More signs of the growing penetration of secular Atheism into that bastion of Christian fundamentalism, the USA, was published today by the Pew Research Center. One wonders if there will ever again be an honest survey which is good news for religion. It has been relentlessly bad news for about the last 50 years and seems to be getting much worse.
Recent surveys have tended to concentrate not so much on the growth of Atheism in America per se but in the growth on 'nones' as a proportion of the population and consequent decline in the proportion of groups such as Catholics, Episcopalian, Baptist and other Protestants, etc.
Several people have rightly pointed out that 'none' is not the same as Atheist and that many 'nones' remain religious, some deeply so. It simply means anyone who doesn't self-identify as affiliated to any particular faith or denomination.
This Pew Research Center report concentrates on what is happening amongst these 'nones' over time in terms of changes in their religious faith and religiosity. It is not encouraging reading for those who drew a few crumbs of comfort from the fact that 'nones' are often still religious and can't all be counted as Atheist. Strange how Catholics or Protestants, each of whom believes the other has the wrong religion, take comfort in someone else having a religion that isn't either. I wonder if they would prefer people to be Muslim or Hindu rather than Atheist?
Between 2007 and 2014, the 'nones' have not only increased in relative and absolute terms but they have become less religious over time. Of those who still believe in a god of some sort, religion has become less important in their lives, they pray less often, they go to a religious service less often and the proportion of them who believe there is a god or universal spirit of some sort has decreased from 70% to 61%. Those who don't believe in a god has increased from 22% to 33% (i.e a 50% increase).
The same research also found the age distribution of these 'nones' is even worse news for the US churches:
The question of why the “nones” are growing less religious does not have a simple answer. But just as is the case for why “nones” are growing as a share of the U.S. public, generational replacement appears to be playing a role. Religiously unaffiliated Americans are younger, on average, than the general public to begin with, and the youngest adults in the group – that is, those who have entered adulthood in the last several years – are even less religious than “nones” overall.
Fully seven-in-ten of these youngest Millennials (born between 1990 and 1996) with no religious affiliation say religion is not important in their lives. A similar share (70%) also say they seldom or never pray and 42% say they do not believe in God, all bigger percentages than among religious “nones” as a whole.
The Pew Research Centre have combined their survey data with US population figures to estimate that in 2014 36.1 million Americans are now 'nonreligious' (adults who are not affiliated to any established religion and who say religion is not important in their lives). This is up from 21 million in 2007, a quite astonishing 72% increase in just 7 years!
These figures are entirely consistent with the idea that one of the factors keeping people religious is the affiliate needs that belonging to a religious group fills. Once people disaffiliate, the relative importance of religion lessens and the certainty of their faith wains. Those who never become affiliated in the first place see no reason to do so. 'None' is thus a transitional identification for those moving away from religion towards Atheism and signifies a movement in cultural attitudes toward disbelief; not simply a rejection of organised religion, but a rejection of supernatural explanations altogether.
Moreover, in the USA, the next generation of parents is becoming increasingly secular and non-religious. Since the main factor in determining a person's affiliation to a church and in religious beliefs in general is the religion of their parents, this can only result in an increasing number of people rejecting religion. The tsunami of rejection about to engulf the churches in the USA, just as it has in the rest of the developed world, is now underway and nothing is going to stand up to it. It's only a question of how long the Bible Belt fundamentalists can stand up to it before they too are swept away by the tide of secular humanism.
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