This article by Gregory Paul in the new journal Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism (click on screenshot for pdf) argues, based on polling data, that the proportion of Americans who are atheists is rising by 5-10% a decade, leading to the conclusion that within a century America will comprise mainly nonbelievers. (Note that the essay is not written very well and has a lot of typos; it may be a draft.)
Of course we know about the rise of “nones”: Americans not formally affiliated with a church A 2015 Pew poll estimated that American “nones” rose from 16% to 23% in only 7 years—between 2007 and 2014. Pew notes that in their survey, “nones” comprised “people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is nothing in particular’”. While many of these might still believe in a higher power or a deity, I count these, as does Paul, as nonbelievers. The Pew link also shows that the proportion who say their religion is “nothing in particular” among all nones is also declining while atheists and agnostics within that category are increasing.
Those data are in line with Paul’s thesis that nonbelief increases 10% per decade, which he bases on several surveys.
What, unfortunately, did not catch the public’s eye the same year was the more remarkable result from the lesser known RedC’s “Global Index of Religion and Atheism” (http://www.scribd.com/document/136318147/Win-gallup-International-Global-Index-of-Religiosity-and-Atheism-2012). They recorded that Americans who deemed themselves religious nosedived from 73% in 2005 to 60% in 2012 – ouch for the churches.
That result was not a statistical oddity, as verified by another event little noticed even in the atheist community, next year the Harris survey released next “Americans’ Belief in God, Miracles and Heaven Declines: Belief in Darwin’s Theory Rises” (http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/mid/1508/ArticleId/1353/Default.aspx). It measured a consistent rise in four pollings from 2007 to 2013 who did not consider themselves very or somewhat religious from 31 to 42%. Three World Value Survey results track the nons rising from a fifth to a third in a little over a decade.
So three surveys showed an extraordinary tenth of the total population losing their religion in just ten years in the nation that was supposed to never lose its religion.
Furthermore, a 2015 Pew report (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape) again observed a rise of the unaffiliated at a decadal rate of about a tenth of Americans, to nearly a quarter of the population.
In 2016 the Public Religion Research Institute (https://www.prri.org/research/prri-rns-poll-nones-atheist-leaving-religion) produced nearly the same result. And this year, ABCNews/Washington Post (https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/protestants-decline-religion-sharply-shifting-religious-landscape-poll/story?id=54995663) measured a one in ten rise in those who lack religion in about a decade and a half. Starting in 2015 the annual Latter Day Saint based American Family Survey is tracking a one or more percent rise in nones each year, and finds that only 43% of Americans consider being religious a core part of their identity (http://religionnews.com/2018/12/10/religion-declining-in-importance-for-many-americans-especially-for-millennials) – in view of such stats continuing to label America a religious nation rings increasingly hollow; although it remains more theistic than most or all other advanced democracies.
So we have seven polling organizations agreeing that freethinking Americans who are not interested in religion or theism are currently going up by around one out of ten of residents in about a decade. That gross value is not, therefore, a statistical fluke limited to one or even two samples. One way or another it is real pattern. The next question is what is actually happening.
Paul considers several alternatives, including that the pattern isn’t real, but in fact it’s more likely that the increase in nonbelief is even more rapid than the surveys show, as people are loath to assert that they’re nonbelievers. Along with this comes an increase in those who reject creationism and theistic evolution, accepting purely naturalistic evolution. Paul suggests, as I have, that efforts to convert those who reject evolution into those who accept it are not very effective, and it’s better simply to wait for the inevitable rise in secularism that will bring an equally inevitable rise in acceptance of evolution. That’s because once you give up your faith, the main impediment to rejecting evolution—religious belief—is gone.
Why is this happening? Secularism has almost gone to completion in parts of Europe, including Scandinavia and Iceland, and is proceeding apace here. It seems to be a trend in all Western countries save, perhaps, parts of South America. Here are some reasons Paul suggests (I’ve paraphrased them and added my take).
- The rise of science, which makes supernatural explanations untenable or hard to believe.
- An increase in people reading the Bible, which, if you read that book rationally, is a great eraser of faith. But Paul gives no evidence that Bible-reading is on the rise.
- The development of middle-class prosperity via industrialization and capitalization. Paul, oddly enough, sees this effect as drawing people away from church attendance and into open-on-Sunday chains like Walmart. I think that while the connection between rising well-being and rising secularism (adumbrated a while back by Marx) is real, it’s more likely to happen through the elimination of a need for the supernatural when you have money, healthcare, and other perquisites that reduce your need to accept a god.
- A self-perpetuating system whereby atheists bring up their children as nonbelievers. That itself wouldn’t increase the proportion of nonbelievers in the U.S. unless we’re outbreeding the faithful, but there may be a ratchet effect whereby the more atheists there are, the more become public, encouraging others to either become nonbelievers or to confess their nonbelief. This, to Paul, is the key to making America a secular nation.
As for what we can do to increase rationality and reduce dependence on religion, Paul suggests this:
Because the rise of proevolution atheism is a largely automatic, casual lifestyle conversion in response to subtle but powerful socioeconomic forces usually done without deep thought, it will remain true that neither side can do much to alter the course of events one way or another.
In view of that future probability, it is advisable that the emphasis of the activist atheist-secular movement (as small as it is and will be) should shift to a substantial but not total degree. The main focus need not to be to promote conversion to rationalism for the simple sake of increasing the number of the nonsupernaturalists, seeing as how modernity is already doing that job about as fast as can be done. Actively convincing those in one tribal worldview to switch to another is very difficult and will produce modest results. Secularists are often criticized for living in their own bubble and not paying sufficient, respectful attention to, and reaching out to, the white heartlander theocons. I personally know a fair number of such people via familial relationships, and believe me they are noncurious folk who care little if at all about the research, opinions or hopes of the intellectual, scientists, or anyone else outside the confines of their bubble which is much tighter than ours. Nor is debating whether aggressive or nonconfrontational tactics are best important because many techniques work depending on the circumstances – let a Darwinian freedom of means of presentation reign. The primary effort should move more towards further changing the political culture, both at the national level, and within the atheist portion.
Regarding the national scene, atheism needs to come out into the open to maximize its societal influence. That in turn requires individuals to come out of the atheocloset enmass. They way to do that is to make atheism increasingly less culturally out of the norm until it is a norm, by boosting comfort and indeed pride in not being a supernaturalist – after all, there should be nothing wrong with thinking and coming to conclusions scientifically, it’s those who delve into irrational speculations about mysterious powers who have issues. All the more so because the best off societies are never highly religious.
Well, yes, we should be doing that, but I think we should be doing a number of things, including teaching evolution and criticizing religion. After all, Richard Dawkins and the other “horsepersons”, through both of those activities, have had an enormous influence in converting people away from faith and towards science. Of course, they do this by coming out publicly as loud and proud atheists, but just saying “I’m a nonbeliever” is, I think, far less powerful than making that statement by arguing why evolution is true and why religion is a crutch made of gossamer.
Atheism as a public movement is waning: I notice far fewer atheist conferences these days. But I think that’s fine. The heavy lifting is done, and the rest—the rise in secularism—is inevitable, for it comes with the rise in well being that Pinker writes so much about. All we should do, as Paul suggests, is to not be hidden about our nonbelief.