March 08, 2011
Why atheism is winning-8: Objective measures of religion's decline
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
There are more concrete signs that the end of religion is nigh than the ones I gave in the previous post in this series. We have the phenomenon of churches closing all over the place. In Cleveland, the Catholic diocese closed a huge number of churches recently, angering the dwindling number of parishioners who still attended them.
Howard Bess, a retired Baptist minister, says that young people are leaving religion in droves.
In a single generation, the Christian church dropout rate has increased fivefold. The Barna Group, a leading research organization focusing on the intersection of faith and culture, says 80 percent of the young people raised in a church will be "disengaged" before they are 30.
In the past 20 years, the number of American people who say they have no religion has doubled and has now reached 15 percent. Those numbers are concentrated in the under-30 population. The polling data continues to show that a dramatic exit is taking place from American Christian churches.
Beyond those numbers, denominations across the board are acknowledging loss of membership, but it is worse than they are reporting. Many churches report numbers based on baptized constituents, yet actual Sunday morning attendance doesn’t come close to those numbers.
The Secular Student Alliance is growing rapidly with new chapters opening up in colleges at an increasing pace and is even spreading to high schools because of the increased interest in atheism among younger and younger people. This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Even enrollment in the mega-churches, which once grew rapidly by cannibalizing the mainstream churches, has flattened.
Furthermore, the idea that Americans are much more religious than Europeans has taken a beating with a new study that compared what Americans say about church attendance with what actual diary records that they keep show. In short, Americans lie about how much they attend church.
While conventional survey data show high and stable American church attendance rates of about 35 to 45 percent, the time diary data over the past decade reveal attendance rates of just 24 to 25 percent---a figure in line with a number of European countries.
What about the polls that show that creationism is still going strong and that large numbers are skeptical about evolution? But the polls show that while large numbers of Americans are still creationists, their numbers are slowly declining.
Once declines like this start, things can go downhill very rapidly. We sometimes think that the largely secular countries in Europe have been that way for a long time. In fact, countries like Britain went from Christian to non-believers in just one generation.
When the survey first asked these questions in 1985, 63% of the respondents answered that they were Christians, compared with 34% who said they had no religion (the rest belonged to non-Christian religions).
Today, a quarter of a century on, there has been a steady and remarkable turnaround. In the latest 2010 BSA report, published earlier this month, only 42% said they were Christians while 51% now say they have no religion.
Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in a long article titled Why the gods are not winning challenge the notion that religion is on the rise and give plenty of other reasons to think that religion is dying. They look at the evidence and come to some encouraging conclusions:
Religion is in serious trouble. The status of faith is especially dire in the west, where the churches face an unprecedented crisis that threatens the existence of organized faith as a viable entity, and there is surprisingly little that can be done to change the circumstances.
They quote the authors of the World Christian Encyclopedia (which it must be noted is an evangelical Christian publication) who say that the rapid rise is disbelief has surprised everybody and that no Christian
"in 1900 expected the massive defections from Christianity that subsequently took place in Western Europe due to secularism…. and in the Americas due to materialism…. The number of nonreligionists…. throughout the 20th century has skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900, to 697 million in 1970, and on to 918 million in AD 2000…. Equally startling has been the meteoritic growth of secularism…. Two immense quasi-religious systems have emerged at the expense of the world's religions: agnosticism…. and atheism…. From a miniscule presence in 1900, a mere 0.2% of the globe, these systems…. are today expanding at the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million new converts each year, and are likely to reach one billion adherents soon. A large percentage of their members are the children, grandchildren or the great-great-grandchildren of persons who in their lifetimes were practicing Christians" (italics added)
Far from providing unambiguous evidence of the rise of faith, the devout compliers of the WCE document what they characterize as the spectacular ballooning of secularism by a few hundred-fold! It has no historical match. It dwarfs the widely heralded Mormon climb to 12 million during the same time, even the growth within Protestantism of Pentecostals from nearly nothing to half a billion does not equal it.
Next: The global picture