Why is Religion declining?

not religious

This is a posting about being not religious, and I do not mean myself, but rather vast numbers of people. We are faced with the following data regarding religious affiliation in the US…

not religious

Clearly we can see that it remains more or less flat until suddenly in the early 1990’s something dramatic takes place – the number of religiously unaffiliated begins to relentlessly increase upwards, and that trend is still ongoing.

The rather obvious question is this – what the heck happened?

Why is it like this, why are the not religious increasing?

Clearly a huge social change is underway and we are right in the middle of it.

Did the non-religious suddenly work out how to win arguments?

Derek Thompson, a staff writer at The Atlantic has a go at answering the question and comes up with a few interesting ideas that are well-worth mulling over. Within his article dated 26th Sept 2019 from a few days ago that is titled “Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?” he dives right in and offers up some interesting thoughts on it all.

Historical Circumstances

According to Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.

Pointing at just one historical event and declaring it to be the cause might be tempting but also probably not right. Here we have a suggested combination of three, a blend of a complex set of events.

The argument laid out by Mr Thompson builds upon the above as follows ..

… young liberals and loosely affiliated Christians first registered their aversion to the Christian right in the early 1990s, after a decade of observing its powerful role in conservative politics…

… As the U.S.S.R. dissolved, so did atheism’s association with America’s nemesis. After that, “nones” could be forthright about their religious indifference, without worrying that it made them sound like Soviet apologists….

… A series of bombings and attempted bombings in the 1990s by fundamentalist organizations such as al-Qaeda culminated in the 9/11 attacks … al-Qaeda became a useful referent for atheists who wanted to argue that all religions were inherently destructive.

They are good arguments, but I’m not wholly convinced that these truly explain the huge demographic shift that still continues upwards.

The argument is that the association of a religious identity as part of a political identity partially explains it, yet that started in the 1970’s and nothing happened until suddenly in the early 90’s the upward tick begins. Our chart does of course align with the demise of the cold war, but again I can’t see that being even part of the explanation. 9/11 happened a decade after the uptick in the number of nones, and even appears to have correlated with a pause in that uptick.

Another rather obvious event of seismic proportions has been the growing revelation that Catholicism is morally bankrupt. Abuse and the associated coverup of abuse that was taking place on an almost industrial scale has had an impact and should factor into the discussion.

Various other suggestions are also pondered over such as delayed adulthood, the increasing divorce rate, the decreasing rates of marriage, etc… What also remains true is that the decrease continues at a constant and persistent rate each year. The younger you are the less religious you are …

not religious

Does this imply that people become more religious as they grow older?

Nope, if that was true then the ongoing decline in religion should not exist. Instead what appears to be happening is that the religious older generation are being replaced by a less religious younger generation. In other words, people are not changing their minds about belief, but instead the older more religious people are dying and being replaced by a less religious generation.

Here perhaps is part of the key to understanding what has been happening. Previously people would inherit their beliefs from the previous generation, but something has happened to disrupt that.

Cue a rant from the religious that a rise of the non-religious means lots more evil and society is getting a lot worse.

Nope, not at all, that is not what is happening, instead this is …

As America’s youth have slipped away from organized religion, they haven’t quite fallen into wickedness. If anything, today’s young people are uniquely conscientious—less likely to fight, drink, use hard drugs, or have premarital sex than previous generations. They might not be able to quote from the Book of Matthew, but their economic and social politics—which insist on protections for the politically meek and the historically persecuted—aren’t so far from a certain reading of the beatitudes.

Meanwhile …

Evangelicals feel so embattled that they’ve turned to a deeply immoral and authoritarian champion to protect them—even if it means rendering unto an American Caesar whatever the hell he wants. American politics is at risk of becoming a war of religiosity versus secularism by proxy, where both sides see the other as a catastrophic political force that must be destroyed at all costs.

Again it can be tempting to consider that all causal. However, it may in fact be far more appropriate to consider it to be a correlation, a consequence and not a cause.

Why would I lean in that direction?

There is a bigger picture here.

Expanding the scope for being not religious

If we step outside our national bubble then we discover that what is happening is not unique to the US.

Over in the UK religion has also been declining and non-religion is increasing, so much so that the non-religious are now probably the majority

not religious in the UK

Ah …. so this is really a decline of religion in western world then.

Nope, look even further and you will discover that the Arab world is also turning its back on religion. A recent survey of more than 25,000 people across 10 countries and the Palestinian territories found that trust in religious leaders has plummeted in recent years.

(Cue a claim by various religious groups that it is the end-times and that this is the great falling away.)

OK, so what is it that has happened on a global scale, and is radically altering and disrupting different beliefs and religious affiliations within radically different cultures?

The Flow of Information has radically altered us

Who we are and what we believe has in the past radically shifted when there has been a dramatic increase in the flow of information.

The printing press is an obvious example. The boy who drives the plough was able to gain access to information that was once the exclusive preserve of a few clerics.

Look back even earlier and we can observe that our ability to write down information so that it could be transmitted to the next generation transformed our species. Prior to even that our ability to communicate complex and abstract ideas to larger groups via speech transformed our species.

Other more modern examples include the rise of telecommunication – telegraph, telephone, television, etc… all leading to more and more information.

What began in the 90s and continues today is the opening of a window for all human knowledge for vast numbers of people – the Internet. No longer do the young sit isolated within social bubbles that were insulated from outside influence. Instead they bathe on a daily basis in a flow of ideas and information on a vast scale.

It has inevitably altered many things and that includes what we believe. We have yet to find a new balance, the change is ongoing.

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