We occasionally see some ignoramus claiming that religion is making a comeback everywhere. Well, that might be true in some places, but certainly not in the U.S., Britain, and continental Europe, whose residents are becoming nonbelievers at a very rapid pace.
I have no real explanation for that save that mythology is no longer tenable in an age of science, and, most probably, because as people become more well off, they become less religious. The last phenomenon has been well documented, and has been explained this way: “when you have society to take care of you, and have a place to live, money, health care, and food, you no longer need to believe in a divine being who will support you or to whom you can appeal for succor.” There’s a ton of evidence for that hypothesis, including negative correlations between happiness and well-being on one hand and religiosity on the other. These are just correlations, and not necessarily indications of causality, but they hold not just for the countries of the world, but for the states of the U.S. And there’s independent evidence for the latter hypothesis, which was first suggested by Marx. Most people just quote the bit in bold, but it becomes clearer what Marx was getting at when you read the real quote, which is from A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
At least in that assertion, Marx pretty much got it right.
The data on reduction of religiosity are given in this summary of a recent Pew poll (click on the screenshot below to read; the pdf of the full report is here). And here’s the methodology:
The 2021 National Public Opinion Reference Survey (NPORS), conducted online and by mail among a nationally representative group of respondents recruited using address-based sampling (ABS). The survey was conducted among 3,937 respondents from May 29 to Aug. 25, 2021. The response rate was 29%. Complete details about how the 2021 survey was conducted are available here.
The 2020 NPORS, conducted online and by mail among a nationally representative group of respondents recruited using ABS. The survey was conducted among 4,108 respondents from June 1 to Aug. 11, 2020. The response rate was 29%. Complete details about how the 2020 survey was conducted are available here.
Polls from earlier years are described in the pdf.
What has become clearer to me from this poll is that the “nones”, the fastest-rising group of “believers”, aren’t really people who believe in God and haven’t affiliated themselves with a church. Some of them may well be, but I believe they call themselves “nones” because it’s less damning than saying you’re an “atheist” or an “agnostic.” From this I take the lesson that the percentage of Americans who believe in a divine being is dropping rapidly, and about a quarter of us are nonbelievers, whether you call them “nones,” “atheists,” or “agnostics.”
First, let’s look at what the categories mean. All are by self-identification, and, in particular, “nones” are “people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular.” The crucial part is what “nothing in particular” really means. Does it mean you believe in a divine being? It’s a bit ambiguous, which makes it hard to suss out the proportion of nonbelievers in America. We’ll get to that in a second. First, I’ll show data on the drop of religiosity and rise of “no religion” (atheists, agnostics, and nones) over the last 14 years. Remember, that’s not very long!
Christians, including Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and non-evangelical Protestants, have dropped 15% over the period; as we’ll see, most of this involves Protestants. People of no religion, on the other hand, have nearly doubled in proportion—from 16% to 29%. Other religions (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.) haven’t changed much, but they are only 6% of the population—about a fifth of those with “no religion”. As the report says:
Currently, about three-in-ten U.S. adults (29%) are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. Self-identified Christians of all varieties (including Protestants, Catholics, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Orthodox Christians) make up 63% of the adult population. Christians now outnumber religious “nones” by a ratio of a little more than two-to-one. In 2007, when the Center began asking its current question about religious identity, Christians outnumbered “nones” by almost five-to-one (78% vs. 16%).
Nearly all the declines are among Protestants (and, as we’ll seen, among both evangelical and non-evangelical Protestants). These graphs speak for themselves. Catholics appear to cling more tenaciously to their faith, perhaps because they fear the terrors of hell. (I’m joking!)
There’s a graph showing, surprisingly, that “born again” or evangelical Christians (Protestants) outnumber non-evangelical ones. I guess the Protestants I know are a non-random sample:
Within Protestantism, evangelicals continue to outnumber those who are not evangelical. Currently, 60% of Protestants say “yes” when asked whether they think of themselves as a “born-again or evangelical Christian,” while 40% say “no” or decline to answer the question.
This pattern exists among both White and Black Protestants. Among White Protestants, 58% now say “yes” when asked whether they think of themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, compared with 42% who say “no” (or decline to answer the question). Among Black Protestants, evangelicals outnumber non-evangelicals by two-to-one (66% vs. 33%).
The decline of religiosity is also instantiated by the following two graphs, showing a decline in Americans who pray daily (an oft-used sociological index of “religiosity”), as well of those who consider religion “important in their lives”:
I won’t show the graphs, but will just state that, in the 2020-2021 data, about 32% of Americans say that go to religious services “monthly or more”, about 67% “a few times a year or less”, and of the latter, about a quarter of adults say they never go to church, which comports with the percentage of nones (29%).
And (drum roll), what percentage of those nones self identify as “atheists”, “agnostics” or “nothing in particular”? Here are the data over the last 14 years. Note that in all three subclasses, the proportion who self-identify as godless or “nones” has risen since 2007. Atheists have doubled (though they’re at a scant 4%) agnostics have risen 2.5-fold, and the “nones”—by far the largest segment of “not religious”—have nearly doubled. The total again: 29% of Americans are either nonbelievers or not particularly religious.
That’s good news, and the trend is going to continue over all religions in the U.S. (and in the UK and Europe). As for the other faiths, here’s what the survey says:
In addition to the 63% of U.S. adults who identify as Christians, the 2021 NPORS finds that 6% of adults identify with non-Christian faiths. This includes 1% who describe themselves as Jewish, 1% who are Muslim, 1% who are Buddhist, 1% who are Hindu and 2% who identify with a wide variety of other faiths. (While 1% of NPORS respondents identify with Judaism as a religion, a larger and more comprehensive Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews conducted in 2020 estimates that 1.7% of U.S. adults identify as Jewish by religion.)
Only 1% Jews—I believe that used to be 2%. We’re a rare breed!