The “Final Days” of Religion

By James A. Haught | May-August 2017 Issue
The Truth Seeker

With childish supernaturalism, many churches think we’re living in the “final days”–”end times” before Jesus returns for doomsday.

Well, the truth may be different. These could be the end times for religion in western civilization. I think we’re entering a new Secular Age when magical supernatural beliefs cannot be swallowed by educated modern people. It’s the final days of faith.

By now, it’s obvious 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. Among young adult Americans, the “none” rate is nearly 40 percent, which means the coming generation will be still more secular.

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. Family breakdown severs traditional participation in congregations. The young have grown cynical about authority of all types. That fundamentalist hostility to gays and abortion has soured tolerant-minded Americans. Clergy child-molesting scandals have scuttled church claims to moral superiority. 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.

**

In 2016, for the first time in history, Congress passed a law protecting people with no religion. The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act—named for a former congressman who championed freedom of conscience—shields all types of minority believers who suffer attacks and prejudice. It specifically says authorities must “protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion.” President Obama signed it into law.

In 2016, National Geographic online bannered a story titled: “The World’s Newest Major Religion: No Religion.” It said Christianity is dwindling in all northern democracies, while it grows in sub-Sahara Africa and other tropical lands. The revered magazine said:

There have long been predictions that religion would fade from relevancy as the world modernizes, but all the recent surveys are finding that it’s happening startlingly fast. France will have a majority secular population soon. So will the Netherlands and New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Australia will soon lose Christian majorities. Religion is rapidly becoming less important than it’s ever been.

Europe—which spent centuries killing people over religion—decided after World War II that religion is inconsequential. Churchgoing collapsed. Pope Benedict XVI complained: “Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience.” He protested the new European attitude of “disdaining God completely.” Newspaper columnist George Will called the Vatican “109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief.”

More than half of British children attended Sunday school at the start of the 20th century. By 2000, the rate had dropped to four percent. A 2000 poll asked Britons to name “inspirational” figures. Two-thirds picked Nelson Mandela, six percent picked pop singer Britney Spears, and one percent picked Jesus.

The secular trend is especially advanced in Scandinavia. Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman spent months interviewing Danes and Swedes and wrote a book titled Society Without God: What the Least-Religious Nations can Tell Us About Contentment. He said Scandinavians generally regard religion and prayer as only for children, like Santa Claus and fairy tales—something to be outgrown as maturity brings wisdom. He said godless Scandinavians have happy lives in healthy societies with much less crime and other social evils, compared to religious cultures.

America’s National Freshman Survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, records data and beliefs from hundreds of thousands of incoming freshmen at hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities. It reported that the share professing no religion soared from 7 percent in 1966 to 30 percent in 2015. In the 2016 survey, it climbed to 31 percent.

The Harvard Crimson campus newspaper surveyed incoming Harvard freshmen and found that the largest segment was churchless. Some 38 percent called themselves atheist or agnostic, while only 34 percent said Christian. (Jews were 10 percent, Hindus 3 percent, Muslims 2.5 percent—and 12 percent said “other.”)

Former President Obama was the first to publicly embrace nonbelievers and invite skeptic groups to the White House. Ex-President George W. Bush commented on NBC News in February: “One of our great strengths is for people to worship the way they want to, or not worship at all.”

The End of White Christian America is a book by Robert Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute. In a Washington Post interview, he said the retreat of faith has been “swift and dramatic,” first hitting “tall-steeple” mainline Protestants, then Catholics, and finally evangelicals.

The Great Evangelical Recession is a previous book by megachurch pastor John Dickerson, who warned that “evangelicalism as we knew it in the 20th century is disintegrating.” He said “a majority of young people raised as evangelicals are quitting church” and “in coming years, we will see the old evangelicalism whimper and wane.” In 2017, America’s largest religious bookstore chain, the 85-year-old Family Christian, closed its 240 stores and laid off its 3,000 workers, saying that “declining sales” eroded its business.

In 2015, Pew Research Center projected that Christianity will suffer a loss of 66 million followers globally by 2050, while Islam will grow to become the planet’s largest faith.

Evidently, supernatural religion will remain strong in Muslim lands and low-income, less-educated tropical places. But it’s dying in the modern West.

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

In his classic Dover Beach, poet Matthew Arnold wrote:

THE SEA OF FAITH
Was once, too, at the full, and round
earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle
furled.
But now I only hear
its melancholy, long, withdrawing
roar,
Retreating…

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 haught.net.
For nearly a century and a half, the Truth Seeker has promoted women’s rights, birth control, free speech, science, separation of church and state, and exposed religion as against reason. It counted among its illustrious subscribers and progressive writers Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Clarence Darrow, and Robert Ingersoll. Each elegantly designed issue of the Truth Seeker offers a unique blend of contemporary, thought-provoking editorials and historical Freethought articles, archival photographs, irreverent cartoons, along with book and film reviews. A high-definition video preview of each January, May, and September issue is online at thetruthseeker.net.

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789
$6.56

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41 COMMENTS

  1. Take the love of Christ out of NA and it will lose it’s blessings. The family will continue to splinter and unity of the nation will splinter. Violence will return to the land and is accepted as normal. Repent NA will you still have a chance.

    • Did you not read the article? Your iron age method of population control is dying a rapid death here. I hear sub-saharan Africa is lovely this time of year. I’m sure you’ll find it much more to your liking.

    • What blessings would those be, Ed? The biggest military ? The biggest empire? The biggest inequality in the first world? The biggest ego? The biggest fist?

      #MASA – MAKE AMERICA SANE AGAIN.

    • Read on this site: “Where’s the Historical Evidence for Jesus?” You won’t like that either, but then again, you’ve got your invisible sky-wizard to turn to, don’t ya? Ah HAHAHA

    • Wrong! Just so way wrong. It is religion that has continuously destroyed society. I for one one to live long enough to see it all burn into obscurity.

  2. Great article. I have been an atheist for 50 years. I wrote a book titled, “Black and Atheist Too: My Journey Living Through Discovery of the Non-existent of God”, by Dr. Arthur R. Byrd. I also operate a website: blackandatheisttoo.com.

  3. Well I have implicit faith and nothing can change that. God is real; so real to me. He has appeared to me in my dreams and I know He exists. No one or nothing will change me mind.

    • I'm very sorry for you Anne-Marie. I love to learn and find out new things. You've denied yourself the exhilaration of finding out that you've been wrong about something and the joy of accepting actual truth. Instead you've locked yourself to a lie, doomed forever to be wrong. Never to question. Never to see the real world.

      Consider the thousands of religions and the billions of religious people all absolutely certain that THEIR god is the one, and that he's real to them. They KNOW. Nothing will change their minds. Some will even kill people and blow themselves up because they know for certain his glory. Do you believe like them? Yes, you do. You might not kill people or even oppress them (what are your feelings on gay marriage?). But you have exactly the same certainty as they do. And you are wrong for exactly the same reasons.

      • Do you believe in bestiality?
        Do you believe in suicide?
        Do you believe in paedophile?
        What about a 5 year old girl decides to marry?
        Every human right has a limit, some are of natural order, spiritual, moral, political order and must adhere to them.

    • What if God appeared to you and told you in no uncertain terms that He doesn’t exist? LOL

      But seriously, of COURSE you can’t recant, because Jesus effectively said, “Love me or burn in Hell forever,” and you’ve found a way to be ok with that kind of indoctrinated abuse.

  4. However Islam is’t showing any signs of being in decline. Interesting also the one religion it is not allowed to critizize, since that is Islamophobia.

    • I love it that religion is in decline. However, Islam is far more than a religion. Muslim Mafia comes to mind. In fact, a book was written by the same title. “Islamophobia” is one of the most dishonest and despised made-up words I’ve ever heard. Since I’ve studied Islam extensively, I understand it is not the individual Muslim that drives the Muslim ummah (community). Great respect must be shown to the power that is religion. It must be destroyed in order for humanity to survive and thrive.

    • Actually I think Islam probably is dying. It just looks like it isn't for two reasons.

      First, atheists and those who lose their belief in Islam generally don't dare say so aloud because the believers of that religion of peace will kill them as apostates. So an unknown number of people in Islamic countries are not believers at all.

      Secondly, the birthrate is so high in those miserable, poverty-stricken countries that it makes it look like there are increasing numbers of Muslims, but children are born atheists and must be indoctrinated into a religion. If the indoctrination fails as knowledge becomes easier to access then many of those children will grow up as atheists, not Muslims.

  5. Not happening fast enough or soon enough. Religions and religious belief has been the cause of 100’s of millions of deaths around the world throughout history. Time we get past this archaic way of thinking, possessing, controlling.

  6. There is something potentially rich evident in many of the religions we 'godless' people have tended to dismiss – the religious organizations' SOCIAL STRUCTURES. These can include everything from music and dancing to the observation of legendary hierarchical authority and maintenance of 'holy' properties and buildings; they invariably incorporate traditional 'rewards' for loyal members of their community (and punitive actions against those who fail to 'perform' ). This complex social structure empowers organizations to dictate members' obedience in many areas of life – and rewards members with assurances of support in almost every area of their existence. But communities claiming lesser authority have, over the centuries, recognized the value of such social structures, and have introduced programmes similar in some ways to the disciplines used by religious communities. Fraternal groups, clever communists, etc, have often attempted to address mankind's need for social attachments and responses to obtain community loyalty utilizing similar social structures. It is unfortunate, however, that most who have rejected the various god concepts often suspect the motivation of those still demonstrating attachment to the traditional social structures. I am convinced that the majority of humanity are in need of some of the important social practices; some godless social structures are likely to be welcomed by people. Celebration of seasonal observations, dancing, singing, and community observations of dates having particular historical significance, as well as involvement and public demonstrations regarding matters of current public concern, could all bring people together (perhaps utilizing some of the unneeded church buildings). We could call the movement FREE FRIENDS (with apologies to the Christian group that first adopted FRIENDS). And we could – SHOULD – particularly take up the task of getting governments around the world to end the special legislative privileges they currently afford for the religious. I make these suggestions because I believe our efforts to bring religious doubters into spiritual reality has been failing because they fear losing the comfort of songs – and of biased public authorities. (YES, we can disbelieve in gods and demonstrate love!)

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

    I read that and did a little dance for joy. Once you take tbe supernatural out of religion, god's gone. You beauty!

    Sure, you still have the Golden Rule- but EVERYBODY teaches that- including humanist atheists.

  8. I have been a true saint, in the strictest and most precise Biblical commandment concerning such. One must 'forsake the world' as the sign of baptism demonstrates, 'death to the natural man". There is not one single Christian Church that teaches this accurately and or demands it for communion. That is the abandonment of faith. Like all Old Testament saints they each become a prophet/prophetess. You cannot have the gift and power of God and NOT be a prophet. Most pretending prophets do not teach the actual gospel of how one obeys the commandment of Jesus Christ to receive the Promise of the Father, that he personally coached the Jews who were already his disciples and apostles for forty days in how to fully take his, Jesus', name acceptably such that the Father will initiate…..that is important, because EVERY christian religion accepts that the individual initiates their connection to God. NO! One must humble themselves and submit to the rule of God over their lives at every hazard in the depths of humility with full purpose of heart. That does not count for a connection with God until GOD makes the connection by his visitation of Almighty power in the conception of his 'children'. This is the Biblical gospel both before, during, and after the life and atonement of Jesus Christ. The ignorance and willful disregard of this one thing is the corruption of all faith. Without obedience to the commandment all is pretense and hypocrisy. And of course without the demonstration of God's power there is no basis or foundation for faith. The only thing moving religion along is following the MONEY. Evangelicals are becoming all the more MORMON these days by insisting strict tithing requirements and making such the highest social status value in most thriving congregations. It nurtures sycophancy towards leadership with their eyes full of greediness. Jesus said few there be that find it. The only thing religion is losing is its 'appearance' of religion. The few will always be in the world but not of the world. OH! Please excuse me to be allowed to say i have since my conversion lived a truly Biblical life filled with miracles kept mostly to myself but with one recent event that has discovered the fulfillment of prophecy in God having lifted up and Ensign to the Nations that is far from Jerusalem, proving God is true in physical geology sculpted out of a mountain without hands that chronicles the Judeo/Christian history of prophets and events that remain day to day only to be pointed out to the blind willing to open their eyes and see. Showing here: https://www.docdroid.net/KDt8RNP/the-apocalrock-m

  9. If Christianity is in decline or dying, who to blame? I don't blame Christian god but the capitalist elites. Why? Jesus is just a mental thing. Another thing is compartmentalization of religion/ "Vatican 109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief.”

  10. I find it odd you attack only Christians when Muslims followers of the religion of peace kill more people in allahs name…. When you say religion you refer to only Christianity or are others not more harmful…
    Talk about all religions especially Islam then I will take you serious. I live in an area where they kill people who don’t convert to Islam and the imams lie(taqiya) about it not being allowed in Islam..when it is clearly written there by mohammed

  11. "In 2015, Pew Research Center projected that Christianity will suffer a loss of 66 million followers globally by 2050,"

    So out of 2.2 billion Christians in the world, the Pew Research Center predicts a loss of about 2.1 million Christians per year until 2050, which is about 0.1% of Christians per year. What a bold prediction. I can tell they worked really hard on that one and came up with an unbiased, scientific opinion. *rolling my eyes*

  12. Religion is dying but not fast enough for the people living in this age to feel the benefits of an atheist society.
    Maybe in the next 2 centuries there will be the first atheist society.

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