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Secular Surge

[This essay originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Free Inquiry magazine. It was recently furnished to the Secular Web and has been slightly modified here to reflect that fact.]

The long-foreseen Secular Age is arriving at a gallop. Survey after survey finds snowballing increases of Americans who say their religion is “none.”

The 2017 American Family Survey found that “nones” have climbed past one-third of US adults—the highest ratio yet tallied. These churchless people have become the nation’s largest faith category.

Released in November 2017 by Brigham Young University, the nationwide poll found that 34 percent of respondents called themselves atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” They outstripped Protestants (33 percent), Catholics (21 percent), Jews (two percent), Muslims (two percent), Mormons (one percent), Hindus (one percent), and “other” (four percent).

Meanwhile, a 2017 Pew Research poll found that the ratio of Americans who identify as religious has fallen to about half. Only 48 percent chose “religious and spiritual”; 27 percent picked “spiritual but not religious”; 18 percent chose “neither religious nor spiritual”; and six percent said they’re “religious but not spiritual.”

Also in 2017, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) issued a report saying:

Today, only 43 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81 percent) of Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination.

Of course, part of this stunning decline stems from demographics. A flood of Asians, Hispanics, Blacks, Pacific Islanders, and others swell America’s populace, reducing the ratio of traditional European whites. However, relentless retreat of religion also is a major factor in the change.

Based on a survey of more than 100,000 responders in all 50 states, PRRI said those who answer openly that they have no religion now constitute one-fourth of adults, exceeding Catholics (21 percent), white evangelicals (16 percent), and all lesser groups.

Several previous studies have found a relentless retreat of religion in Western democracies. It began in Europe after World War II, then spread to Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the like. At first, America seemed an exception—but the trend arrived in full force.

The first US victim was tall-steeple mainline Protestantism, with seminary-educated ministers and progressive political views. Mainline denominations began collapsing in the 1960s and have lost millions of American members. Next, Catholics deserted their church in droves—an exodus so great that one-tenth of US adults today are ex-Catholics. Finally, belatedly, losses began hitting white evangelicals.

PRRI founder Robert P. Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, commented:

This report provides solid evidence of a new, second wave of white Christian decline that is occurring among white evangelical Protestants just over the last decade in the United States. Prior to 2008, white evangelical Protestants seemed to be exempt from the waves of demographic change and disaffiliation that were eroding the membership bases of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. We now see that these waves simply crested later for white evangelical Protestants.

PRRI’s research director, Daniel Cox, said young Americans especially are quitting religion—many of them disgusted by intolerant, bigoted values among fundamentalists who denounce gays, try to outlaw abortion, protest Hollywood sexuality, want to keep marijuana illegal, and the like.

“The young are much less likely to believe this is a ‘Christian nation’ or to give preference to Christian identity,” Cox said. “It’s no longer the case among young people that being religious is necessarily a positive attribute.”

Gays themselves renounce religion at nearly double the rate of “straights.” The PRRI study found that 46 percent of them say their faith is “none.”

America’s church losses have political implications. White evangelicals are the heart of the Republican Party, while younger, college-educated “nones” loom large in the Democratic base. The GOP segment is shrinking while the liberal group is growing. Unfortunately, many “nones” don’t vote—but their rise nonetheless shifts America’s culture and values.

Western civilization moves through epochs—the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Colonial Era, the rise of democracy, etc. I think the West now is firmly in the Secular Era, when supernatural religion fades to a discredited fringe. The Muslim world remains mired in magical faith, with tragic consequences, but the West is shifting toward mental honesty.