default religion of nearly all American young people, both Christian and non-Christian, who are a generation of theological illiterates (Mormon youth are a fascinating exception).

MTD teaches that God exists and wants us to be nice, and that happiness is the point of life. In MTD, God, who is "something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist", doesn't have to be involved in one's life unless one needs something.

It's the perfect pseudo-religion for an individualist, consumerist, prosperous culture. You can see why a generation raised on MTD would have no interest in traditional religion, with its truth claims and strictures.

If God expects nothing of you but to be nice and to be happy, why roll out of bed on Sunday morning, even for the most progressive of liturgies?

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? At least atheists have the courage of their lack of religious convictions.

The thing is, if America's historic religion had been about therapeutic self-love and bourgeois bedlam instead of rigour, repentance and reform, neither the 19th-century abolitionists nor the 20th-century civil rights marchers would have had a thing to go on.

At some point, the Nones may discover that neither MTD nor atheism can give them the otherworldly hope they need to endure and to triumph over true suffering.

Should that come-to-Jesus moment happen, there will be some churches, diminished, yes, but still extant, left to take in the shipwrecked souls.

Christian churches that traded their faith inheritance for a pot of progressive message will not be among them.


Atheism in America has quintupled since 2005. Or, to put it another way, it rose 400%.

Seven years ago, atheists were barely a blip.

But more significant than the atheist numbers is the 13% drop in people identifying as "religious."

Even if some of these form the new atheists, that still leaves at least 9% who have left their religious identity entirely.

Many of these respondents are presumably the religious equivalent of undecided voters; the mushy middle that shrugs at questions like this. But now they say, "I guess I'm no religion" when seven years ago they said "I guess I'm Christian".

It's a large shift, but it's probably not a passionate one. So what caused these folks to bother changing their minds at all?

image captionSome young Christians argue that all marriage, including gay marriage, is a conservative principle

Although this drop in religious identity comes during the spread of "New Atheism" in the wake of bestselling books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others, attributing this change to those works seems unlikely.

Nothing has happened in the last seven years to make the philosophical arguments for God any more or less plausible.

What's more, as a person who has read Harris and Dawkins—who both treat saying grace at dinner as if it were morally adjacent to slapping Galileo—you can hardly claim that the New Atheists have mounted an unusually empathetic charm offensive.

I give them credit for a 1% atheism bump, max. Maybe two.

So what else happened? It can't be the Catholic abuse scandal, because that started over seven years ago, and it's not just Catholic churches losing members. It's not Muslim terrorism, because hostility to radical Muslims is often more a reason to cling defensively to Christianity than it is a reason to reject all religion entirely.

And as much as my liberal friends might want to tell themselves otherwise, it can't be that people suddenly woke and realised the religious right wants to clamp down on sex, birth control and lady parts in general, as if this were some surprise tactic that only liberals were ever wise to.

Heck, that's been part of the public platform of the religious right since the Moral Majority, and people on those platforms continue to get elected to Congress.

The real issue is homosexuality.

Consider: In the early 2000s, the Barna Group—an evangelical survey organisation that has long tracked American attitudes toward religion—discovered that, almost overnight, the reputation of evangelicals had cratered.

For the first time in Barna's polling history, Americans were more likely to view Christians negatively than positively. This attitude was especially marked in Americans aged 16-29, and so David Kinnaman, now the president of Barna, spent the next three years examining why.

When he asked these younger people what words described evangelicals, the number one answer was "anti-homosexual," at 91%. (You can see the full survey results in his book, unChristian).

Evangelicals were also called judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), too involved with politics (75%) and out of touch (72%), but any of these critiques could have been—and have been—levelled by Christians' enemies since at least the 1970s.

Only our attitudes toward homosexuality have actually changed since 2005, and that change tracks with younger respondents. So does loss of religious identity. I'm no pollster, but this does not seem coincidental.

I speak from personal experience here, too. I was raised a devout evangelical, and studied to be a pastor.

But although scholarly readings of the Bible troubled me, and although I was startled that many of my fellow students weren't Christians but still seemed like moral people, I remained a devout conservative.

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. When Republicans have spoken in favour of gay rights they have always talked about their love for family and friends, and their unwillingness to yank happiness away from others.

That's the unanswerable argument: Why would God be against good people loving each other? If that's what religion is, we can do better.

This is why it's good news that mushy-middle people are saying "I'm no religion" in response to poll questions. Not because anyone's behaviour has actually changed—I doubt these folks were going to church anyway, even when they called themselves merely "religious" in 2005—but because it means that "no religion" is now the safe neutral thing to say.

It means that the conservative Christian church, though it may still own the label "religion", no longer owns public morality along with it.

This gives everyone else—other Christians, other religions, and even atheists like me—room at the conference table.

And it also means that evangelicals will have to change if they plan to stay popular enough to convert people, as they've always striven for.

For the near future, and if it can manage to, the conservative church is going to have to listen, humbly, to homosexuals and atheists who are both fresh out of the closet.

Because on this issue, those are the groups that currently have the moral high ground. If evangelicals don't change, their numbers will continue to fall.