Is Religion Dying

Atheist Republic looks at claims of US religious belief being on the decline.

In 2012, the internet was abuzz with a bevvy of articles, blog posts and conversations about something new happening in American religion – it was dying.

Religious people were horrified and spurred to action. Atheists were calling it a new era of secularism. The media was calling it the “rise of the nones” (Americans who were reporting to claim no religion).

All of this was brought on by a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center revealing that one-in-five American adults (one-third of those 18-30) claim no religion. This was following a 2002 report by sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, that in the 1990s, Americans who claim no religion doubled from 7% to 14%. Both reports combined indicated a rather rapid decline in religious engagement in America from the 90s to 2012, especially amongst the younger generation.

The numbers however, didn’t seem to jibe with actual human behavior. So, on August 8, 2013, Pew put together a panel to discuss with journalists, scholars, and other stakeholders, these and other important trends in American religious life.

An important qualification to make right away when discussing the nones, is that Americans remain the most religious people of the Protestant Western nations, and that over the long run, church membership and activity have seen a net increase. Religious involvement in America is still higher than it was 100 years ago. When Americans leave their church, they typically relocate to a different one. The difficulty in acquiring an accurate count of nonreligious people globally has a lot to do with separating culture and politics from religion, as well as a number of places expressing open hostility toward the nonreligious.

What has become clear between 2002 and now, is that there is a generational trend of claiming no religion, but not necessarily a strong trend toward rejecting god. Much of the discussion surrounding these numbers is related to an overall trend away from rigid organized structures of hierarchy and authority, leading 18-30 year olds away from “religion” even though they don't seem to be denying the existence of god. There also appears to be a weakening in conviction surrounding certain Christian beliefs such as the Bible being the literal Word of God, the existence of a literal and eternal physical hell, and a variety of religious mores such as the “sinfulness” of same-sex attraction, premarital sex, etc.

Frank Newport, Editor-in-Chief of Gallup put it this way:

[...]But when we asked religious identity, in some ways it’s different because we’re asking people to publicly put a label on themselves in a given arena, and I think that there – and that’s what I want to talk about here, is that part of what we may be seeing here is a change in the way that people choose to label themselves, rather than something which represents a more fundamental change in some of the other measures of religiosity that we can look at.

Claude Fischer, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley summarized, “[...]that group of people who weren’t very closely tied to religion in the first place are now increasingly making a declaration that they’re not religious.[...]”

Basically, the percentage of Americans who consider religion to be very important hasn’t changed much. But the people for whom religion is not very important, have been switching their label from “not very religious” to “no religious affiliation.” What we’re seeing is most likely a change in the way younger people are labeling themselves as opposed to a change in the substance of their beliefs. As before, they don’t, or very rarely, attend church and don’t think of themselves as religious. These are very existential, self-identity types of things. Someone who is 65 might go to church four times a year and pray occasionally and consider themselves very religious, while someone who is 25 might have the same church attendance and prayer life and consider themselves not religious at all.

Newport compares it to surveys of LGBT status. When there was a great deal of social stigma attached to being homosexual, many homosexuals would not admit to being gay. As that stigma has decreased, more people are willing to check the “LGBT” box on a survey.

At first blush, this analysis might be discouraging, and atheists might be inclined to dismiss it. But the reality is actually encouraging for those hoping to see an increase in atheism. What all of this means is that people are becoming more comfortable with the idea of a less dogmatic, less fundamentalist faith and less afraid of identifying themselves with those who claim no religion. They are more socially liberal and more comfortable spending time in the company of atheists. While they may still believe in god, they are spending increasingly less time in organized religious gatherings and more time in the company of freethinkers and skeptics. Easier access to scientific information is leading more young adults to question the most fundamental tenets of the religion of their childhood.

This presents atheists with a massive window of opportunity to provide the community support and encouragement people feel they would otherwise lose if they abandoned their religious convictions – convictions that are already tenuous at best.

What say you? Do these numbers matter? Should atheists care? Why or why not?


  1. My own reading of events is that not only are the literal fundamentalist belief systems of most organised religions crumbling in the 'west', so to is the literal fundamentalist belief system of Atheism is dying on it feet.
    While the burden of proof may be on those who claim there is a devine creator, to back up their belief with facts, Atheists also have to back up the claims that consciousness is only local to the brain and merely an coincidental illusion of brain activity. There isn't hard evidence to back up this belief system. This is where the debate gets really interesting.

  2. How appropriate that the original report was produced by the 'Pew' Research Center.
    Boom! Boom!

  3. Maybe a box to be marked 'Apathetic' would be more apt?

  4. 'What say you? Do these numbers matter? Should atheists care? Why or why not?'

    They indicate a loss of the nominally and fair-weather religious. That may encourage the militant atheist who longs to see a world free from religious belief, for it makes it easier to indoctrinate society at large against religion. On the other hand, it frees up authentic versions of the religions from half-heartedness and may lead to an actual increase in their commitment and outreach.

    That is concerning with regard to violent forms of religion - the rise of militant Islam being the main concern.

    As an Evangelical Christian, I have no problems with such statistics. We have Christ's promise that His Church will succeed in its task of calling out the elect - every last one of them. Whether we are in favour with society or out of favour is of no consequence for our final goal.

    So bang away, Atheists, we have faced the gulags before, and now in Atheist nations like N. Korea. We still love you, and seek your liberation from the power of Satan and translation into Christ's kingdom.