By James Haught
Religion is collapsing faster in America than in any other nation, according to a top researcher. Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine — in a report titled “Giving Up on God: The Global Decline of Religion” — Dr. Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan said:
“The most dramatic shift away from religion has taken place among the American public. From 1981 to 2007, the United States ranked as one of the world’s more religious countries, with religiosity levels changing very little. Since then, the United States has shown the largest move away from religion of any country for which we have data.”
Dr. Inglehart’s article is drawn from his forthcoming book, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Next.
Why did supernatural religion decline rapidly in western democracies, especially in America in recent years?
Many sociologists attribute the transformation to prosperity, good health and the governmental safety net. Affluent, secure, comfortable people have less urge to seek divine help, they contend. In contrast, religion remains strong in poor, unhealthy, less-developed places where life is difficult. (Perhaps this explains higher religiosity among American blacks, who can’t fully share the nation’s good times.) This theory seems plausible to me.
A different explanation is offered by social analyst Mary Eberstadt of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington. Dr. Eberstadt contends that the sexual revolution weakened American families, making them less likely to be church stalwarts. She outlined her premise in How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization and extended it in a new book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics.
The renowned sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s — triggered initially by the birth control pill — gave women greater freedom and undercut old Puritanical taboos. Female careers became more common. Female college-going soared. Divorce lost much of its stigma. Indirectly, this eroded religion. Dr. Eberstadt explained in an interview:
“Consider what often happens when parents divorce and children are put in custody arrangements where they see mom and dad on alternate weekends. This regimen alone throws a monkey wrench into the common Christian practice of churchgoing, because if mom and dad live in different places, it’s less likely that children will be taken consistently to the same church…. Family disruption breeds religious disruption.”
“By no coincidence, religious practice in many western precincts declines dramatically exactly alongside rising divorce rates and cohabitation rates and fertility decline and other proxies for the sexual revolution… Not having families or having loosely structured and smaller families appears closely tied to not going to church or believing in God.”
Her explanation likewise seems logical.
I’d like to offer a third possible explanation: Maybe the fading of religion is tied to rising intelligence, better education and greater science knowledge. Brainy people are less likely to believe in magical gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, prophecies and other church dogmas.
Various studies find that doubters have higher I.Q. than religious believers do. Also, the Flynn Effect asserts that I.Q. averages climbed significantly, about three points per decade, in the latter 20th century. Young people who were given tests from the past scored higher than the old 100 norm. (Some recent findings imply that the Flynn Effect is reversing in some nations, but not America.)
If smarter people doubt supernatural claims, and Americans have gotten smarter, that’s a formula for church decline.
I hope some researchers explore to determine whether better brainpower undercuts religion.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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Image Credit: James Haught.