July 12, 2018

Declining Confidence in Organized Religion

Walpeup. This red brick Catholic Church is now unused and in disrepair. it was completed in 1921 and is the oldest church in the Murrayville to Ouyen districts.
Photo by denisbin [CC BY-ND 2.0]
Ready for some good news? If it has seemed like there hasn't been much lately, I can relate. It has seemed that way to me too. Time to change that if only for a brief moment.

Ted McLaughlin (jobsanger) recently posted news of a Gallup poll conducted in June of this year that should be of interest. Only 38% of Americans surveyed indicated that they had great confidence in "the church or organized religion." By itself, that 38% doesn't mean much. It is much smaller than I would have predicted, but that isn't what is most interesting here.

To appreciate what makes this 38% number so interesting, one must go back to the mid-1970s. When the same question was asked then, 68% of Americans reported that they had great confidence in the church or organized religion. That means there has been a drop of 30 points in respondents' confidence in the church or organized religion between the mid-1970s and now!

Here's what Ted had to say about what he thinks these numbers reflect:
I believe this is because the evangelicals are giving religion a bad reputation. Their attempts over the last few decades to throw the country back to the 1950's (when women, minorities, immigrants, and the LGBT community had few rights) have turned off many people. And it has caused a bigger percentage of each generation to leave religion because they simply cannot go along with those hate-filled policies.
I think he's right. At least, I think he's right up to a point. Evangelical fundamentalist Christians have been giving organized religion a bad name for decades as they have become increasingly out of touch with social values. This is particularly evident in their continued opposition to same-sex marriage when the vast majority of young people today are puzzled by how it ever could have been prohibited.

At the same time, I'm not sure this is sufficient to explain what is going on. Thanks to the Internet, more and more people have access to the sort of information that tends to be detrimental to organized religion, and they are accessing it at younger and younger ages. They are seeing, for example, evidence of the vast wealth hoarded by the Catholic Church as people starve. They are being bombarded with one clergy abuse scandal after another. They are hearing religious leaders offer little more than "thoughts and prayers" and their peers are gunned down. Organized religion in general (not only the evangelical Christian variety) may be perceived as less credible these days. Perhaps confidence is declining because there have been so many betrayals of trust.

We could probably go on and on, identifying several other factors contributing to this trend. I suspect there are many. But for now, I think I'd prefer to wrap up by saying that I think this is a very encouraging trend and one to watch. We have a long way to go before we'll see the demise of organized religion in the U.S., but I can't help thinking that this is what the early stage of that demise might look like.