Religion in Society
Religion in Society

Millions of Americans Retreating from Religion

| by Reason Foundation
Washington Post religion (uh, syndicated) columnist and former Bush White House speechwriter, Michael Gerson notes that millions of Americans have fallen away from that ole time religion. As evidence, he cites data from Harvard political scientists Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) and David Campbell which will appear in their forthcoming book American Grace. Gerson notes that religious fervor is now in retreat:

Baby boomers were far less religious than their parents were at the same age -- the probable result, says Putnam, of a "very rapid change in morals and customs."

This retreating tide of committment affected nearly every denomination equally, except that it was less severe among evangelicals. While not dramatically increasing their percentage of the American population, evangelicals did increase their percentage among the religious in America. According to Putnam, religious "entrepreneurs" such as Jerry Falwell organized and channeled the conservative religious reaction against the 1960s into the religious right -- the first aftershock.

But this reaction provoked a reaction -- the second aftershock. The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: "If this is religion, I'm not interested." The social views of this younger cohort are not entirely predictable: Both the pro-life and the homosexual-rights movement have made gains. But Americans in their 20s are much more secular than the baby boomers were at the same stage of life. About 30 to 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated (designated "nones," as opposed to "nuns" -- I was initially confused). Putnam calls this "a stunning development." As many liberals suspected, the religious right was not good for religion.

What Gerson is calling the "first aftershock," I called the beginning of the Fourth Great Awakening in my article last year about the dawning of "The New Age of Reason." According to some historians, America is prone to cycles of religious fervor which result in political reform/action and that eventually recede as they overreach. I argue that the last cycle of fervor is now ending. Among other trends, I offered in support of my thesis:

Perhaps the best evidence that the evangelical phase of the Fourth Great Awakening is winding down is that large numbers of young Americans are falling away from organized religion, just as the country did in the period between the first two awakenings. In the 1970s, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that between 5 percent and 7 percent of the public declared they were not religiously affiliated. By 2006 that figure had risen to 17 percent. The trend is especially apparent among younger Americans: In 2006 nearly a quarter (23 percent) of Americans in their 20s and almost as many (19 percent) of those in their 30s said they were nonaffiliated.

The Barna Group finds that only 60 percent of 16-to-29-year-olds identify themselves as Christians. By contrast, 77 percent of Americans over age 60 call themselves Christian. That is “a momentous shift,” the firm’s president told the Ventura County Star. “Each generation is becoming increasingly secular."

Gerson reports that Putnam and Campbell don't believe that this falling away from religion indicates a permanent trend toward secularization:

The young, in general, are not committed secularists. "They are not in church, but they might be if a church weren't like the religious right. . . . There are almost certain to be religious entrepreneurs to fill that niche with a moderate evangelical religion, without political overtones."

Nevertheless, I concluded that the country is moving into a new era of greater tolerance that should last a couple of decades.

Whole Gerson column is here. My April 2008 article "The New Age of Reason: Is the Fourth Great Awakening finally coming to a close?" can be found here.