America's Religious Decline & Secular Boom - James A. Haught

Fading Faith cover issue of Free Inquiry

Much has been written and countless discussions have ensued in recent years about the seemingly inevitable decline of Christianity and rise of secularism in America in the 21st century along the lines of what happened in Europe in the mid 20th century. (For starters, see here, here, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

James A. Haught began an essay titled “Fading Faith”, published in the February/March 2010 issue (Volume 30, Number 2) of Free Inquiry, this way:

“A historic transition is occurring, barely noticed. Slowly, quietly, imperceptibly, religion is shriveling in America, as it already has in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan—across the developed world. The first world is entering the long-predicted Secular Age, when science and knowledge dominate.”

The following is a sermon presented by Jim Haught to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, KY, on July 11, 2010. It is an excellent summary of some of the main points he makes in his essay. If you like what follows, you'll love "Fading Faith" (which is 3x as long as this sermon). Back issues of Free Inquiry can be obtained here. I highly recommend getting this issue and reading Haught's essay in its entirety. I also recommend subscribing to Free Inquiry.

Preliminary reading: Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold, 1867 (abridged)

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air….

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Philosopher-historian Will Durant called it "the basic event of modern times."  He didn't mean the end of colonialism, or the world wars, or the rise of electronics.  He was talking about the decline of religion in Western democracies.

The great mentor saw subsiding faith as the most profound occurrence of the past century -- a shift of Western civilization, rather like former transitions away from the age of kings, the era of slavery and such epochs.

Since World War II, worship has dwindled starkly in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and other advanced democracies.  In those modern places today, only 5 or 10 percent of adults still attend church.  Secular society mostly ignores religion.

Pope Benedict XVI protested: “Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience.”  Columnist George Will called the Vatican “109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief.”

America seems an exception, with booming megachurches, fundamentalist attacks on evolution, hundred-million-dollar TV ministries, talking-in-tongues Pentecostals, gigantic sales of "Rapture" books, the white evangelical "religious right" attached to the Republican Party, and the like.  But much of America quietly is following the secular path previously taken by Europe.  Here's the evidence:

Rising "nones."  Various polls find a relentless increase in the number of Americans -- especially the young -- who answer "none" when asked their religion.  In 1990, this group had climbed to 8 percent, and by 2008, it had doubled to 15 percent -- plus another 5 percent who answer "don't know."  This implies that around 45 million U.S. adults today lack church affiliation.

Drastic losses. America's mainline Protestant churches -- "tall steeple" WASP denominations with seminary-trained clergy -- once dominated U.S. culture.  But their membership is collapsing.  Over the past half-century, while the U.S. population doubled, United Methodists fell from 11 million to 7.9 million, and Episcopalians dropped from 3.4 million to 2 million, and the Presbyterian Church USA sank from 4.1 million to 2.2 million, etc.  Meanwhile, 20 million have quit Catholicism -- thus one-tenth of American adults now are ex-Catholics.  (Hispanic immigration enables the huge church to keep its numbers high.)

Fading taboos. A half-century ago, church-backed laws had power in America.  In the 1950s, it was a crime to look at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or R-rated movie -- or for stores to open on the Sabbath -- or to buy a cocktail or lottery ticket -- or to sell birth-control devices in some states -- or to be homosexual -- or to terminate a pregnancy -- or to read a sexy novel -- or for an unwed couple to share a bedroom.  Now all those religious laws have fallen, one after another, in a long parade of court rulings.

Cultural disappearance.  In America’s daily life, supernatural beliefs no longer are taken seriously.  Magazines, movies, newspapers, television and other media rarely treat the mystical as though it actually exists.  If your child becomes ill, you trust modern medicine, not prayers and incantations.  Most states make it a crime for parents to pray over a sick child instead of seeking medical care.  When a leader dies, news reports don’t assert that he or she entered heaven.

Sociologists are fascinated by America’s secular shift.  Dr. Robert Putnam of Harvard, author of “Bowling Alone,” found as many as 40 percent of young Americans answering “none” to faith surveys.  “It’s a huge change… a stunning development,” he said. “…That is the future of America.”

Oddly, males outnumber females among the churchless.  The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey pointed out the imbalance of men among Nones.  “The ratio of 60 males to 40 females is a remarkable result,” it said.  “These gender patterns correspond with many earlier findings that show women to be more religious than men.”

Gradually, barely noticed, religion is moving from the advanced First World to the less-developed Third World.  Faith retains enormous power in Muslim lands.  Pentecostalism is booming in Africa and South America.  Yet the West steadily turns more secular.  Arguably, it’s the biggest news story during our lives -- although most of us are too busy to notice.

For centuries, scientific-minded skeptics predicted the decline of supernatural religion.  Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter: "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."  And he wrote: "The priests of the different sects... dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight."  And he predicted the end of Christianity by writing: "I trust there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian."

Back in Europe, French philosopher Auguste Comte wrote that humanity was outgrowing its primitive "theological stage."  Frederich Engels boasted that the collectivist revolution would make religion evaporate.  In 1878, Max Muller said:

"Every day, every week, every month, every quarter, the most widely read journals seem just now to vie with each other in telling us that the time for religion is past, that faith is a hallucination or an infantile disease, that the gods have at last been found out and exploded."

As the twentieth century ensued, anthropologist A.E. Crawley wrote in 1905 that "the opinion is everywhere gaining ground that religion is a mere survival from a primitive... age, and its extinction is only a matter of time."  Sigmund Freud said the neurotic fantasy soon would fade.

In 1966, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Anthony Wallace wrote that "the evolutionary future of religion is extinction."

In recent decades, the thriving success of churches in America caused some sociologists to doubt the “secularization thesis” -- but now, I think snowballing evidence shows the secular trend clearly.  It’s overwhelmingly obvious in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and the like.  And there’s plenty of proof that America is following their course.

If 45 million Americans today don’t attend church, this raises a puzzle for Unitarians:  Traditionally, UU has been a refuge for skeptics, nonconformists, freethinkers, doubters - educated folks who can’t swallow supernaturalism.  You’d think that America’s rising flood of “nones” would bring a wave of new Unitarians.  But UU remains static at 155,000 members, actually shrinking just a bit.

Why isn’t UU gaining from America’s secular surge? Is it because we’re seen as just another boring, “churchy” group that no longer appeals to independent, modern Americans?  I’ll leave this riddle up to you.

ALSO SEE: "Evidence: The Decline of Christianity in America"