“I'm completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. These two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death”― George Carlin
Christianity is still the dominant faith in America. But it is losing its grip on the population — even though only 7% of Americans say they are atheists. There has been a significant increase in the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious — from 18.5% in 1998 to 33% in 2020. Notably, against this increasing rejection of religion, four in five Americans (81%) still believe in an afterlife.
Organized religion in America has been losing adherents. From 2007 to 2020, the number of self-identified Christians declined from 78% to 63% — while the number of religious ‘nones’ increased from 16% to 29% Catholicism has taken a haircut, while Protestantism has been the biggest loser.
Conservative evangelicals may promote expedient nonsense about the Founders establishing the nascent nation as a Christian enterprise. However, contemporary Americans increasingly embrace a laissez-faire “you be you” social philosophy — which is America's true founding belief.
This philosophy of liberty is inconvenient for political pastors who see their brand of hate and superstition as the road to social control and secular influence. To keep hold of the reins of power, they appeal to the atavistic fears of the lizard brain with an ever-increasing enemies list.
As the total number of congregations shrinks — Protestantism experienced a net loss of 1,500 churches in 2019 alone — the future lies in non-denominational mega-churches led by cynical multimillionaires distracting the faithful from their greed with warnings of imaginary barbarians at the gate. Or justifying their avarice with paeans to cupidity’s wet dream, the Prosperity Gospel.
When pollsters asked people why they had left their previous religion, a majority (56%) said it was because they stopped believing in that religion’s teachings. For 30%, it was their religion’s anti-LGBTQ bigotry. And 17% left because their church became too political. (Note people who left a religion include those who adopted another religion.)
The Covid pandemic caused a temporary and long-term decline in religious observance as the pandemic forced church closures. Why? I will let Scott McConnell, executive director at Lifeway Research (an evangelical research company) explain.
“The closures, even for a temporary period of time, impacted a lot of churches. People breaking that habit of attending church means a lot of churches had to work hard to get people back to attending again.”
This honest appraisal exposes both a strength and a weakness in organized religion. It has addictive qualities — for instance, the force of habit, superstition, and routine. If they do not consume it for a while, religion's hold on some individuals dissolves.
Stephen Bullivant, author of “Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America” and professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University, expands on the COVID effect.
“A lot of people who were weakly attached, to suddenly have months of not going, they’re then thinking: ‘Well we don’t really need to go,’ or ‘We’ve found something else to do,’ or thinking: ‘It was hard enough dragging the kids along then, we really ought to start going again … next week.’”
Some non-religious will celebrate this rejection of religion as a triumph of science over superstition. They should not be so quick to feel superior. I have not been religious since my teen years. I went through a period of self-congratulation at my newfound rationality. But now, I consider myself a post-atheist — considering whether God exists or not feels like a pointless exercise and a waste of time. If religion gives someone value, then who am I to judge?
When Thomas Jefferson — a deist at best, probably agnostic, and possibly an atheist — wrote of the pursuit of happiness, he was aware that many Americans were happy in their religion. He wrote,
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
This precept points to the dark side of religion in the US. Its continued iron grip on American politics and its determination to bowdlerize school curriculums. Even as the general population exercises their individual consciences over God, religion, and faith, the governing institutions of America — the federal and state governments — are still overwhelmingly stocked with people practicing an organized religion — overwhelmingly Christianity.
And half of those people — the religious right — are committed to law-making with an eyed to iron-age texts. Religion has no business in American legislation. As Jefferson said, the government should not concern itself with matters that are not injurious to others. In other words, no group has a right to legislate morals.
Who do gay marriage, contraception, trans care, science, women’s rights, and immigrants hurt? How do any of those break a leg or pick a pocket? Look at the US today. It is a country of high immigration and record employment — not a symptom of foreigners taking American workers' jobs.
Who can seriously claim the state of their marriage has been affected one iota by two women marrying? And newsflash for the concerned parent — no one has been coerced into being gay, nor forced into believing they are not the sex assigned at birth. And atheists have the same non-divine morals as the religious do.
This unanimity of goodness raises the question: when the religious fundamentalist celebrates “Christian values," what values are they talking about? More specifically, how do those values differ from those of Jews, Muslims, and Atheists — let alone Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, et al.? Jews and Christians have the same Ten Commandments. And Muslims accept them, although with different words. Note: Islam also includes a commandment that mandates society takes care of its poor.
Christians complain that many Muslims have forgotten or bastardized the tenets of their faith. That is a charge the disinterested observer could equally well levy against conservative Christians.