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5 Signs That America Is Moving Away from Religion

If you look closely there are promising signs that American attitudes are changing in a way that may blunt the impact of religion on politics and culture.
 
 
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In between bragging about the number of people they've killed and vilifying gay soldiers, the GOP presidential candidates have spent the primaries demonstrating how little they respect the separation of church and state. Michele Bachmann seems to think God is personally invested in her political career. Both she and Rick Perry have ties to Christian Dominionism, a theocratic philosophy that publicly calls for Christian takeover of America's political and civil institutions. (Even Ron Paul, glorified by civil libertarians for his only two good policy stances -- opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and drug prohibition -- sputtered about churches when asked during a debate where he'd send a gravely ill man without health insurance.)

GOP pandering to the Religious Right is just one of those facts of American public life, like climate change denial and Creationism in schools, that leave secular Americans lamenting the decline of the country, and of reason and logic. Organized religion's grasp on the politics and culture of much of Europe has been waning for decades -- why can't we do that here?

But there are signs that American attitudes are changing in ways that may tame religion's power over political life in the future.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, tells AlterNet that she thinks what happened in Europe is (slowly) happening here. While questioning religion remains controversial -- Gaylor says the group's work on church and state issues often elicits hate-mail strongly suggesting they move to, you know, Europe -- atheism, skepticism, and agnosticism are becoming more widely accepted.

"The statistics show there are more of us ... If you're in a room of people you can count on more to agree with non-belief or to be accepting of non-belief," says Gaylor.

Here are five trends that give hope one day religion will reside in the realm of personal choice and private worship, far away from politics -- something like what the Founders intended hundreds of years ago.

1. American religious belief is becoming more fractured

The intrusion of religion into places where it doesn't belong, like government or public education, naturally requires high levels of organization and control -- it's not something that just happens. So it's a good sign that even many Americans who maintain a personal religious faith are distancing themselves from heierarchical, top-down religion. Polls have repeatedly shown that even among the devout, emphatic proclamations of faith do not translate into actual churchgoing. In fact, church attendance rates hovered at around 40 percent until pollsters realized there's a major gap between what Americans tell them about their religious habits and their actual religious habits. Tom Flynn summarizes the over-inflation of US churchgoing and offers more accurate stats:

Americans may believe in a god who sees everything, but they lie about how often they go to church. Since 1939, the Gallup organization has reported that 40% of adults attend church weekly. (The most recent figure is 42%.) Gallup's figure has long attracted skepticism. Were it true, some 73 million people would throng the nation's houses of worship each week. Even the conservative Washington Times found that "hard to imagine." New research suggests that there may be only half to two-thirds that many people in the pews.

Americans are also actively shaping their religious beliefs to fit their own values. Profiled in USA Today, religion statistics expert George Barna shares recent findings that show religion is becoming increasingly personal. Believers might drift from faith to faith until they find one that works for them, or cobble together a belief system drawn from many religious traditions. The US is becoming a place of "310 million people with 310 million religions" Barna is quoted as saying.

 
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