Fading faith: The unreported story of our time


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,
–Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

Philosopher-historian Will Durant called it "the basic event of modern times." He didn't mean the world wars, or the end of colonialism, 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 busy places, only 5 to10 percent of adults now attend church. Secular society scurries along heedlessly.

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

America seems an exception. This country has 350,000 churches whose members donate $100 billion per year. The United States teems with booming megachurches, gigantic sales of "Rapture" books, fundamentalist attacks on evolution, hundred-million-dollar TV ministries, talking-in-tongues Pentecostals, the white evangelical "religious right" attached to the Republican Party, and the like.

But quietly, under the radar, much of America slowly is following the path previously taken by Europe. Little noticed, secularism keeps climbing in the United States. Here's the evidence:

• Rising "nones" Various polls find a strong 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. In Hawaii, more than half say they have no church connection.

• Mainline losses America's traditional Protestant churches– "tall steeple" denominations with seminary-trained clergy– once dominated U.S. culture. They were the essence of America. 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, Episcopalians dropped from 3.4 million to 2 million, the Presbyterian Church USA sank from 4.1 million to 2.2 million, etc. The religious journal First Things– noting that mainline faiths dwindled from 50 percent of the adult U.S. population to a mere 8 percent– lamented that "the Great Church of America has come to an end." A researcher at the Ashbrook think-tank dubbed it "Flatline Protestantism."

• Catholic losses Although Hispanic immigration resupplies U.S. Catholicism with replacements, many former adherents have drifted from the giant church. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that 20 million Americans have quit Catholicism– thus one-tenth of U.S. adults now are ex-Catholics.

• 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 morality laws have fallen, one after another. Currently, state after state is legalizing gay marriage, despite church outrage.

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," Putnam said. "That is the future of America." He joined Dr. David Campbell of Notre Dame in writing a major book, American Grace, that outlines the trend. Putnam's Social Capital site sums up: "Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate."

Oddly, males outnumber females among the churchless. "The ratio of 60 males to 40 females is a remarkable result," the 2008 ARIS poll reported. "These gender patterns correspond with many earlier findings that show women to be more religious than men."

Growing secularism has political implications. The Republican Party may suffer as the white evangelical "religious right" shrinks. In contrast, burgeoning "nones" tend to vote Democratic. Sociologist Ruy Teixeira says the steady rise of the unaffiliated, plus swelling minorities, means that "by the 2016 election (or 2020 at the outside) the United States will have ceased to be a white Christian nation. Looking even farther down the road, white Christians will be only around 35 percent of the population by 2040, and conservative white Christians, who have been such a critical part of the Republican base, will be only about a third of that– a minority within a minority."

Gradually, decade by decade, 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 one of the biggest news stories during our lives– although most of us are too busy to notice. Durant may have been correct when he wrote that it is the basic event of modern times.
James A. Haught is the editor of The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. His last essay to appear in the Hook mentioned one of the more bizarre reasons the U.S. invaded Iraq.


If the believers weren't so heavily armed around here I'd post my name.
The percentage of American adults who "believe in god" is no where close to the constantly reported figures; follow-up questions about "god," regarding creation, benevolence, and willfulness bring the effective percentage of believers down in the 60's.

I think the real shift is from individuals self identifying as religious to spiritual. From Psychology Today :

" Today, we tend to differentiate between organized religion and spirituality. When asked whether they are religious, many say they are spiritual but not religious in the traditional sense. But just what is spirituality?


"Currently, state after state is legalizing gay marriage, despite church outrage." Oh my!! Those dang homos are unraveling the core of Western Civilization.

Are you just offering this op-ed for chuckles? Or as a means of silencing the Cville naysayers with a "Well you *could* be living in Charleston WVA where people write and think like this..."

Perhaps this is because so many religions are based on superstition and fear, and we live in an age where superstition is quickly losing ground to science. Religions that take a hands-off approach to explaining the natural world, and focus more on leading people to happy, fulfilling lives and a strong sense of community are the religions that will survive scientific advances. The progress of science will not stop just because some holy text is shown to be factually inaccurate, but religions that demand that people believe that their holy texts are fact will ultimately fail.

To put it another way, the bible can do wonders as a tool for teaching and reinforcing a philosophy and moral code, and for bringing people hope and positive emotions...but it cannot hold its ground against the library-filling volumes of scientific research that are available to everyone.

Liberal denominations are dying off, but conservative denominations remain strong. If you look at birth rates, the people who hold liberal beliefs have the lowest rates, while people who have conservative beliefs have the highest rates. Over the long run, religious conservatives will win out.

Belief in God by one name or another and conforming to one church or another can be completely unrelated.
Many church-goers rattle off on command one creed or another professing the existence of God and the superiority of their particular belief choice. These professions of faith are the price of a ticket to the social life and community support the churches offer.
It seems sad that to avail oneself of human comfort and charity and to offer the same to others we must invoke an ethereal “Higher Power” mediated by ministers and priests whose primary concern is not your faith in God or man but the preservation of their means of livelihood.
That said, I'm guessing that the number of secularists and atheists are substantially under-reported.

@Michael 2 - you mean, religious conservatives will win out control over organized religion; this is demonstrably true. Of course, if organized religion becomes irrelevantly small, what have they won control of? Belief in the supernatural overall is on the decline - and that ultimately bodes very poorly for religious conservatives.

Perhaps religion would be looked at in a different, more favorable, light if it did not seem the religious were trying to force their beliefs down ones throat. That would include Christianity and Islam (the only 2 religions I am somewhat familiar with).

I believe deeply that the majority of Christians and Muslims do NOT want to force their beliefs on people. It is just that the nut cases get all the press which then scares the bejeezers out of people like me.

From the article: "The Republican Party may suffer as the white evangelical "religious right" shrinks. In contrast, burgeoning "nones" tend to vote Democratic."

I voted Republican from Reagan through Bush junior. Not any more and that is a result of: 1.) evangelical religious right and 2.) Republicans total unwillingness to compromise ( I say 2 is a direct result of 1)

It is horrible and infuriating to say this but now I am voting for the lesser of two evils. Isn't it about time for a third, moderate political party?

Perhaps religion would be more popular if it wasn't based on extracting money from people.

Be gone Satan!

Religion is the province of, of fear, stupidity, and ignorance. Its decline is in inverse proportion to the number of superstitious doofuses in a society. No wonder its prevalence is higher in 3rd. world places. The relation to stupidity and ignorance is the reason why more Republicans are religious. No mystery here.

@angel eyes
So well put that I think I love you... assuming you're female.

"unreported story of our time"

No, not really. The secularization thesis has been around for decades. In fact, it has evolved from simplistic sorts of presentations like this article. A good overview is here: http://religioninamerica.org/2010/09/25/secularization-theory/ Or heck, just wikipedia it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secularization

If this really is news to you, you probably don't know "religion" as well as you think you do.

Most of the comments here are garbage.

NW, "Spirituality" should refer to the attitude (emotion/thought) we bring to experience. It is said that early Christians sang and praised God as they were fed to the lions. The ability to experience Heaven while walking through conditions resembling H_ll would be a positive form of spirituality. On the negative side would be those experiencing depression while external conditions are favorable.

Ideally, a "Church" provides spiritual support to those seeking to do and be good.
The "holy spirit" would be feeling good about doing good and being good, even when the rest of the world isn't quite so good.