Sunday, 13 March 2016

USA Religious Decline Confirmed

Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?: American Journal of Sociology: Vol 121, No 5

According to data produced in the American Journal of Sociology, the USA should no longer be regarded as an outlier when it comes to religiosity, compared to the rest of the Western, developed world.

Although the movement has been small compared to Europe, there are distinct signs that Americans are moving in the same direction and for pretty much the same reason - each generation is becoming less religious.

Regrettably, the full text of the paper is behind a paywall and permission to reproduce even the abstract has been denied by the University of Chicago, publishers of the American Journal of Sociology, so I only have a press release to go on. According to this:

The study examined U.S. data from the General Social Survey, which is conducted every two years, and compared it with similarly broad data from Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Across the board, people have slowly become less religious over time; the U.S. decline has been so gradual that until recently scientists haven’t had enough data to be sure the trend was real..

Ignoring denominational differences, the study found:

  • 94 percent of Americans born before 1935 claim a religious affiliation. For the generation born after 1975, that number drops to 71 percent.
  • 68 percent of Americans 65 and older said they had no doubt God exists, according to the study. But just 45 percent of young adults, ages 18-30, had the same belief.
  • 41 percent of people 70 and older said they attend church services at least once a month, compared to just 18 percent of people 60 and younger.

None of these declines is happening fast, but the signs are now unmistakable. It has become clear that American religiosity has been declining for decades, and the decline is driven by the same dynamic -- generational differences -- that has driven religious decline across the developed world.

David Voas, social scientist,
University College London.
Co-author of the paper.
These findings are very much in line with other recent studies, such as the cohort studies by the Pew Research Center, that show religiosity declining quickly in America and more so amongst the younger generations. Significantly, this is the generation that will be producing the next generation of Americans and other studies have shown that the children of non-religious and non-affiliated parents are overwhelmingly more likely to follow their parents with very few becoming more religious. This contrasts with a much larger proportion of children from religious backgrounds who disaffiliate or give up religion altogether.

The U.S. has long been considered an exception to the modern claim that religion is declining, but if you look at the trajectory, and the generational dynamic that is producing the trajectory, we may not be an exception after all... If you break it down over five-year chunks, each age group is a little less religious than the one before it.

Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, divinity & religion,
Dukes University.
Co-author of the paper.
The evidence of cohort studies also shows that the notion that people tend to become more religious as they get older is a myth. The evidence is that people mostly tend to retain the views that they have formed by the age of about 25.

It is becoming clear now that the strategy adopted by conservative Christians of jumping into bed with right-wing extremist politicians, and pursuing the Discovery Institute's Wedge Strategy, intended to overthrow the US secular constitution and establish an extreme fundamentalist Christian theocracy in America, has been a spectacular failure. It was also counter-productive.

All it seems to have done is release a swarm of arrogant but scientifically illiterate loons onto the Internet to show just what fundamentalist Christianity can do to people. It also brought into sharp focus how playing to people's ignorance and superstition is a fertile breeding ground for frauds and con artists looking to fleece people any way they can. This came just when the Catholic Church was showing us how religion can be used as a cover for all sorts of abusive behaviour towards vulnerable people and how it facilitates flagrant abuses of power and authority.

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  1. Good news, indeed. It's interesting to note that countries considered most educated are those with the lowest levels of faith adherence. America has, in the past at least, shown a remarkable resistance to religious change. The young will always lead the way in changes of this kind. Although Americans are not close to the levels of secularisation experienced in Northern Europe and Australasia. In New Zealand, where I reside, the previous Prime Minister was an atheist. I don't think America has reached this stage, yet. I remember reading that atheists are the least trusted group in American society, according to polls. But this will change and I'm hoping, and predict, that change will be swift, much to the chagrin of the loony, money grubbing evangelists.

    1. I always felt that the USA was simply a generation, maybe two, behind Europe in its religiosity. Any politician in the UK who announced that God had told him to run for office would immediately become unelectable. Religion is normally off limits for politics here because we regard openly religious people as a little bit loopy or using it as a cover for something sinister. People like bishops and archbishops have to go out of their way to be 'normal' to avoid becoming figures of fun.


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