Are Americans becoming less religious? New Pew study says yes and Dawkins is optimistic

Given the course of Campaign 2012, the idea that Americans are trending toward less religion probably sounds ludicrous. But maybe not.

In response to an audience question last night, Richard Dawkins said he’s “optimistic” about the future of religion. (If you’re a religious type, he doesn’t mean that in the way it probably sounds.) He noted that the US is still exceptionally religious when compared with other nations along criteria such as education levels and scientific accomplishments, and he further allowed that we’re not nearly as far along the path toward a truly secular society as he might have expected several decades ago. Still, he says “I’m optimistic in the long term” – pointedly emphasizing long term.

Dawkins, a prominent scientist and intellectual who has authored a number of influential books, including The Selfish GeneThe Extended Phenotype and The God Delusion, was speaking at the University of Colorado’s Macky Auditorium as part of a US tour promoting his latest book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. This book is intended for younger audiences – in essence, it’s designed to help children understand how science works and to develop the faculties necessary to parse reality from superstition and the various kinds of “magic” that lead them into the sorts of folly afflicting American politics and policy development today. Illustrated by Dave McKeanThe Magic of Reality makes a compelling visual impression, as well, not only highlighting the essential concepts in ways that make them easier to grasp, but at the same time stylistically conjuring a pensive, dramatic sense of the natural world that I imagine will last young readers the rest of their lives.

One hopes Dr. Dawkins is justified in his optimism, and one might also hope that we don’t have to wait too long for the long term to arrive. He made the point judiciously, of course, but while the US ranks far ahead of the rest of the world in many measures of intellectual achievement, we’re also the undisputed leaders of the developed world when it comes to batshit religious crazy. I’ve addressed the “Christian nation” question here a couple of times in the past, and it’s perhaps reminding everyone of some numbers.

  • Polls show the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian ranging as high as 85% or beyond.
  • The president is a Christian…
  • …as is the VP.
  • The Speaker of the House is Catholic…
  • …and the Senate Majority Leader is Mormon.
  • Well over 90% of our Congressional representatives are Christian, with a majority of the remainder being Jewish.
  • The Supreme Court features seven Christians and two Jews.
  • All of our major presidential candidates in both major parties.
  • Almost all of our past presidents; depending on how you count Unitarians, you have to go all the way back to Lincoln (ironically enough, the founder of the GOP) to even find one to debate over;
  • Hell, even sports franchises are starting to build their operations around the evangelical litmus test.
  • It seems unlikely that a similar review of the legislatures and courthouses in the 50 states would reveal too much variation from this overpowering Judeo-Christian norm.

You have to be willfully stupid – and polls suggest that in many places the voting majority is just that – to think that ours is a Christian system of government. However, numbers are numbers, and I don’t think it controversial to say that we are a Christian culture. For better or worse. Mostly worse.

Of course, my colleague Otherwise believes that we’re one of the least religious places on earth. At some point he and I need to sit down and discuss our criteria. Perhaps he’s looking at the Muslim world, or perhaps he’s looking at cultures dominated by Catholicism. Fair enough. Or maybe he’s thinking more about the gap between what people report when polled and how they live when the pollster drives away. He grew up in the South like I did, so he’s probably well familiar with a certain breed of Christian – let’s call it the devout son of a bitch. Never misses church, publicly quite upstanding and pious, but at his core he’s just a mean redneck. He’ll say he believes in Jesus, but you’d never know it to watch him.

It’s like the famous singer and comedian, Jim Stafford, once said: Baptists are like cats – you know they’re raising hell, you just can’t catch them at it.

A new study from the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life suggests that perhaps Dawkins (and Otherwise) are right.

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

Note: “religiously unaffiliated” doesn’t mean “atheist” by a long shot.

This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.

However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

While I don’t care what people believe per se – I’m very 1st Amendmentish in that respect – I care a great deal what people do, and these days ignorant, dingbat theocracy-leaning religious conservatism exerts way too great an influence on the laws that govern our lives. For that reason, the new Pew study, which indicates, at a minimum, a shift away from organized fundamentalism, brings welcome news. Perhaps the single most encouraging bit is the “a third of adults under 30″ part – I suppose that’s the “long term” hope that Dawkins is hanging his hat on.

Time will tell. Common sense says that at some point either the pendulum has to swing back the other way a bit, away from reactionary religiosity and neo-medieval conservatism, or the culture will simply explode. Perhaps we tip over into the kinds of full-blown theocracy that more and more Republicans are openly advocating, or we erupt into open and potentially violent conflict to prevent it.

The Pew report suggests that with each passing year America’s clear thinkers regain a little more territory. Let’s hope they, and Dawkins, are right.

Image Credit: Touch Reviews

8 comments on “Are Americans becoming less religious? New Pew study says yes and Dawkins is optimistic

  1. Adherence to ancient myths and death cults is fading, but too slowly. There is still profit in nonsense, so it will long outlast its welcome. Religion is mankind’s anchor.

  2. People eager to leave religion in the dustbin of history may lack some appreciation for how quickly supernatural beliefs have faded compared with the full arc of human history. But that may come as cold comfort to some.

    Take slavery as an example: In the last couple of hundred years slavery has gone from the sanctioned economic driver of the worlds most powerful nations and a natural fact of life to a concept that is utterly abhorrent almost everywhere in the world with active efforts to wipe out the few remaining pockets. But if you were living in the 1850s, the fact that slavery was rapidly being removed from societies around the world is again cold comfort. (And my apologies for conflating religion and slavery to make a point.)

    • Good point. And you recall how Dawkins replied to the question – the challenge, actually – about the importance of religion in giving us a moral base. Morality, he noted, reflects the time – it was perfectly moral to own slaves and be racist once upon a time, but not so now. That’s hardly a function of any absolute laws in Deuteronomy.

  3. Pingback: Darwiniana » Dawkins, new atheists, and the hustle to exploit the changing religion landscape

  4. I’ll note, the article linked for the 85% Christian US is from 2005. Subsequent studies have consistently found lower numbers than that, much in line with the number of Christians given in the Pew Forum chart (73% for the present day). The data on the SCOTUS is also dated; Souter was replaced by Kagan, making the current tally six Catholics and three Jews.

    While it’s true that “religiously unaffiliated” is not the same thing as “atheist”, the numbers from Pew indicate the fractions of “Nones” who are atheists and agnostics are rising, and the relative level of NIPpers falling (though still rising in absolute terms). There’s other data sources (EG: Georgetown/PRRI study of Millennials) which suggests this shift in the Nones may be a difference in attitudes between generations. This may be a short-term fad, or the onset of a new fundamental shift. The next decade of data may give more hints, but it’s too soon to even guess which.

    The Pew data lines up relatively well with previous trends about the Rise of the “Nones”, particularly that between generations. Using the GSS data, the rise appears to follow a logistic curve, with the 50% midpoint to be expected around when the 2007 cohort starts showing up in the survey data circa 2025. Whether this is “too late” or not depends on what intervening crises may happen.

  5. Pingback: ¿Son los americanos cada vez menos religiosos? Nuevo estudio de Pew dice que sí y Dawkins es optimista [ing]

  6. Pingback: Increasing nones, election? | Got Nones?

  7. its only a decade since the dawn of mass media.
    We need 2-4 generations to die off.
    Still have extreme believers amongs us born in the last century
    I think by the year 4000 religion will have faded off..

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