The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round Earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating. . . .
— Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”
A historic transition is occurring, barely noticed. Slowly, quietly, imperceptibly, religion is shriveling in America, as it already has in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan—across the developed world. Increasingly, supernatural faith belongs to the third world. The first world is entering the long-predicted Secular Age, when science and knowledge dominate. The change promises another shift of civilization, similar in scope and importance to the past departures of the era of kings, the time of slavery, the Agricultural Age, the epoch of colonialism, and so on. Such cultural transformations are partly invisible while they are occurring but become obvious in retrospect.
Of course, religiosity remains huge in America. The retreat of belief is difficult to see amid boisterous megachurches and millionaire preachers. It’s obscured by the puritanical politics of white evangelicals. It’s masked by around-the-clock television and radio evangelism, paid broadcasting competing commercially for market share. It’s hidden by record-breaking sales of Rapture books, by attempts to undercut the teaching of evolution, by rapid growth of talking-in-tongues Pentecostals, and other fundamentalist ferment.
Yet beneath the surface, America’s religious decline advances year after year, decade by decade. Faith in invisible gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons, virgin births, resurrections, miracles, messiahs, visions, prophecies, incarnations, reincarnations, spirit possessions, exorcisms, holy visitations, mystical revelations, and other tokens of supernaturalism is silently eroding among thinking Americans.
Evidence of church decay is visible in several ways: Polls show “none” to be the fastest-growing American religious choice, especially among the young. One-tenth of American adults now are lapsed Catholics, as twenty million have quit the church. Mainline Protestant denominations, once a bastion of the educated, have withered drastically, implying that the educated no longer need religion. Methodists alone have lost more than a thousand members a week for nearly fifty years. Church-rooted taboos that dominated America a half-century ago have vanished. A steep decline in the numbers of seminarians has produced a clergy shortage in the Catholic Church, which has been forced to import third-world priests. The American populace trusts science and medicine, not prayer and incantations, for crucial decisions. Successful politicians still must proclaim their piety and declare “God bless America,” but most of society lives as if the gods are absent. Secularism is taking control, even while television evangelists preside over $100 million conglomerates.
The Secularization Thesis
First, some background: For three centuries, scientific-minded skeptics have predicted that supernaturalism will die as human knowledge advances. Around 1700, Thomas Woolston and other British Enlightenment thinkers declared that Christianity would disappear within a couple of centuries. Frederick the Great wrote to his doubting colleague Voltaire that faith swiftly was “crumbling of itself.”
Such assertions contradicted the culture of those times, because religion was so important to Europeans that they had spent centuries killing people for it—in Crusades against Muslims, witch hunts, Holy Inquisitions, pogroms against Jews, Catholic-Protestant wars of the Reformation, persecutions of Anabaptists, Hussite wars, extermination of “heretics,” burning of nonconformists, and other such faith-based slaughter. Blasphemy laws sent doubters (including Woolston) to prison.
As the Enlightenment spread to America, Deist-minded Founding Fathers joined the forecast. Thomas Jefferson privately wrote: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” And he wrote: “The priests of the different sects . . . dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight.” Finally, he predicted the end of traditional Christianity by writing: “I trust there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.”
Back in Europe, French philosopher Auguste Comte wrote that humanity was outgrowing its primitive “theological stage.” Friedrich Engels boasted that the collectivist revolution would make religion evaporate. In 1878, Max Muller said: “Every day, every week, every month, every quarter, the most widely read journals seem just now to vie with each other in telling us that the time for religion is past, that faith is a hallucination or an infantile disease, that the gods have at last been found out and exploded.”
With the twentieth century dawning, anthropologist A.E. Crawley wrote in 1905 that “the opinion is everywhere gaining ground that religion is a mere survival from a primitive . . . age, and its extinction is only a matter of time.” Sigmund Freud and others said the neurotic fantasy soon would fade.
“Is Christianity dying?” Will Durant asked in 1961 in The Age of Reason Begins. He wondered if faith is “suffering slow decay through the spread of knowledge, the widening of astronomic, geographical, and historical horizons, the realization of evil in history and the soul, the decline of faith in an afterlife and of trust in the benevolent guidance of the world? If this is so, it is the basic event of modern times.”
In 1966, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace wrote that “the evolutionary future of religion is extinction.” Famed Boston University sociologist Peter Berger told The New York Times that by “the twenty-first century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture. . . . The predicament of the believer is increasingly like that of a Tibetan astrologer on a prolonged visit to an American university.”
By the 1960s, social scholars generally accepted the “secularization thesis”—that advancing education, prosperity, science, and technology in highly developed nations spelled doom for otherworldly beliefs.
Europe’s Faith Fizzled
That thesis was accurate for Western Europe and several other advanced places. After World War II, European churchgoing suffered spectacular shrinkage. The continent where millions once were killed for religion abruptly concluded that religion was of no importance. In Catholic France, fewer than 7 percent of adults now attend worship. Continent-wide, a Gallup poll found that just 15 percent go to church. Attendance at European churches and cathedrals today consists mostly of old women scattered throughout the pews and vastly outnumbered by gawking tourists.
Pope Benedict XVI complained: “Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience.” He protested the new European attitude of “disdaining God completely.” Newspaper columnist George Will called the Vatican “109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief.”
Nun-turned-historian Karen Armstrong said: “Copenhagen, Stockholm, London—these are the secular capitals of the world.” Any Englishman who expresses faith in God is deemed “eccentric,” she said. When the European Union wrote a new continental constitution, it omitte
d any mention of God or Christianity, to the impotent outrage of the churches.
In Denmark and Sweden, fewer than 5 percent of adults are in church on a typical Sunday, Danish psychologist Lars Dencik wrote in 2006. “A good eighty percent of the population can be characterized as ‘secular’ in the sense that religious practices do not play any part in their daily life.” He said Denmark’s religious Christian-Democratic political party attracts only 2 percent of voters.
Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman spent a year interviewing Scandinavians and wrote Society Without God: What the Least-Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. He asserts that irreligious Scandinavians are happier than residents of highly religious cultures. Dr. Zuckerman said: “The notion that religious belief is childish, that earnest prayer is something only children engage in, and that faith in God is just something one dabbles with in childhood but eventually grows out of as one becomes a mature adult, would strike most Americans as offensive. But for millions of Scandinavians, that’s just the way it is.”
Once-Catholic Ireland is another example. Huge Irish churches today stand mostly vacant except for handfuls of aging women. The mighty Archdiocese of Dublin graduated only one priest in 2004 and ordained none in 2005. Priest Brendan Hoban, author of Change or Decay: Irish Catholicism in Crisis, lamented: “We are a modern and prosperous country, and many Catholics no longer find their faith useful.” At Dublin’s cavernous Most Precious Blood Church, priest Thomas McCarthy recalled a vanished time when four Sunday masses were packed: “There were fierce crowds coming back then. The message was clear: Come to mass or go to hell. Well, that doesn’t work anymore.”
Catholic Italy has the world’s lowest birthrate. The church’s ban on birth control doesn’t work any better than its “Come to mass or go to hell” warning.
More than half of British children attended Sunday school at the start of the twentieth century. By 2000, the portion was down to 4 percent. A nationwide poll in 2000 by Ipsos-MORI asked British adults to name “inspirational” figures. Sixty-five percent picked Nelson Mandela, 6 percent chose Britney Spears, and 1 percent named Jesus.
Stuart Macdonald of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Clergy Care described “the rapid secularization of Scotland,” noting: “The Church of Scotland, which had the power to force its morality on the society to the extent that swings in public parks were chained up in the early 1960s in order that the sabbath be properly observed, is now invisible within Scottish society.”
Intense religion in Europe today is confined chiefly to third-world immigrants. Tropical newcomers to Britain attend tongues-talking Pentecostal assemblies. “Skins of other hues are increasingly evident in European churches,” scholar Philip Jenkins wrote. “Half of all London churchgoers are now black.”
Much of the continent worries about Muslim immigrants who subjugate women and practice moralistic strictures. In 2004, France banned Muslim headscarves—along with Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans, and other conspicuous religious garb—from public schools. Muslim rigidity upsets secular Europeans so much that outspoken atheist groups have sprung up in France and elsewhere to counter this growing intrusion into the reigning laissez-faire culture.
Other Secular Hotspots
The secularization thesis has also proved correct in various other Western democracies.
In Canada, the national census records religious preference. Starting in the 1960s, a category of “no religion” was added. At first, only 1 percent of Canadian adults chose that label, but a remarkable upsurge happened. Today, around 20 percent choose it. Canada’s General Social Survey reported: “Attendance at religious services has fallen dramatically across the country over the past 15 years. Nationally, only one-fifth of individuals aged 15 and over attended religious services on a weekly basis in 2001. . . . Four in ten adults (forty-three percent) reported that they had not attended religious services during the twelve months prior to the survey.”
CanWest News Service reported that the Anglican Church of Canada lost more than half its members between 1961 and 2001 while the United Church of Canada dropped 39 percent and the Presbyterian Church of Canada fell 35 percent. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance reported that “self-professed atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists and people of no religious adherence are increasing rapidly.”
In Australia, 19 percent of adults replied “no religion” in the 2006 census, and an additional 12 percent wouldn’t answer, which indicates that nearly a third of Australians have become secular. Church attendance is much lower. The Australian Community Survey says 45 percent of Australians were regular worshipers in 1950, but only 20 percent were in 2000.
As a prank, some irreverent young Australians launched a “Jedi” religion spoof. Through a flood of e-mails, they urged fellow conspirators around the world to list their faith as Jedi (“May the Force be with you”) in national censuses. Chris Brennan, president of the Australian Star Wars Appreciation Society, told news reporters it was a massive practical joke. Yet in the 2001 census, more than 70,000 Australians named Jedi as their religion. In neighboring New Zealand, 53,000 did. The craze had its largest effect in England and Wales, where 390,127 claimed Jedi faith in the 2001 census. Scotland added 14,052 more.
Meanwhile, New Zealand is even more secular than Australia. Around 40 percent of New Zealand adults reply “no religion” or refuse to answer when questioned in censuses. This group has grown to be the largest segment in the beliefs category of the census.
Japan is sometimes called the world’s most secular society. Although a vague sense of Shinto spirit-worship and godless Buddhism lingers from the past—rather like secular Americans celebrating Christmas—few Japanese today attend temples to worship. A 2000 survey by Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper found that three-fourths call themselves nonbelievers. The paper’s first religion survey in 1952 had found only one-third lacking belief. A 2000 Japan-Guide poll asking “Are you religious?” drew this response: 16 percent “yes” and 84 percent “no” or “don’t know.”
Several cultlike “new religions” arose in Japan, including Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth), whose followers murdered critics and planted homemade nerve gas in Tokyo’s subways in 1995, killing a dozen commuters and sickening a thousand. InfoJapan says many young Japanese are leery of faith because of the Aum tragedy and the role that Shinto played in pulling the island nation into World War II.
In the Jewish nation of Israel, most Jews aren’t Jews by religion. A 2004 survey found that almost two-thirds of the country’s Jews of European ancestry are nonobservant. The ratio of seculars to religious soars yet higher among the well-educated and affluent. “Israel’s intellectual, literary, scientific and artistic elite is overwhelmingly nonobservant,” wrote Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a University of Haifa psychologist. He added that no prime minister except Menachem Begin attended synagogue outside of government ceremonies. However, Israeli Jews from third-world nations are much more religious. Tellingly, the psychologist wrote: “Religiosity among Israeli Jews is correlated with hawkishness and conservatism, paralleling findings reported all over the world.” He said 85 percent of ultra-
Orthodox Israeli Jews oppose releasing the occupied West Bank for a Palestinian homeland—but only 17 percent of secular Israelis do.
Similarly, a 2009 Pew Forum survey of American adults found that nearly two-thirds of white evangelicals support torturing Muslim terror suspects, but only 40 percent of unchurched Americans do.
America’s Immense Religiosity
The United States has been a major exception that seemed to discredit the secularization thesis. America, the most technologically advanced and prosperous of all nations, remained as religious as any impoverished third-world land. The United States has 350,000 churches whose members donate nearly $100 billion per year. Polls often find Americans’ belief in God, heaven, hell, angels, and the like around 90 percent, far above the corresponding rates in the rest of the West. American churchgoing likewise is much higher. Puritanical white fundamentalists and evangelicals have emerged as the conservative bedrock of the Republican Party, endlessly seeking to outlaw abortions, ostracize gays, obstruct teaching of evolution, restore school prayer, install governmental religious displays, increase the death penalty, support pistol-carrying, and the like. A 2004 Newsweek survey found that four-fifths of Americans think Jesus was born of a virgin without a human father, and more than half think Jesus will return to Earth.
American evangelism is a teeming industry of one-man denominations, all competing for bigger market shares. Charismatic preachers draw followers who give money to buy radio and television time, enabling the ministers to reach ever-bigger audiences that donate ever-bigger sums with which they buy more air time, ad infinitum. Successful entrepreneurs start small, then grow to the limit of their exhortation skills or until scandal scuttles them. The Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network swelled to a $240-million-per-year empire with many religious subsidiaries (despite Robertson’s proclivity for goofy claims). The Rev. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family rose to a $150 million budget—and Republican presidential candidates groveled for Dobson’s endorsement—but in 2008 he suffered a financial setback and laid off two hundred employees. (He has since announced his retirement.)
“Bishop” T.D. Jakes was an impoverished West Virginian living on welfare until he discovered his evangelist charisma and rose to luxury. Now he wears huge diamonds, travels by private jet, occupies mansions, and lives like a king. Sale of evangelistic books, videos, audiotapes, and CDs has become a billion-dollar industry, enriching religious entrepreneurs.
Commercialization of faith rose so severely that Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) launched congressional hearings in 2007 into “prosperity gospel” preachers who reap enormous fortunes. But fellow Republicans feared damage to the party’s most loyal core. President George W. Bush’s liaison to evangelicals, Doug Wead, said: “Grassley has thrown a grenade in the middle of the coalition that any Republican will need. If you are a Republican, it looks disastrous.”
Bible prophecy is a large segment of American fundamentalism. Altogether, evangelical books are nearly a $2 billion market in America. Evangelist Tim LaHaye and writing partner Jerry Jenkins set astounding sales records for their Left Behind novels describing the Rapture, when Jesus returns to wreak gory vengeance upon everyone except born-again Christians. The books describe Christ casting billions of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Catholics, Unitarians, secular people, and others into hell. “Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and . . . they tumbled in, howling and screeching,” one novel says, noting gleefully that the flesh of non-Christians dissolves from their skeletons as they hurtle into the abyss. The Left Behind series passed sixty million sales, becoming America’s most lucrative book venture and outselling all works, even the best writing of Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinners.
Pentecostals who “speak in tongues” are growing. During the 1990s, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God leaped 18 percent in America, becoming larger than the dying Episcopal Church. Mormons—the unusual sect based on mysterious golden plates that an angel reportedly revealed, then took back—keep increasing in membership, now numbering nearly six million in America despite lingering disputes over the fringe practice of polygamy.
University of Cincinnati political scientist George Bishop found that 45 percent of Americans reject evolution and accept divine creation but just 7 percent of Britons do, and even fewer in Germany, Norway, Russia, and the Netherlands.
“One of the most interesting puzzles in the sociology of religion,” Boston University’s Berger wrote, “is why Americans are so much more churchly than Europeans.” Because of America’s churchliness, Dr. Berger, a lifelong Lutheran, publicly reversed his past endorsement of the secularization thesis. Other scholars, especially Dr. Rodney Stark of Southern Baptist Baylor University and Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, led an academic revolt, saying previous researchers were wrong when they predicted the demise of faith.
A scholarly battle ensued. Scottish sociologist Steve Bruce wrote God Is Dead: Secularization in the West, contending that the ongoing decay of religion is overwhelmingly evident in most of the first world and irreversible. Dr. Bruce attributes secularism not to rising science but to growing relativism: people see the world’s kaleidoscope of conflicting supernatural systems and begin to question whether any is true. “The greatest damage to religion has been caused,” he wrote, “not by competing secular ideas, but by the general relativism that supposes all ideologies are equally true (and hence equally false).”
Much of Bruce’s work focuses on Britain, where he predicts that Methodism will vanish within a generation and the Church of England will dwindle to “a trivial voluntary association with a large portfolio of heritage property.” But he also sees America belatedly following the same relentless course. He says that there is clear evidence that Christianity is losing power, prestige, and popularity in the United States, consistent with the “secularization paradigm.” For example, he notes that the “new Christian Right,” the political alliance between white evangelicals and the Republican Party, failed to achieve the impact on American society that was expected in the 1970s.
Rising American ‘Nones’
It turns out that the scholars who decided that they had been wrong about secularization were wrong in saying they had been wrong. New trends show secularism growing rapidly in America, even amid booming piety. While the nation’s religious extravaganza fills revival channels and splashes across the daily news, an erosion of faith is surreptitiously snowballing, mostly out of sight, barely noticed. Evidence keeps accumulating, as follows:
Since 1990, surveys indicate that godless Americans doubled from one-tenth to one-fifth of the adult population, a swift transformation. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey by researchers at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, found that 15 percent—thirty-four million adults—gave their religion as “none.” Another 5 percent—twelve million adults—answered “don’t know” or refused to reply, which is interpreted to rank with the “nones.” Thus, around forty-five million American adults evidently are not churchgoing. This number has skyrocketed since the first ARIS poll in 1990, which found 8 percent “nones.”
The 2008 survey concluded that the share of Americans who call themselves Christia
ns fell 10 percent since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent. Nearly all of this loss came from traditional Protestant “mainline” faiths with university-educated clergy. During the same years, there was, however, significant growth among fundamentalists, evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Mormons.
“There is a real and growing theological polarization in American society whereby thirty-four percent of the population believe they are ‘born again’ but twenty-five to thirty percent reject the idea of a personal divinity,” the ARIS report said in a section about convictions. “These questions on belief reveal the cultural polarization between the pious and nonreligious portions of the national population, which are today roughly similar in size.”
ARIS co-director Ariela Keysar told Catholic News Agency: “The Nones are the only group to have grown in every state of the union.” She said American nonbelievers were stigmatized in the past, but the social climate has shifted, so that they feel “more free to step forward, less looked upon as outcasts.” Added Mark Silk, director of the ARIS project’s parent program: “You’re not declaring yourself a total pariah. The culture has changed in a way that makes it easier to say, ‘No, I don’t have a religion.’”
Their report added: “The challenge to Christianity in the United States does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.”
Significantly, males predominate among America’s soaring “nones,” matching international findings that females are more churchly. The ARIS report said: “The most gender-unbalanced group is the Nones, those who profess no religion or self-identified as atheists or agnostics. The ratio of sixty males to forty females is a remarkable result. These gender patterns correspond with many earlier findings that show women to be more religious than men.”
American Catholics slid only a bit in the new ARIS study, from 26 to 25 percent of the adult population. Jewish synagogue and temple worship faded slightly. “The Jewish population is in slow decline due mainly to a movement toward the Nones among young ethnic Jews,” the report added. “This is part of a general trend among younger white Americans.” The number of American Muslims nearly tripled, to 1.3 million, but they remain less than 1 percent of the adult population.
Since a second ARIS survey in 2001, dramatic change occurred in New England. “The decline of Catholicism in the Northeast is nothing short of stunning,” chief researcher Barry Kosmin told Catholic News Agency. The ARIS report added: “New England had a net loss of one million Catholics.” They fell from 46 percent of the region’s adult population to 36 percent. Other northeastern churches also declined. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler told Newsweek: “To lose New England struck me as momentous. . . . Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society.”
Meanwhile, a 2008 United States Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found even more dramatic results. It ranked “nones” as America’s second-largest adult group, after Catholics. Its report said 24 percent identify themselves as Roman Catholic, and 16 percent have no religion. The third-largest segment was “evangelical Baptist,” at 11 percent.
Pew findings about Catholicism were a jolt. The report said more than twenty million American Catholics have quit the church. That means that one-tenth of American adults are now ex-Catholics. The denomination would have lost one-third of its membership, Pew concluded, except for a flood of Hispanic immigrants who offset the outflow. Phil Lawler, author of The Faithful Departed, wrote for Catholic World News: ”The most important story about Catholicism in America over the course of the past generation has not been the sex-abuse scandal, nor the changes that followed Vatican II. The most important story is the vast exodus of Catholics leaving the faith.”
James Davidson of The Catholic University of America lamented that many American Catholics “seem increasingly indifferent to the institutional church.”
Though America has plenty of Protestant evangelists seeking followers, Catholicism suffers a severe shortage of priests. Catholic News Service says that 20,000 priests have quit since the 1950s (and that one-fifth of priests violate their celibacy vows). The National Catholic Reporter says that more than 10,000 devout American youths were in seminaries studying to be priests in 1965, but that number dropped to 3,400 by 2002. U.S. News and World Report says the number of American priests fell from 59,000 in 1975 to 41,500 in 2007—even while the number of American Catholics boomed to sixty-three million.
In 2009, Pew released an enlarged version of its Landscape Survey saying multitudes “became unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions. Additionally, many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules, or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money.”
The decline of American religiosity has far-reaching political implications, because the alliance of conservative believers with the Republican Party is thereby undercut. Seculars, being more urban and cosmopolitan, generally vote Democratic. Newsweek noted: “Seventy-five percent of [religiously] unaffiliated voters chose Barack Obama.”
Another 2009 study by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, found that the share of “nones” among young Americans has risen from 30 to 40 percent. “It’s a huge change . . . a stunning development,” Dr. Putnam said. “They grew up in a period in which being religious meant being politically conservative, especially on social issues,” he noted, and they were repelled by “intolerance and rigidity and doctrinaire political views.” He added: “That is the future of America. Their views and their habits religiously are going to persist and have a huge effect on the future.”
Church scandals contribute to America’s loss of faith. Child-molesting by Catholic priests tarnished the church’s claim to moral superiority. Evangelist sex scandals have done likewise. Cult suicides, jailing of Mormon polygamists, even murders in religious compounds—all of these have tainted the image of the pious.
As Harvard’s Putnam observed, the Republican-evangelical alliance itself hastened the decline. Mark Silk commented: “In the 1990s, it really sank in on the American public generally that there was a long-lasting ‘religious right’ connected to a political party, and that turned a lot of people the other way. . . . In an earlier time, people who would have been content to say, ‘Well, I’m some kind of a Protestant,’ now say, ‘Hell no, I won’t go.’”
Educated Churches Dying
Here’s another indicator of slippage: America’s mainline Protestant churches—elite, liberal, “tall steeple” denominations with seminary-trained ministers—decayed enormously in the past half-century. When I was young, in the 1950s, these bodies were the pillars of respectability. Business leaders and professionals filled their pews. The “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism”—Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, American (Northern) Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and
United Church of Christ—dominated the religious landscape, to say nothing of the country clubs. In social prestige, they towered above uncouth, less-educated evangelicals and fundamentalists.
But the Seven Sisters suffered drastic downsizing, losing nearly ten million members while America’s population doubled. United Methodists shrank from eleven million members in 1960 to 7.9 million by 2008. The Presbyterian Church USA dropped from 4.1 million to 2.2 million. Episcopalians fell from 3.4 million to 2.1 million. And so it went.
In The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity, Thomas Reeves wrote: “As is quite well known, the mainline churches have been shrinking dramatically during the last three decades and appear to be confused and helpless.” He added: “In 1995, a researcher observed that the Methodist Church had lost one thousand members every week for the last thirty years.” Actually, Methodism’s loss has been a bit worse. The church’s three million drop from 1960 to 2008 averages 1,200 per week.
The mainline misery didn’t ease in the twenty-first century. The 2008 ARIS survey said the tall-steeple denominations, “whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9 percent.” Mark Silk commented: “It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism—mainline versus evangelical—is collapsing. A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States.”
All this implies that educated Americans, the mainline constituency, no longer need supernatural faith. Church attendance grows only among the less educated. America’s pattern is clear: highbrow religion is dying; lowbrow religion is thriving.
Meanwhile, citing research by the Fuller Institute and George Barna’s religious polling service, Pastoral Care, Inc. of Oklahoma wrote: “Over 4,000 churches closed in America last year. Over 1,700 pastors left the ministry every month last year. Over 3,500 people a day left the church last year.”
Religious Taboos Gone
Finally, here’s more proof of America’s religious decline: Church taboos that ruled society in the 1950s have vanished like the snows of yesteryear. In those days, it was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. You could be jailed for buying a cocktail or lottery ticket or for looking at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or a sexy R-rated movie. Even writing about sex was censored. It was a crime in some states to sell birth-control devices; elsewhere buying a condom was hush-hush. It was a felony to be gay; homosexuals were imprisoned under biblical “sodomy” laws. (I remember one who committed suicide rather than face trial.) Unmarried couples could be collared by cops for sharing a bedroom. No proper hotelier would rent to a suspicious-looking pair. An unwed girl who became pregnant was disgraced, along with her family. Abortion was a prison offense, and desperate young women died of illicit termination attempts. Sex education was denounced from pulpits. Divorce was unmentionable.
Also at that time, Jews were excluded from “Christian-only” clubs, and women were excluded from most occupations. Blacks were consigned to segregation like Indians on reservations. They weren’t allowed into white schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters, pools, or neighborhoods. Mixed-race marriage was a crime.
Of course, in the hodgepodge of life, there were exceptions to all those 1950s strictures, and of course there were rebels against them. Bootleggers, hookers, bookies, free spirits, and bawdy cynics existed. But law and officialdom were on the side of taboos.
Today, a half-century later, morality has flip-flopped. Unwed couples now live together openly with the blessing of their families. Children of single moms are welcomed like other kids. Blacks are guaranteed legal equality. Women’s job rights are assured by law. Gay sex no longer is a crime. Gambling isn’t merely legal—it’s run by the state. Sexual movies and magazines are so common they’re boring. Bars (in some states, liquor clubs) are everywhere. Sunday is a “whopper-shopper” day.
How could morality change so much in a single lifetime? Why do most of us seniors hardly notice the amazing transformation that occurred? Sometimes, when I recall the societal proscriptions of our youth, they seem unreal, lost in the mist of the past.
Clearly, stigmas of puritanical religion lost their power in the second half of the twentieth century. American society progressed, leaving the bluenose mentality behind. Actually, today’s tolerant values, accepting yesterday’s outcasts, are more decent, fair, and humane.
To the Third World
Most observers think religion will remain powerful in America for generations to come. They note that though mainline Protestant churches are following Europe’s disappearing act and twenty million have drifted from Catholicism, the fundamentalist-evangelical-Pentecostal-Mormon conservative realm retains great strength. However, some researchers contend that even this born-again community is weakening. In The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church, journalist Christine Wicker said that the vaunted might of fundamentalists has been grossly exaggerated. She began her book: “Evangelical Christianity in America is dying. The great evangelical movements of today are not a vanguard. They are a remnant, unraveling at every edge. Look at it any way you like: Conversions. Baptisms. Membership. Retention. Participation. Giving. Attendance. Religious literacy. Effect on culture. All are down and dropping.”
In a 2009 Christian Science Monitor essay titled “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” religion writer Michael Spencer pronounced the same verdict. He began: “We are on the verge—within ten years—of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West. Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants.”
It’s too early to know whether these forecasts will prove correct. But it isn’t too early to observe another visible trend: religion is leaving the first world and shifting to the less-educated, low-income third world.
Faith remains powerful in Islamic lands, where harsh religious laws mandate stoning women to death for adultery, chopping off the hands and feet of thieves and other offenders, flogging alcohol drinkers, and executing “blasphemers”—and where fervent belief spurs hundreds of young “martyrs” to volunteer as suicide bombers.
In the southern tropics—in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America—all forms of Christianity are booming emotionally, primitively, even violently. The world’s largest Methodist country is now the Ivory Coast. Hidebound Anglicans from Africa outnumber Englishmen at Lambeth World Conferences, scuttling attempts by English Anglicans to accommodate gays and women. Muslim-Christian riots flare repeatedly in Nigeria. Thousands of Santería animal sacrifices occur in Mestizo Hispanic countries (and immigrants perform some in Miami, polluting waterways with animal bodies).
Pennsylvania State University scholar Philip Jenkins wrote The Next Christendom, foreseeing an ugly future in which teeming, simplistic third-world Christians become a militant danger similar to today’s Muslim extremists. While Christianity fades in the first world, Dr. Jenkins says, it is surging in the underdeveloped tropics: “curre
ntly 480 million in Latin America, 360 million in Africa, and 313 million in Asia.”
Third-world Christians tend to be magic-oriented, seeing faith as a shield against demons, witches, evil dreams, bad luck, and similar superstitions. In a long excerpt reprinted in The Atlantic, Dr. Jenkins wrote:
They interpret the horrors of everyday urban life in supernatural terms. In many cases, these churches seek to prove their spiritual powers in struggles against witchcraft. The intensity of belief in witchcraft across much of Africa can be startling. As recently as last year  at least one thousand alleged witches were hacked to death in a single “purge” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Far from declining with urbanization, fear of witches has intensified. Since the collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime in 1994, witchcraft has emerged as a primary social fear in Soweto, with its three million impoverished residents.
(Remember the African evangelist who visited the Pentecostal church of Alaska governor Sarah Palin, laid hands on her head, and asked God to shield her from witches?)
Professor Jenkins said armed Christian militants such as “the terrifying Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda” commit slaughter. “The Holy Spirit Mobile Force, also pledged to fight witches. . . . engaged in a holy war against [the Ugandan government]. Holy Spirit soldiers, many of them children and young teenagers, were ritually anointed with butter on the understanding that it would make them bulletproof.” It didn’t work, and the Christian uprising was crushed. “In 2000, more than a thousand people in another Ugandan sect, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, perished in an apparent mass suicide,” he added.
These are extreme examples, but they show a gulf between first-world and third-world Christianity—and warn of potential danger. Dr. Jenkins noted: “Recent violence between Muslims and Christians raises the danger that Nigerian society might be brought to ruin by the clash of jihad and crusade. Muslims and Christians are at each other’s throats in Indonesia, the Philippines, Sudan, and a growing number of other African nations; Hindu extremists persecute Christians in India. Demographic projections suggest that these feuds will simply worsen.”
As religion recedes in the first world and blossoms in the third world, it’s arguable that the former is the winner, the latter the loser. Slowly, quietly, imperceptibly, faith is fading in Western democracies. A long-term shift of civilization is occurring, but most of us are too busy to notice.