April 17, 2014

Atheism and the Decline of Religion in the U.S.

United States
United States (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)
There is some evidence that certain indicators of religiosity appear to be going through a slight decline in the United States. That is the good news. The bad news is that the size of the apparent decline in most of these indicators is quite small and tends to be limited to comparisons between generational cohorts (e.g., the so-called Millennials aged 18-29 vs. other generations). And the really bad news is that some of us (and I can find fault with myself here too) seem determined to spin the numbers as being far more meaningful than they probably are.

No Use for the Christian Bible

Here are some highlights from the American Bible Society's State of the Bible 2014 poll, one of the more recent surveys you have been hearing about around the atheist blogosphere:
  • There was a slight decline in the number of people listing the Christian bible when asked about "holy" books between 2011 and 2014. In 2011, 86% of respondents mentioned the Christian bible as compared with 79% in 2014.
  • 50% of Americans surveyed strongly agree that the Christian bible "contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life," and this percentage is essentially unchanged from 2013 and 2011.
  • 50% of Americans surveyed indicated that the Christian bible has "too little influence" in U.S. society compared with only 16% who said it has too much influence. The number believing it has too little influence has decreased slightly since 2013 (i.e., declined by about 6 percentage points).
  • Millennials are "far more likely than average" to say that the Christian bible has too much influence on society "(30% compared to 50% of all adults)." The number of Millennials saying that the Christian bible has too little influence (30%) has declined from 44% in 2011.
  • In spite of the numbers reported above, 26% of respondents indicated that they have never read the Christian bible.
  • 30% of those surveyed said that the Christian bible is the "inspired word" of some sort of god and "has no errors, although some verses are meant to be symbolic" while another 23% view it as "the actual Word" of some sort of god and insist that it should be taken literally, "word for word." Only 18% "express strong skepticism of Scripture..." These numbers were all stable over time, except for the number saying the Christian bible is "just another book of good teachings" is now 18% compared with 11% in 2007.
You will have to excuse me for not getting terribly excited over values which, while statistically significant, are still fairly small. The largest effect here appears to involve the perception that the Christian bible has too little influence on society, as we have 30% of Millennials saying this now compared with 44% in 2011. That is big enough to warrant some attention. The rest, I'm not so sure.

I certainly understand the impulse to make it seem like these findings are earth-shattering. I like to write about good news every once in awhile, and I certainly want to see religion fade away too. But I think we need to be cautious in making too much of some differences that really aren't that large. This survey in particular provides compelling evidence that those of us interested in replacing superstition with reason have a long way to go, an embarrassingly long way to go.

There is also the recent survey of 2,000 18-34 year-olds conducted by the Integrated Innovation Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and described here by NPR. Much is being made of the finding that only 52% of the sample said they "look to religion for guidance," but NPR quotes the authors of the survey as saying, "...we think it's telling that, overall, the majority of this generation does express a fairly strong sense of faith." I wonder if we should put a bit more stock in their interpretation of their findings than in what we wish their results meant.

Rise of the 'Religiously Unaffiliated'

Last but not least is the 2012 survey from the Pew Research Center that is still receiving considerable attention around the atheist blogosphere, and for good reason.
The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
Did that get your attention? Yeah, me too. What Pew actually found in this survey was that there has been an increase of approximately 5 percentage points over the five years prior to the survey in the number of U.S. adults indicating that they are religiously unaffiliated. That is, 15% unaffiliated became 20% unaffiliated in five years. Significant? Yes. Large enough to get excited about? Maybe, but how excited we should be might depend on our understanding of what is meant by "religiously unaffiliated."

Part of the problem is that many atheists see "religiously unaffiliated" and desperately want to equate it with atheism. I have seen many atheists on Twitter and even a few bloggers doing just that. This is a mistake, one I have almost certainly made too. As the Pew data clearly show, only fairly small number of the religiously unaffiliated identify themselves as atheists. Pew has to combine atheists with agnostics to come up with a whopping 6%, and this leaves another 14% who are religiously unaffiliated but neither agnostic nor atheist.
...many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day.
They don't sound much like atheists, do they? I know some of us are desperate to convince ourselves that they are atheists or practically atheists, but this does not seem to be the case. The majority of the religiously unaffiliated appear to be neither atheist nor agnostic.

Cautiously Optimistic

But isn't it a good sign that we are seeing more religiously unaffiliated people, especially among the young. Absolutely. Some of the numbers do seem to be moving in the right direction, and that is good news. This sort of change is bound to be slow and generational. But as much as I want to interpret the numbers as evidence that religion is dying and that we are about to have hordes of atheists on our hands, I cannot quite bring myself to do so.

In part, this may be because I recognize the perils of falling into wishful thinking. I want to see some evidence that our efforts are working. But I must realize that just because I really want to see a meaningful decline in religion does not mean I should over-interpret the data to make them fit this desire. It seems that if, despite our efforts, we were not seeing much change, this would be important information.

Another part of my hesitancy to predict the demise of religion comes from my knowledge of history and from having had the benefit of being around long enough to see many such predictions turn out to be false. Are we seeing the very beginning of a long-term trend where religion will eventually fade into the dustbin of obscurity? I hope so, but my stance is one of cautious optimism tempered with the knowledge that the U.S. has seen many cycles of waxing and waning religious influence.

H/Ts to Progressive Secular Humanist and What Would JT Do?

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