NPR series on Americans’ loss of faith

January 17, 2013 • 5:43 am

Starting last Sunday, National Public Radio (NPR) in the U.S. has had a daily segment on “The Morning Edition” called “Losing Our Religion”.  You can access all the archived segments here; each is about 8 minutes long and contains a transcript if you can read faster than you can listen. Here are the shows so far:

Picture 3

The first transcript includes this graph from a Gallup poll that documents the growth of nonbelief in America. Remember that the “nones,” who comprise those not affiliated with any faith, include not only atheists and agnostics but people who consider themselves “spiritual” or religious but not part of any organized faith: Picture 4

This will not hearten those who say that “religion will always be with us,” and, indeed, I don’t think it will be. It’s just that we won’t be around when it disappears.

63 thoughts on “NPR series on Americans’ loss of faith

      1. Why do you think that radio has little future? My radio listening has, if anything, increased over my lifetime. If you count the amount of radio programmes that I download to listen to later while I’m in the office, it’s increased greatly. (NPR programmes being downloaded as I type – what a fankle!)
        Oh, music radio, with advertising? nope, not interested. I pay my radio license fee (it’s part of the TV license fee, annoyingly) so I don’t need to listen to people trying to sell me stuff.

    1. That’s an excellent article, desertviews.

      There’s another possible explanation to the decline: perhaps, with so much information and research available at our fingertips now, the internet is inadvertently helping humanity mature and wake up, in much the same way children become teens, learning along the way that Santa, the Easter bunny and tooth fairy, aren’t real.

      1. Yeah but … There’s a huge amount of misinformation and disinformation on the internet, too. At least some of us who hang out here (maybe most – I know I am) are in a bit of an internet bubble. I hear this is partly imposed on us by Google, tailoring searches for us based on past internet activity. In any case, those who like (mis- or)disinformation also have their own bubbles.

        1. I hear this is partly imposed on us by Google, tailoring searches for us based on past internet activity.

          You’re not required to use Google. You’re not required to store cookies from Google (which will identify you to them) or to log into their services. You’re not required to tell your browser to remember previous searches you’ve submitted to Google. These may be default behaviours for sites, people and browsers, but you’re not required to accept the default.
          Any chains you’re wearing are ones that you’ve put on yourself.

    2. It’s a Just So story that makes a hell of a lot of sense. However, there’s at least two problems with it.

      First, the trend is largely an intergenerational one, with younger cohorts being more irreligious. This is obvious in the Pew, ARIS, and (most especially) the GSS data. Closer examination of the data from the GSS suggests a logistic curve; and this curve of irreligion-versus-cohort has existed at least back into the Nixon years. At which point the internet technically did exist, but the number of people who had access was parts-per-million of the US population.

      Second, it appears that according to the GSS data, the cohort tendency to irreligion is more pronounced among those who do not have internet access in their home. Which I admit is about the most mindboggling thing I’ve seen from the GSS since Razib’s column on the interrelation of WORDSUM, BIBLE, and SCITEST4. Nonetheless, this would appear to be data strongly disconfirmatory to the hypothesis that the internet should be given credit for the rise of irrelgion.

        1. Hell, I didn’t realize the second part until I thought to go looking to see what I could find. I’m still boggled.

          I’ll note, there doesn’t seem to be as clear a relationship in the WWWHR variable — self reported weekly internet usage. The funky effects on the older cohorts also leave it a bit dubious, statistically. But what role the Internet plays looks to be a $64000 question, rather than a $0.64 one.

    3. The internet is where religions go to die.

      Old saying.

      It sounds too good to be true, so it probably isn’t. Still, I’m sure the internet hasn’t done religions much good.

      Religions are like cockroaches. They hate the light and hide in dark corners.

      1. The internet is where religions go to die.
        Old saying.

        Bertrand Russell, in the mid-20s?
        Or was it Voltaire?
        (Sorry, but it does strike me as a bit funny.)

  1. I married my Christian wife without any concerns about her religion or how we would deal with children. As it turned out we did not have children. I loved her family and they loved me. In fact, despite my overt atheism, her parents said I acted more Christian than most Christians. At times they claimed I really was a Christian but did not know it, and they believed I would eventually convert. I had a few nasty times with my wife’s relatives through no fault of mine, but due to their hate and fear of atheists. Today, in our seventies we are happier than ever. Religion has gradually become less important to her and she seldom goes to church anymore, but occasionally we both go to enjoy the music, see friends and family. I suspect my wife is now a secular christian. Mixed marriage worked for us.

  2. With respect to the Gallup graph, two spurts in secularism are register in the last 60 years. Both were associated with discredited Republican presidencies, the first during the Nixon-Ford years (1970-77)and the second with Bush-Cheney (2001-2008). Is there a causal relationship?

      1. Subjectively, all through the 1980s and 90s there was a widespread mood of bet-hedging and breath-holding with regard to the millennium (as if expecting a Judgement in Chancery, if you know Dickens) rather than planning for an open future. For example, dates after 2000 were very rarely mentioned in popular media. That’s what I was reminded of, seeing the curve flat through those decades. Of course this is a Just So Story as far as the past goes, but predicts that the present trend will continue, or indeed accelerate after the similar ‘2012 effect’.

        I may be completely wrong. OK, let’s rewind the tape and do the experiment over. 🙂

      2. I’ve been trying to find the raw figures to do a proper analysis of these reported trends. The closest that I’ve got has been from Gallup themselves, but that only covers 5 years.
        Absent the full set of numbers, I’d be tempted to model the time series as being essentially flat (1950-1968ish), and then a linear (-ish) growth from 1968 to 2010. There looks to be a systematic variation in the residuals, but whether it’s significantly different from random I’d hesitate to say by eyeballing it.
        14% increase in 42 years is 1/3% per year. Which would put “nones” into the majority in around 100 years from 2010. But I’d put a rough confidence interval for that from 10 to 145 years on that.
        The raw figures might be a bit more illuminating, but that’s my take.
        Causes? I note that the take off in 1968 is almost coincident with the Moon landings, that the apparent pause coincides (more or less) with the “Raygun” years, and the next take off starts … well, nothing globally significant comes to mind.

  3. The NPR series seems to be concentrating on those who have recentlyu lost their faith, and some of whom still feel “spritual,” and feel that they have lost something of value. I haven’t heard them interview an out-and-out comfortable atheist yet.

      1. Yeah, I never “struggled” with losing faith. But then I never had much to begin with, and didn’t have to worry about familial expectations.

  4. Regarding your final statement, Jerry, I have to say I have more faith in human ignorance than you. Seems to me religion is something our species will always have to contend with, even if most people become sufficiently enlightened to dispense with it (and even that is difficult to imagine). It’s hard to believe that there will come a time when there will be no one left who (as Ed Wilson put it)”would rather believe, than know”. My daily exposure to life outside of Academia reinforces this view.

    1. I agree and I think it has to do with fear of death. Unless people can accept that when their loved ones die, they will never see them again and that when they die, it’s over, I think the after-life myths will continue.

      1. I also think it’s about sociality. Church in rural areas, especially, is extremely social — I never expected this, as I lived in a college town until I was 35. I never imagined how important church is to forming some sense of community. I was asked to become part of a church “family” on many occasions when I expressed being lonely.

        One can argue that the U.S. is predominantly urban now, but that is fairly recent, only since the 1960s or so; maybe that is not enough time to change.

        1. Church in rural areas, especially, is extremely social

          That is partly true but not very important.

          The USA is one of the most highly urbanized areas on the planet. 80% of us live in metro areas.

          Even if a lot of the 20% who live in the boondocks are religious, in the grand scheme of things, they don’t matter much.

          And even in rural areas, there are a lot of nonreligious and nonxians. Here in the west coast, a lot of the rural people are New Agers, Pagans, and assorted alternative community people.

          1. U.S. Urban Population Is Up … But What Does ‘Urban’ Really Mean …
            www. neighborhoods/ …/us-urban…urban…/1589…

            Mar 26, 2012 – America has grown even more urban. According to new numbers just released from the U.S. Census Bureau, 80.7 percent of the U.S. …

            Do the numbers. Even if the 20% rural population is all xian, which they aren’t, it still is only 20% of the US population.

            There is a phenomena called rural flight. Even in the midwest, people are moving to population centers.

            There are a lot of ghost towns in some places. Where my relatives used to live in the upper midwest, their town has half the people it used to have. Even they don’t live there any more.

          2. Yes, I remember you mentioning this a few wks. ago. I have given this some thought. But I think your area is an exception to the rule right now. Most of the rest of the country (no insult intended) knows that California (and Texas) are like different countries entirely.

            I constantly get told by my suburban Chicago sister that I should suck it up and join a church for the social aspects, even tho I don’t believe in god (I grew up UCC). I constantly get asked by my neighbor to join her church whenever I tell her I can’t find many people to associate with.

            When I lived in a Big Ten college town, church was still very important to people living in the neighboring bedroom communities — and those residents of that town would be categorized as urban by your reckoning, but they really are rural. (what I mean here is that a town of 5,000 people –of which there are many in the U.S.–is not, I repeat, not urban just because they have sewers and water. The mindset is still rural.

            One more thing: when an educated friend moved to urban Georgia (or maybe it was AL), the first thing everyone asked her was what church she belonged to. Everyone.

            1. In the rural area of the west coast, where I used to live long ago, there were 4 churches.

              Two are completely closed, sold, and used as community centers.

              The other two are small and don’t have many people.

              The old population has mostly moved away or died. And their place was taken by alternative lifestyle people, and retirees from everywhere else.

        2. Church in rural areas, especially, is extremely social

          That is partly true but not very important.

          The USA is one of the most highly urbanized areas on the planet. 80% of us live in metro areas.

          Even if a lot of the 20% who live in the boondocks are religious, in the grand scheme of things, they don’t matter much.

          And even in rural areas, there are a lot of nonreligious and nonxians. Here on the west coast, a lot of the rural people are New Agers, Pagans, and assorted alternative community people.

          1. I probably should have added my comment above to your comment here.

            I don’t think we disagree on anything, really. But I just want to express my experiences: church is a VERY social thing and sometimes people put up with the malarky of religion to be a part of a church community.
            There is a classic Everybody Loves Raymond (yes, sorry, it’s TV!) episode where Ray learns his father was a non believer but went to church all those years anyway… and it turned out the father had been on a waiting list for years to become a money collector so that he wouldn’t have to listen to the religious part of the church services. The waiting list among the men of the church to be a collector was long; they ALL wanted to escape the religious stuff of church.
            I know, it’s fiction, but art imitates life, and comedy really does hit home more than you think….

            1. Not sure if I explained what I meant by money collector. I mean the people who pass the offering plates and then count the money in the narthex (or lobby or office or whatever you want to call it) while the service is going on or whatever. They get to avoid having to sit and take part in the church service.

    2. “My daily exposure to life outside of Academia reinforces this view.”

      I live and work outside academia and never expected to see what I see. In rural areas, at least in the Midwestern U.S. (and I imagine in the South as well) church has a HUGE role in forming community. And this is true in little towns on the outskirts of college towns, too.

      I have not seen statistics, but I have a suspicion that if more women in the U.S. are into religion than are men (and this is purely my observation), it is possibly because of the social/community support aspects of church.

  5. I am happy that more people who are non-religious are getting more vocal about it. I know I am. I used to keep it to myself in order to “keep the peace” in the workplace, etc. But I got so sick and tired of Christianity in my face all the time that I decided to “come out.” I now just tell people that I’m an atheist, even though many Christians still think atheist = bad person. Here’s what I mean: A few years ago, I was working at a school. A co-worker fell ill and one of the teacher’s bought a “get well” card for us to sign. It was religious. I said, “I guess I’ll have to go out and buy a non-religious card that I can sign.” The teacher looked at me aghast and exclaimed: “You’re not a Christian?!?” “No,” I replied, “I’m not.” She said, “But you’re such a nice person!” 🙂
    We still have a long way to go in explaining what being a non-believer is all about, but it’s time we got started.

    1. This is a good attitude to have; I think this is going to work for you, and that you are in a good place to teach people that atheists are not bad people.

      Now if we can only get some of them to learn a little bit about biology and evolution without feeling threatened and freaking out!

    2. The teacher looked at me aghast and exclaimed: “You’re not a Christian?!?” “No,” I replied, “I’m not.” She said, “But you’re such a nice person!”

      Well, you sure challenged her (?) belief system!Which is, I suspect at the root of the “growth of nones” : even the most isolated of people today are growing up knowing that there are people who think differently to their parents, and that there are therefore choices to be made. That’s a hugely different situation to never knowing of someone who thinks differently to everyone around you, and not even conceiving that there is a choice to be made.

  6. “It’s just that we won’t be around when it disappears.

    The right side of the graph of Gallup results, like a rocket headed for the moon, makes me optimistic that we might.

    1. But remember that a logistic curve has an asymptote at the top end as well as at the bottom. However steep it gets the the middle, growth has to taper off as it approaches saturation. So there’s probably going to be a long tail — perhaps centuries long — in which religion has been marginalized but has not yet completely disappeared.

      1. That’s all we mean when we say “disappear.” It’s about minimizing religion’s capacity for mischief-making, not about thought-control or declaring ideas verboten.

        We’ve no need of wiping religion from the face of the planet; let it take up residence in superstition’s ghetto — where it can keep condign company with astrology, spellcasting, entrail-reading, and others of a like ilk.

        1. I too would be satisfied with the marginalization of religion from politics and society. But it’s not obvious to me that that’s what Jerry or anyone else means when they talk about the disappearance of religion.

          If I may draw an analogy with medicine, measles and whooping cough have been successfully marginalized, but smallpox is actually extinct in the wild. I take talk about the disappearance of religion to mean the extinction of the pathologies of thought that support it, presumably through advances in education and the sciences of mental health. Such a goal may be possible, but in my view it’s much farther in the future than mere marginalization.

  7. I do think religion is losing its grip, as the graph makes very clear. There’s a reason the Catholic Church is running a “Come Home” campaign with TV commercials featuring the former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz (talk about going for the lowest common denominator!). But I think religion will always be lurking around though hopefully with greatly reduced influence. The reason is that religion is a virus of the mind, and like all viruses it will evolve and change in response to the antibiotic of education and science.

        1. Oh, point entirely received. But letting misinformation like “antibiotics are appropriate for viral infections” get through un-checked is potentially dangerous to everyone, through the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

          1. I know about the issues with antibiotics. Perhaps I should have said that religion is a meme that infects the mind, requiring the anti-memetic of education and science.

  8. Religious people often speak about “loss” of faith – they depict it as something negative. But in fact, rejecting religion and other forms of irrational faith is something positive. It is a personal victory, comparable to recovering after (mental) illness, or liberation from (intellectual) captivity.

  9. The decline of US xianity is likely to be even greater than the graph shows.

    1. A lot of xians are merely census xians, box checkers. Church attendance is only about 25-30%.

    2. The fundie perversion of xianity is hollowed out. It’s more right wing extremist politics with a few crosses stuck on for show and tribal identity than a religion.

    They don’t read their own magic book, know the doctrines of their cults, or walk their talk. It’s just hate, lies, and hypocrisy. These days their central dogma seems to be hating gay people. You can call hating a small minority of people a religion if you want, but it isn’t much of one.

  10. I wish we would stop playing into the negative rhetorical frame that one “loses” something (faith, morality, direction, meaning) when one becomes secular.

    Rather, we should frame it positively:

    “Freeing Ourselves from Religion”

    “Americans increasingly shed old superstitions”

    “Young people less burdened by outdated beliefs”.

  11. I greatly appreciated the “Making Marriage Work” segment above! I became an atheist several years after marrying my wife, who is an ordained minister and devout Christian (a rather liberal Protestant). We have 3 children, and parenting from different worldviews is a challenge. We seem to be making the marriage work, but it’s very difficult at times.

  12. The graph figure from 2010 could be comparable with the IHEU Gallup poll of 2012, depending on the questions, where the world average of nones is ~ 36 % (13 % atheists and 23 % “not religious” regardless of nominal affiliation).

    US may have twice the religiosity as the average nation!

    “If current trends continue, a quarter of Americans are likely to claim “no religion” in 20 years, according to a survey out today by Trinity College. Americans who identify with no religious tradition currently comprise 15 percent of the country, representing the fastest growing segment of the national religious landscape.” [US News, 2009]

    This will not hearten those who say that “religion will always be with us,” and, indeed, I don’t think it will be.

    Time to remind us of the research that shows religion may go towards extinction naturally:

    Here we use a minimal model of competition for members between social groups to explain historical census data on the growth of religious non-affiliation in 85 regions around the world. According to the model, a single parameter quantifying the perceived utility of adhering to a religion determines whether the unaffiliated group will grow in a society. The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction.” [ ; my bold]

  13. I think that there are different views of God. “Theism” refers to the belief that a supernatural being (or supernatural beings) exists that can perform miracles, that is, that can cause things to occur differently than they would naturally. One meaning of the word “atheist” is “someone who is not a theist.” But the word “atheist” can also mean “someone who doesn’t believe in any kind of god or gods.” Deists (a god created the universe but no longer intervenes in it) like Thomas Jefferson were atheists in the first sense but not the second.
    Some people believe that one can use the word “god” to refer to “a force working for good” which we can see in people motivated to help others in need and even in animals such as when dolphins assist humans who are drowning. These “believers” are atheists in the first sense but NOT in the second sense. Furthermore, you are likely to find more than a few of them in Unitarian-Universalist churches or in Ethical Societies. Many of them no longer are theists, but they have faith that there is a force working for good and hope that that force will work through them. Such a god is not all-powerful and thus can use help from humans. The slogan of such believers is “Standing on the side of love,” and both individually and collectively they are letting god work through them to create a better world. They are religious without being theists. In fact, in the first meaning of the word (but not the second) they are “atheists.”

    1. I don’t quite buy this. Seems to me that if you think the universe has goals and purposes of its own, and that it influences human behavior (however indirectly) to achieve those purposes, then you believe in an interventionist god and are by definition a theist, and not an atheist in any sense.

      On the other hand if you believe that the motivation to do good arises from purely natural processes of psychology and neurology, without any supernatural string-pulling, then you’re just playing word games by calling such motives “god”.

  14. I’m grateful that NPR has run this series, but one of the reporters — this time, it’s David Green, and not Templeton-payee Barbara Bradley Hagerty — has repeatedly gone out of his way to ask the interviewees if they are “conflicted” and “regretful” that they no longer believe, and if they still “respect” religion. Among the young non-believers who were interviewed earlier in the week, the former Muslim who now refers to himself as an atheist was given the least air time.

    I have listened to 4 out of 5 segments, and I have reviewed the transcripts of 3 of those. So far, I have heard nothing about the impact of the Internet in encouraging non-believers to “come out” and to realize that they are not alone. I suppose that I ould have missed it, but I have also heard not a single mention of 9-11. How convenient.

  15. Thanks for this useful comment from Gregory Kusnick.
    I think that one must distinguish between forces within nature (naturalism, pantheism) and supernatuaral forces from outside of nature. If the universe itself pursues goals and purposes, that does not seem to me to require “an interventionist god” such as that to which theists pray for miracles.
    I don’t see why “a force working for good” must be viewed as limited to psychology and neurology. Why couldn’t it be independent of any living things? Why couldn’t one see the sun as a force working for good and as such “divine”? (Certainly some people have.) For another example, with regard to the evolution of life forms on Earth, it might be the result of chance variation and natural selection but there might also be other until-now-unknown forces at work influencing that process. I am agnostic on that issue, but why must “nature” be restricted to that which can happen within humans and other living organisms?
    One could admit that people are motivated to do good by natural processes of psychology and neurology and still believe that there may be other forces working for good. It might then be very natural to commit oneself to working with such forces as well as the natural forces within humans and other animals that cause them to be empathetic with other living things.
    As theologian Henry Nelson Wieman argued, why not use the word “god” for that to which we are ultimately committed or that which is the source of human good? For him the word “god” should be used to refer to the social process of creative interchange which we see at work in science and democracy. Why not use the word “god” to refer to that which is worth worshiping? Why must we continue to limit the term “god” to the viewpoint of the supernaturalistic anthropomorphic theists?
    Ronald J. Glossop

    1. For him the word “god” should be used to refer to the social process of creative interchange which we see at work in science and democracy.

      Why “god”? Why not call it “Fred” or “ketchup”? This kind of arbitrary Humpty-Dumptying of words sheds no light on anything. If what you’re talking about are entirely natural processes of social interaction, and you want to be understood, then what’s the point of dressing them up in pseudo-religious psychobabble?

      And the sun is not “a force working for good.” It’s not working for anything; it’s an inanimate ball of hot gas with no intentions or purposes. When people historically worshipped it as divine, they did so out of ignorance. For us to do so now would just be silly.

  16. It seems that the vast majority of the people that NPR interviewed are not true atheists. What they are doing is rebelling again a heartless and egotistical god who has let them down. Despite evidence to the contrary they still feel that there is a god out there who meddles in the affairs of everyday life. They are not yet comfortable with living their life without their imaginary god.

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