Sunday, December 09, 2012

Decline Of Religion In The U.S.

The above figures are derived from a massive Gallup Poll conducted between January 2nd and November 30th of this year of 326,721 adults (18 and older) chosen randomly from across the nation. The huge number of respondents gives the poll a very high degree of accuracy, with a margin of error of only 1 point.

While the poll shows that 69% of the American population is either moderately or very religious, the really shocking statistic is the third one -- that 31% of the population is not religious at all. That is a very high number -- even higher than the results from a recent Pew Research Center Poll, which found the number of the nonreligious to be about 20% (although growing faster than any other religious group). That means at least 3 out of every 10 people in the U.S. is either an atheist, agnostic, or otherwise has no religion.

Now the only thing this proves is that the United States is becoming less and less religious as time passes. But amazingly, the author of a new book (God Is Alive And Well: The Future Of Religion In America) takes these figures (and others dating back to polls as old as 2008) to reach the conclusion that religion is on the verge of making a big comeback in this country.

The author bases this conclusion on the ideas that the most religious age group is the one composed of people over 65 years old, and that people get more religious as they age -- and since the large group of "baby boomers" are starting to enter that age group that means the percentage of the religious will increase. The first premise is true. The current crop of elderly people are the most religious age group. The Pew Research Center found the following percentages of nonreligious people by age group:

Born 1913 to 1927...............5%
Born 1928 to 1945...............9%
Born 1946 to 1964...............15%
Born 1965 to 1980...............21%
Born 1981 to 1989...............30%
Born 1990 to 1994...............34%

But while the oldest couple of groups do have the lowest percentage of the nonreligious, we must take into account that they were born into (and grew up in) a much different America -- a much more religious America. This group didn't necessarily become more religious as they aged -- they were always more religious than the age groups that came after them.

The author seems to be basing his belief on people growing more religious as they start to face death, but there is no proof that happens in any significant numbers. It's much like the old christian idea that "there are no atheists in foxholes" (that people run toward a belief in god if faced with possible death). But as we know, there are plenty of atheists in foxholes -- and the danger they face does not make them accept a god they discarded after much lengthy thought.

The fact is that most atheists and agnostics gave up the myth of a god after a lengthy and painful period of soul-searching -- and there is no reason (other than religious wishful thinking) to believe they will abandon their non-belief just because they are getting older. Of course there is always some movement between non-belief and belief (people changing their minds), but there is no reason to believe this will favor religious belief in a significant way. In fact, both the Gallup and Pew polls seem to show just the opposite -- that the larger numbers of people are moving away from a belief in god and organized religion.

Another reason that could inhibit the movement of people back toward religion was released in another recent Gallup Poll. This poll surveyed the publics attitudes on which professions were considered to be honest and ethical by most people. Somewhat surprisingly, the clergy did not do real well in that -- with only 53% of Americans considering the clergy (whether protestant, catholic, or other) to be honest and ethical. That's an even lower number than the percentage of people who consider themselves religious -- meaning that even many religious people have serious doubts about the honesty of the clergy.

The baby boomers are already reaching the age of 65, and we will soon know if that makes them more religious. I don't believe it will.


  1. I think as one ages, one becomes more cynical towards congress, bankers, AND clergy. I am a boomer. I grew up in a Catholic family, went to parochial school, was surrounded by religion all my life, and I am agnostic (only because I really have no proof that a deity does or doesn't exist, and I like having all those religious holidays off from work). I believe your hypothesis is correct, old age doesn't necessarily send one running to church for salvation.

  2. I'm a Boomer, as is my husband, he is 65 and I am 59. He is not at all religious; and what occasional twinges of spirituality I have are so non-traditional as to qualify as more 'not' as well. I dislike all established churches as they seem conglomerates of power and money having nothing whatsoever to do with their stated 'goals' of saving souls and succoring the helpless.

  3. I have seen a few people who grew up in a non-religious home that later were swayed into some religion. However, I have never seen an atheist who was first brought up religious, go through the awakening and searching process, ever go back to god or gods. It seems once the logic switch is thrown inside the brain, it locks out the irrational to the same place as the tooth fairy and santa.


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