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Hail the Rising Secular Age

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Hail the Rising Secular Age

September 17, 2018 (updated) - Patheos / Daylight Atheism

By James A. Haught

The American Family Survey by Brigham Young University finds that churchless people have become the nation's largest segment. Asked "What is your present religion, if any?", 35 percent rank as "nothing in particular."

This religionless total outstrips Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and all smaller groups.

The AFS findings are the highest yet in the snowballing trend of Americans who say their religion is "none." Previous polls put the growing unchurched tally at about one-fourth.

Whatever the correct ratio, it's clear that religion is collapsing in the United States as it did in other Western democracies. We live in the long-foreseen Secular Age when gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, messiahs, prophecies and other church dogmas fade into myth. Church membership and attendance are dropping relentlessly.

The trend began in Europe after World War II. Decade after decade, churchgoing dropped until only a fringe of old people worshiped. Pope Benedict lamented: "Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience." Columnist George Will called the Vatican "109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief." Today, what's left of European religion consists mostly of fervent Pentecostalism among tropical immigrants and Islam that is alien to much of society.

Ironically, Europe spent centuries killing people over religion in Crusades, Inquisitions, witch-hunts, Reformation wars, pogroms against Jews, massacres of Anabaptists, etc. Then finally it decided that faith is inconsequential.

The secular tsunami spread to Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and other advanced societies. At first, America seemed immune, but the trend blossomed in the 1990s and has increased steadily. At first, only about eight percent of American adults told pollsters their faith is "none," but the ratio rose with remarkable swiftness.

Southern Baptists lost a million members in the past decade. So many Catholics have quit that one-tenth of American adults now are ex-Catholics. As for tall-steeple mainline Protestants, they have shrunk drastically since the 1960s. United Methodists dropped from 14 million to below 7 million. Presbyterians fell from 4.2 million to 1.4 million. Episcopalians faded from 3.6 million to 1.8 million. The Disciples of Christ sank from 1.9 million to 600,000. Meanwhile, America's population doubled.

Although this country is called a "Christian nation," church statistician David Olson says only 17 percent of Americans now attend worship on a typical Sunday and he expects a drop to 10 percent by 2050. Thus nine-tenths of people won't be in pews. Churchgoing will become a fringe activity.

Western civilization evolves through epochs: the Renaissance, the Age of Kings, the Enlightenment, the Colonial Era, the Industrial Revolution, the spread of democracy, etc. Now the Secular Age is blooming.

The relentless retreat of supernatural religion is transforming America's culture, although most people hardly notice. The metamorphosis has deep social and political implications.

Those who abandon faith mostly are young, and they tend to hold liberal social values. They generally support gay marriage, the public safety net, legal marijuana, women's right to choose abortion, acceptance of minorities and immigrants, etc. They shun politics and hardly vote but they hold the potential to change America's moral climate.

White evangelicals are the core of the Republican Party. They tipped the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan, the 2000 election to George W. Bush and the 2016 election to Donald Trump. Strangely, those fundamentalists contradict the values of Jesus. He taught followers to help the poor, heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted basically the agenda of the liberal Democratic safety net. Yet white evangelicals back the GOP, which tries to slash the safety net. In effect, they oppose Christ.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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