The Long, Slow Death of Religion

By James A. Haught | 29 December 2016

(Credit: Shutterstock)

By now, it’s clear that religion is fading in America, as it has done in most advanced Western democracies.

Dozens of surveys find identical evidence: Fewer American adults, especially those under 30, attend church — or even belong to a church. They tell interviewers their religion is “none.” They ignore faith.

Since 1990, the “nones” have exploded rapidly as a sociological phenomenon — from 10 percent of U.S. adults, to 15 percent, to 20 percent. Now they’ve climbed to 25 percent, according to a 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

That makes them the nation’s largest faith category, outstripping Catholics (21 percent) and white evangelicals (16 percent). They seem on a trajectory to become an outright majority. America is following the secular path of Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and other modern places. The Secular Age is snowballing.

Various explanations for the social transformation are postulated: That the Internet exposes young people to a wide array of ideas and practices that undercut old-time beliefs. That family breakdown severs traditional participation in congregations. That the young have grown cynical about authority of all types. That fundamentalist hostility to gays and abortion has soured tolerant-minded Americans. That clergy child-molesting scandals have scuttled church claims to moral superiority. That faith-based suicide bombings and other religious murders horrify normal folks.

All those factors undoubtedly play a role. But I want to offer a simpler explanation: In the scientific 21st century, it’s less plausible to believe in invisible gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons — plus virgin births, resurrections, miracles, messiahs, prophecies, faith-healings, visions, incarnations, divine visitations and other supernatural claims. Magical thinking is suspect, ludicrous. It’s not for intelligent, educated people.

Significantly, the PRRI study found that the foremost reason young people gave for leaving religion is this clincher: They stopped believing miraculous church dogmas.

For decades, tall-steeple mainline Protestant denominations with university-educated ministers tried to downplay supernaturalism — to preach just the compassion of Jesus and the social gospel. It was a noble effort, but disastrous. The mainline collapsed so badly it is dubbed “flatline Protestantism.” It has faded to small fringe of American life.

Now Catholicism and evangelicalism are in the same death spiral. One-tenth of U.S. adults today are ex-Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention lost 200,000 members in 2014 and 200,000 more in 2015.

I’m a longtime newspaperman in Appalachia’s Bible Belt. I’ve watched the retreat of religion for six decades. Back in the 1950s, church-based laws were powerful:

It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. All public school classes began with mandatory prayer. It was a crime to buy a cocktail, or look at nude photos in magazines, or buy a lottery ticket. It was a crime for an unwed couple to share a bedroom. If a single girl became pregnant, both she and her family were disgraced. Birth control was unmentionable. Evolution was unmentionable.

It was a felony to terminate a pregnancy. It was a felony to be gay. One homosexual in our town killed himself after police filed charges. Even writing about sex was illegal. In 1956, our Republican mayor sent police to raid bookstores selling “Peyton Place.”

Gradually, all those faith-based taboos vanished from society. Religion lost its power — even before the upsurge of “nones.”

Perhaps honesty is a factor in the disappearance of religion. Maybe young people discern that it’s dishonest to claim to know supernatural things that are unknowable.

When I was a cub reporter, my city editor was an H.L. Mencken clone who laughed at Bible-thumping hillbilly preachers. One day, as a young truth-seeker, I asked him: You’re correct that their explanations are fairy tales — but what answer can an honest person give about the deep questions: Why are we here? Why is the universe here? Why do we die? Is there any purpose to life?

He eyed me and replied: “You can say: I don’t know.” That rang a bell in my head that still echoes. It’s honest to admit that you cannot explain the unexplainable.

The church explanation — that Planet Earth is a testing place to screen humans for a future heaven or hell — is a silly conjecture with no evidence of any sort, except ancient scriptures. No wonder that today’s Americans, raised in a scientific-minded era, cannot swallow it.

Occam’s Razor says the simplest explanation is most accurate. Why is religion dying? Because thinking people finally see that it’s untrue, false, dishonest.

White evangelicals tipped the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump, giving an astounding 81 percent of their votes to the crass vulgarian who contradicts church values. But white evangelicals, like most religious groups, face a shrinking future. Their power will dwindle.

It took humanity several millennia to reach the Secular Age. Now it’s blossoming spectacularly.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789

We’ve Reached the End of White Christian America

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  1. If there was no God and no teachings like most young adults are thought to believe, what would be the point to life. Another point another day. This is about my beliefe on the decline in faith groups and what should happen if it’s ever going to change. Because if not we will reach a point where the world can’t come back from. I spent most of my life an atheist and preached against a god. When I came around and opened up to the idea of a higher power I started to think about what I thought stood for good and what I thought stood for bad. I see all of the worlds religions and see literally anything you can think is some sort of a beliefe. With those types of religions we are taught and shown you can only pick one. With that pick you go against all other beliefs and in today’s society are taught to have hatred or anger twords the others because they are wrong. You have to be willing to kill others in some religions and are taught to kill before they do. So if you are a young person trying to figure out your beliefe, if your like me a logical person who thinks for themselves may not agree with any of them. You see a world divided and in desperate need of coming together. But your choices don’t allow for that to happen. You are left with choices none of which work together just facts about why they are rite or better. In today’s world with all the technology and resources we have, we still have war, hunger, fathom, homelessness, greed, racism and many other terrible things going on that shouldn’t. That leads someone seeking out their believe for the good or life to wonder why would I want to join something that won’t help all life, just there own beliefs unless you decide to believe what they do. I myself can’t fix the problem, that’s why we look for groups we agree with to come together and fox them. But one religion won’t fix any problems and one country won’t fix all the problems. I want to join a group who is for every living thing in existence. A group who can see passed all the confusion and know what is truly important for our world and what should change. People who understand what is rite and good because you can feel it in your heart. People who see an American, a fish, a Russian, a cat, a Korean, a ant, a deer, a Cuban as the same. As God wanted us to and all to work together. So before your religion thinks that young adults are lost try thinking and figuring out why. Because I know God exists and what he stands for. And off topic but what gets me and I guess people don’t think about it, is we go to space to look for life amongst other things and we can’t even get life on are planet in order. Fun question to ask yourself, if aliens were to come upon earth what would they think of the human species?

    • And this line of yours, with one slight change, has applied for thousands of years….and still does: "In today's world WITH GOD, we still have war hunger, fathom [sic], homelessness, greed, racism and many other terrible things going on that shouldn't." You expect 21st century technology and resources to be "morality cures", yet god hasn't been able to succeed in that arena, despite having the reins for 4,000 years. Think about that. Aaaaaaand, secondly, you ignore every point the author made about the reasons for the decline in religion in the USA and basically say "How can one's life have any point without belief in a god?" You might want to reread the article a couple of times.

  2. Why are we here? The Earth is an insane asylum for the masses and a training school for the exceptional, privileged few.
    Why is the universe here? I don't know.
    Is there any purpose to life? To establish human immortality. Every thinking man who wants to leave behind a legacy, works for future generations, is concerned about the great problems (such as the problem of God and evil), and wishes to understand this Universe is better off than an everyday churchgoer. Such a person has affirmed the existence of his immortal soul.
    Why do we die? To reincarnate, everything is cyclic. It's not a coincidence that the ancient concepts of reincarnation, vegetarianism, and contraception were overthrown by the advent of Christianity. A cyclic worldview was supplanted by a linear worldview – mankind on a collision course with an unavoidable end – and until modern science and reason recognizes that life runs in a spiral, they will still remain shackled to the primitive behemoth which they have fought so hard against.

    It need not be said that reason, religion, and purpose were originally in harmony, in the ancient civilized world.

    One can find the following rare gem in Luther's diatribe Jews and their Lies, a rather unexpected location for it of course:

    How much more honorably do the pagan philosophers, as well as the poets, write and teach not only about God's rule and about the life to come but also about temporal virtues. They teach that man by nature is obliged to serve his fellow man, to keep faith also with his enemies, and to be loyal and helpful especially in time of need. Thus Cicero and his kind teach. Indeed, I believe that three of Aesop's fables, half of Cato, and several comedies of Terence contain more wisdom and more instruction about good works than can be found in the books of all the Talmudists and rabbis and more than may ever occur to the hearts of all the Jews.

  3. The sooner religion dies the sooner we can move out of the dark ages dominated by mythology and superstition. There are no gods, no angels, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only the natural world. Religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds. We have lived for millennia with the delusions of religion. It is time to progress beyond childish beliefs if we are to survive.


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