Sunday, May 24, 2015

Religion Is Declining In The US, But Why? Here's A Few Explanations

Most atheists and secularists cheered this past week when the new PEW Religious Landscape survey made news showing the increasing secularism and the decreasing levels of religiosity in the US. Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Christians in the US decreased from 78.4% to 70.6%. The percentage of "nones" or the religiously unaffiliated, increased from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the number of atheists and agnostics increased from 4% to 7.1% according to the survey.

Nearly every Christian denomination decreased in numbers and the unaffiliated now outnumber the number of Catholics (22.8% compared to 20.8%) making them the second largest identifiable religious affiliation after Protestants, who now are less than half of the population 46.5%.

If you're a secularist like me this news is fucking awesome. It means we're winning, religion is losing, and the tide has clearly turned in our favor. It's felt that way for a while now. I live in a very secular part of the country so my gauge is a bit skewed, but it is very rare for me to meet people who believe in god and who are openly religious about it. It seems as if more and more, religion just isn't visible.

This recent trend towards secularization began in the early nineties, however, it has sped up tremendously in the past 10 years. But now the question sociologists and political scientists will be asking is: why? Why is the US, which for a long time bucked the trend towards secularization in the Western world, starting to rapidly secularize now? I have a feeling that the answer is very complicated. Luckily we have Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology at Pitzer College to help make things a little easier. He specializes in secular studies and has written about the subject in great detail. Zuckerman has listed several possible explanations why the US is secularizing today. Here's his explanations of the increased secularism. In no particular order:

1. The backlash against the Religious Right. Beginning in the 1980s the rise of the Religious Right like the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority with the Republican party became increasingly public. They emphasized strong socially conservative positions like making abortion illegal, preventing gay marriage/civil unions, and gay rights in general, supporting prayer in school, abstinence only education, opposing welfare spending, supporting Israel's oppression of Palestinians, opposing gun control, and supporting the War on Terrorism. This had the effect of alienating left-leaning and moderate Americans who identified as Christian who didn't identify with this conservative agenda. Sociologist Mark Chaves sums it up in his book American Religion: Contemporary Trends, "After 1990 more people thought that saying you were religious was tantamount to saying you were a conservative republican. So people who were not particularly religious and who are not conservative Republicans now are more likely to say that they have no religion." (p. 21)

2. Reaction to the Catholic Priest Pedophile Scandal. For decades the Catholic Church covered up a world-wide pedophile scandal, with over 6,000 priests credibly implicated, and 500 having been jailed. This has alienated a lot of Catholics who have become ex-Catholics. Consider these statistics. In New England, between 2000 and 2010, in just 10 years, the Catholic Church lost 28% of its members in New Hampshire and 33% of its members in Maine, and closed nearly 70 parishes, or 25% of the parishes in the Boston greater area. In 1990, 54% of Massachusetts residents identified as Catholic, and by 2008 it was down to 39%. According to an American Values survey of 2012, although nearly one-third of Americans report being raised Catholic, today only 20% of Americans identify as Catholic.

3. Increase of women in the paid labor force. British historian Callum Brown has argued that beginning in the 1960s more and more women entered the paid labor force. But why has it lead to secularization? Zuckerman uses a Simpsons analogy. If you watch the Simpsons, Homer doesn't want to go to church, the kids don't want to go to church. The person trying to get everyone to church is Marge. On virtually all measures, in virtually every society regardless of race, education, or ethnicity, women tend to be more religious than men. Women tend to be the engine of the religious life of the home. They tend to be the ones getting the family to church, getting the kids to Sunday school, and saying prayers at the diner table. When women enter the paid labor force, their interest in, or energy for, or need for religion wanes. As they become religiously inactive, the family tends to be follow. For example, Denmark has the lowest percentage of church attendance in the world and the highest percentage of women in the paid labor force in the world. Could be a coincidence, or not. It could be that when one has income they have more agency and independence in their life, and that might decrease the psychological need for religion.

icon4. The embrace of homosexuality and gay rights. Since the 1960s, more and more Americans accept homosexuality as a normal aspect of society and human nature, and more Americans accept gay rights. The people against homosexuality and gay rights, especially those who are organized, tend to be mostly, if not entirely religious. Americans between 18-30 are the most accepting of homosexuality and gay marriage and they're also the least religious age group. It could be mere correlation, or it could be causally linked. In Zuckerman's research into his book Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, the issue about gay rights kept coming up over and over again, suggesting a causation.

5. The events of September 11th, 2001. Many Americans saw the events of September 11th, 2001 as an act of people who were motivated, at least in part, by a very deeply held religious conviction. Although people did turn to religion in the immediate aftermath, people quickly returned to their normal rates of church attendance. "What Stalin did for atheism, 9-11 did for religion," for a lot of people, as Zuckerman puts it.

6. Entertainers and the media making fun of religion. There have been many prominent actors and comedians on TV and in the movies lampooning, caricaturing, and generally making fun of religion, and who wear their atheism or dislike for religion on their sleeves. From Bill Maher to Jon Stewart to Penn and Teller to shows like South Park, Family Guy, The Simpsons, and House, such popular entertainers and shows that have on-going mockery of religion has had a cultural impact and increases the number of people leaving religion.

7. The internet. The internet has a secularization effect. Here are three reasons why:

  • People can look up their on religion online, even unwittingly, and become exposed to something very critical of their faith. Whether you're a Mormon, a Scientologist, a Catholic, or a Prostestant, the internet can expose you to criticism of your religion that you would never have otherwise come across. Linda LaScola of the Clergy Project, has reported that many of the employed clergymen who have lost their faith did so when they were using the internet to do research for their job and came across criticisms of their religion that began to change their mind.
  • The internet allows people who might be privately doubtful about their religion, to come out and find a supportive online community. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, if you lived in North Dakota or Alabama and you had doubts, you had very limited resources. Today you can find a supportive atheist or agnostic community in seconds online.
  • There may be something about the web itself about how it functions and interfaces with our minds or our lives that may have a secularization effect that is weakening religion. The constant social networking, ability for constant entertainment, barrage of images, mental stimulation, the time wasting, the pointing and clicking, may be supplying something psychological and undermining religion's hold on human culture. 

Those are Zuckerman's explanations. Let me offer a few comments for now. I'll probably offer more in the days and weeks ahead. 

First, these reasons aren't supposed to be proofs but potential explanations of the increased secularization of the US. Every one of them is debatable but I generally think for the most part these are probably the primary reasons why the US is secularizing. Some of these seven reasons only apply to certain people who've left religion so it's helpful to understand that they're not intended to apply to everyone. 

Second, it's interesting how increased women in the labor force can be an enabler for secularization. One of the reasons it is argued that women entered the labor force in larger numbers in the 1960s and 70s is because it was around that time that middle class wages began to fall flat. To increase wealth and income, women had to start working because their husband's pay wasn't increasing. This was likely a direct result, or at least strongly exacerbated by conservative economic policies, as economist Robert Reich has argued. But think of the irony. Conservatives who champion economic policies that have the effect, intended or not, of flattening middle-class wages, which forces women to have to work to supplement their husband's wages, ends up decreasing religiosity because women tend to be the religious engines of the home, and them working results in less time, energy, interest, and the need for religion. In other words, conservative economic policies hurt conservative social policies. They're shooting themselves in the foot. Amen!

Third, Zuckerman debunks the notion that increased secularization has a lot to do with philosophical arguments, and has much more to do in many cases with economic and sociological factors. Only reason number seven factors in philosophical arguments that critics of religion have. It may have some effect, Zuckerman believes, but it's likely not the primary effect. I'm inclined to disagree with him on this point. It seems that atheists continue to dominate the internet. Whenever I Google something religious, I tend to see many results that are critical of religion. But as we all know, search engines like Google customize our search results. If they know you go to a lot of anti-religious websites, their algorithm might give anti-religious sites a higher page rank. So I cannot say for sure. But who knows. Maybe Zuckerman is right. This is all speculative, but it sure makes for some interesting conversations.

That's all I have to say for now. What do you think about Zuckerman's assessment and the decline of religion in the US in general?

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