The Twilight of Religion

There is no sense in burying the lead, so let me get right to it.  Gallup has been polling Americans about their religious affiliation since 1937; throughout the 20th century, the answers were, for the most part, consistent showing that a majority, roughly 70%, said they belonged to a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or other house of worship.  But in the 21st century, religious affiliation began to drop as if from a cliff — the “nones” (those who professed no religious affiliation) skyrocketed in number, and today we have reached a milestone.  In just the last five years, 8% of the entire US population has departed their organized religions — twenty-five million people have said enough is enough to the science-denying, woman-hating, child molesting, money-grubbing, social justice denying, violence glorifying, bigoted, white nationalist, patriarchal, anti-democratic, xenophobic fear mongering, and anachronistic “doctrines” of religion:  in 2015, 55% of Americans (a narrow majority) were members of a religion, but in 2020, only 47% would cop to believing horses can fly, dead people can sit up and talk, or shrubberies on fire can do the same.  Have a look…


According to Gallup:

Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.

This shift away from religion is happening across the traditional dividing lines, affecting all genders, races, education levels, political ideologies, and age groups.  It cannot be explained away using the outdated binary thinking of younger generations vs. older; Gen X, Boomers, and even the pre-Baby-Boom “traditionalists” have all become less likely to be members of a religion and more likely to report no religious preference.  But this is not just cause for godless, liberal atheists like myself to rejoice, though I am delighted.

This is really bad news for the Republican party, since they’ve staked their future on a shrinking bloc of white Christians, and is one of the factors contributing to their breathless pursuit of draconian restrictions on voting in states like Georgia and elsewhere.   As white people become less religious, they vote more Democratic (with a capital ‘D’).  Even the working-class, non-college-educated whites who’ve been the backbone of the GOP base are coming around and facing reality that there is no pie in the sky.

The swing states of Wisconsin and Ohio are a case study of sorts, as Eric Levitz explains:

Although both states have shifted right since the Obama era, the former has remained competitive while the latter has gone solid red. If one focuses on race and education, this split is hard to explain. Both states are heavily working-class, with nearly identical percentages of Ohioans and Wisconsinites holding college degrees, while African Americans comprise roughly twice as large a share of Ohio’s population as they do of Wisconsin’s. Thus, if you only looked at these two variables, you’d assume that the Buckeye State [Ohio] was the bluer battleground. But religiosity presents a countervailing distinction. In Pew’s polling, 58 percent of Ohioans say they are “highly religious,” which makes their state the 17th-most religious in the country. By contrast, only 45 percent of Wisconsinites identify as highly religious; only five states demonstrate lower levels of religiosity, and all of them are blue.

There’s a great irony in this.  The anomalous and disastrous presidency of Donald Trump was predicated on the restoration of white, Christian hegemony; “make America great again,” or MAGA as it is abbreviated, was thinly veiled racist homo/transphobic code for “make America white again” and “make America straight again.”   Christians, an alarming number of whom are Catholics, and especially white evangelicals, voted overwhelmingly for Trump believing he would stem the tide of multiculturalism that gave us the nation’s first black president, gay marriage, and non-Cis people gaining prominence.  Instead, he’s hastened the religious-Right's slide into irrelevance.  The moral majority is neither, and now we have proof.

The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe

As Yale sociologist Philip Gorski points out, the unholy alliance between the Republican party and Christian conservatism — making unquestioning, unthoughtful adherence to a particular political/social ideology a defining element of one’s religious belief as we saw in the aftermath of the 2020 election when the US Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced the nation’s second Catholic president for his pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ positions as well as his commitment to racial and gender diversity in his administration  —  mirrors the church-state alliances that led to the widespread rejection of religion in Europe:

The contemporary alliance between GOP and religious conservatives echoes the historic "alliance between throne and altar" hat [sic] many historians see as the key factor in the decline of European Christianity.

Or as I wrote in February of this year:

…these hardline, un-nuanced positions are driving people away from the Church in record numbers, especially young people who see little of value in an archaic creed which offers them nothing in terms of dealing with the trials and travails of modern life in a pluralistic, democratic society.  As the Catholic Church loses the young, just like many other religions are losing the young, the ultra-conservatives who remain are reinforcing allegiance to unpopular dogmas, hitching their wagon to one party over another.  Ultimately, this makes the Church seem even more out-of-touch and unappealing to the next generation.

This new unchurched majority isn’t entirely monolithic.  The “nones” who don’t profess any religious beliefs are a subgroup of this majority, and people who explicitly call themselves atheist or agnostic are a smaller subgroup of that; many included in the overall number of non-religious Americans have some form of what they term “spiritual” belief but no affiliation with a specific religion or a “brick and mortar” church – that is to say they might still believe in god or some higher power, but do not attend services or buy all the hocus pocus and supernaturalism.  To be clear, negative atheism is to not believe in god, while positive atheism is to believe god does not exist.  I am in the latter group, which makes up only part of this new American majority.

There’s no way to know how long this decline in adherence to and increasing irrelevance of the superstition of religion will continue.  As much as religionists want to proclaim they stand for eternal truths, faith is historically very malleable; it has always reshaped itself to fit the times, and there will always be a stalwart base of believers who’ll never concede religion’s demise.  It’s likely that religion in America will reach an equilibrium, neither gaining nor losing traction, but it will be in a much diminished state, far less influential and no longer able to shape public policy or deny justice and progress.  And to that I say… AMEN!

church exodus

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