Secularizing America

The U.S. is surely and steadily becoming a less religious place. USA Today has a groovy interactive graph illustrating the following:

The 2008 results [of the American Religious Identification Survey], to be released today, are based on 54,000 interviews with a margin of error of plus or minus 0.5%. It finds that, despite population growth and immigration adding nearly 50 million more adults, almost all denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS data was released in 1990.

Here’s the picture of state-by-state growth in the number of people identifying as atheists, agnostics, or without a religion:

But go to the real graph for the groovy interactivity.

Secularization is part of a long trend toward moral liberalization. That the Iowa Supreme Court would unanimously rule prohibition of gay marriage illegal when a decade ago this would have seemed impossible is just one example of this very welcome trend.

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27 thoughts on “Secularizing America

  1. What has always struck me as odd (maybe I'm being disingenuous), is how no one ever points out the places in Europe where same sex marriage is still illegal. You have often pointed out that a real comparison of America to Europe must take into account that Europe's diversity among its countries is akin to ours in terms of the different states. So to compare a socially conservative state in the US to the Netherlands, then use the Netherlands as synecdoche for the entirety of Europe is absolutely absurd. Many liberals forget that many countries in Europe are still virtual Roman Catholic strongholds, and public homosexuality itself is rewarded with violence in the very places some of these Americans threatened to move to in the case of a McCain presidency. I would argue that the diversity of acceptance of homosexuality is about the equivalent as that of Europe's as a whole.

  2. I wonder if, as religions decline, other superstitions are filling part of the void. I'm thinking of stuff like Kaballah and the recent fad about “The Secret”. I get the sense that a lot of the people leaving organized religion are getting into unorganized religion. I think a good gauge for changes in rationality might be “do you believe in angels”, or “do you believe in ghosts”.

  3. Secularization is part of a long trend toward moral liberalizationHm… I'm much more comfortable saying that secularization correlates with moral liberalization. I'm all for moral liberalization, but to the extent that it makes sense to be against secularization (on an individual level), I'm against it.I'm skeptical of a narrative that says that getting away from the pernicious influence of religion is making people more liberal. I'd say they're liberal first, and choose not to associate with organized religion because of that.So basically I'm fine with this post, as long as it has no policy implications.

  4. Irony is, many people who self-identify as atheists believe in UFO's, 2012, and other theories with the same amount of evidence as the existence of God. Ellen Degeneres was a big booster of The Secret, and I would venture that she and her audience are largely secular. Regardless, take note that when rumors swirl about that Dennis Kucinich claimed to have an epiphany upon making extraterrestrial contact, most were mute, but when Huckabee talks about Jesus, the sky is falling on rationality in America.

  5. One very important omission in the chart is the failure to disaggregate Protestants. The original data show that the number of Evangelicals is exploding but the number of liberal Protestants is imploding faster. But this means that as a whole American Christianity is becoming more orthodox, even if it's numbers are shrinking. This may counteract a bit of your joy, Will.Not only that, but I'm concerned that many of these 'no religion' folks felt that way twenty years ago. The main thing that has changed is that it is more acceptable to say you have no religion. I could be wrong, but I bet the numbers would be somewhat smaller if you knew who really had no religion before. Most people don't like to admit it to themselves.And the Catholic drops are misleading too. Lots of these people were 'ethnic' Catholics and never went to mass. When the scandals hit, they just said, “To hell with that sick shit.” I mean, maybe I'm wrong, but that looks pretty plausible to me as an explanation.Interestingly, the US has had far more secular periods in the past, like in its early decades. We have a cyclically religious history, with periodic Great Awakenings. Maybe we won't have another one, but the 21st century is proving as recalcitrantly religious as the 20th.

  6. This is a pernicious myth. As I understand it, Kucinich was at Shirley MacLaine's house and saw an unidentified flying object, meaning that he saw something in the sky and didn't know what it was. He told other people about it, and MacLaine wrote about it in a book. He's never claimed it was an craft of extraterrestrial origin, much less that it gave rise to an epiphany.Mind you, there's no love lost between Kucinich and I, but peopel have a weird need to imagine that he's crazy, which I don't understand at all.

  7. Not to mention all the democrats and liberals who think of government as a god. Or Obama who thinks he is a god and can abolish crises and “booms and busts” with his magic wand. Loony toons!

  8. Will, this general trend (especially as it applies to liberal social issues) is why I think it's important to focus on economic liberty. Social liberty has generally been trending upward and will continue to do so.

  9. A lot of people have made the findings of this survey out to be far more omnious for American religiosity than they really are. Here's the actual pdf:http://www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org/repo…I'd highlight Table 1 (page 3 of the pdf). Since 2001 the percentage of Christians has remained nearly the same (why didn't this get a lot of press in 2001?); the total percentages of Christians have been 86.2, 76.7, and 76.0 in 1990, 2001, and 2008, respectively. Clearly, Christianity's declining trend has nearly stopped. To argue persuasively that the rate of decline will pick up again, one needs other data or theories.

  10. Nice try “uknowbetter” but as a typical of a Republican more exaggeration then fact. True as a Liberal I have a lot more faith in the government and have been more satisfied with the results then what has been delivered by the religious right care of Mr Bush and Co. What you ar really sensing is the utter relief seeing a US President able to walk on the international stage without his foot always hanging out of his mouth.

    • Speaking of foot, Obama is so stupid he doesn’t even know they speak German in Austria.

      When is this dunce going to release his test scores?

  11. Pingback: The Limits of Secularization | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

  12. In what sense of “tradition” and “orthodox” is it possible to jettison the intricate theology of the denomination to which your family has belonged for 400 years in order to embrace the easy “conservatism” of the local mega-ego-church?

  13. The “tradition” and “orthodoxy” is the same in both cases. “Tradition” and “orthodoxy” are code-words for “tribalism”. The East African Plains Ape is a social species. Your social group, tribe, religious sect, was never chiefly about a belief system. It was about the comfort that came with collective responsibility, mutual support, and so on. So today, the local “mega-church” replaces the “tradition” and “orthodoxy” as the source of this social comfort. Nothing very mysterious about it. All that's happened in Europe, and what's happening here, is that this definition of “tribe” has expanded to include the collective social responsibility.

  14. There's a very welcome trend where more and more Americans are smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.The health effects of being irreligious are just as bad.Every civilization in decline has its Will Wilkinson's cheering on the end.

  15. I'm not a republican, but I do hate democrats.It's not exaggeration by much. The words of your leg-tingling Obama prove that. The fool actually thinks he can stop booms and busts…only a god could do that.Delusional democrats…if they only have the right people writing the right words on pieces of paper, then magic can happen!

  16. Increasing moral liberalization and secularization within the confines of an ever-increasing social welfare system is not a very welcome trend. It is a recipe for financial disaster.

  17. What amuses me is that when you consider the incentives people have historically had for taking an adversarial position against the state, the list pretty much includes every item the Will Wilkinsons denigrate: people have typically have rebelled against incursions against their religions, their families, their local communities, their ethnic identification – in short, their “tribes”. And yet, you visit the website of a reputed “anti-statist” and right on the front page every one of those things is either attacked or, at minimum, contemptuously dismissed.Somehow, I don't get the feeling many people are willing to man the barricades in defense of gay marriage, or for the privilege of having their countries crap-flooded with foreign nationals. Indeed, it's more likely they'll rebel at having those things imposed on them from a central authority – not once has gay marriage survived a popular referendum, even in California.In short, the Will Wilkinsons propose to make us free by undermining the appreciation of values that have historically made freedom desirable enough to strive for, even to fight and die for.Libertarianism == totalitarianism-in-waiting.

  18. The East African Plains Ape is a social species. Your social group, tribe, religious sect, was never chiefly about a belief system. It was about the comfort that came with collective responsibility, mutual support, and so on.

  19. I'm not a republican, but I do hate democrats.It's not exaggeration by much. The words of your leg-tingling Obama prove that. The fool actually thinks he can stop booms and busts…only a god could do that.Delusional democrats…if they only have the right people writing the right words on pieces of paper, then magic can happen!

  20. Well i think that by excluding religious expression, and Christian expression and symbols in particular, from the classroom, school officials have exhibited the kind of hostility toward religion that should never be found in an American public school

  21. Well i see the stats and its astonishing to see The 2008 results [of the American Religious Identification Survey], to be released today, are based on 54,000 interviews with a margin of error of plus or minus 0.5%. It finds that, despite population growth and immigration adding nearly 50 million more adults, almost all denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS data was released in 1990.

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