By James A. Haught
What’s the most significant occurrence so far in the 21st century?
Worsening weather calamities caused by global warming?
Endless suicide bombings and massacres by fanatics?
Snowballing acceptance of gays as equal humans?
Kakistocracy (government by the worst) under a ludicrous president who has told 10,000 countable lies?
Child-molesting by priests and ministers?
Recurring U.S. gun massacres?
All of those are important, and I nominate another: The remarkably rapid collapse of religion in advanced democracies. It’s major news with far-reaching impact.
Sociologists are stunned by the abrupt downfall of supernatural faith in Western civilization. The swift cultural transformation gained recognition in the 1990s and then accelerated.
For example, more than half of United Kingdom adults now have no church identity, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey. The Guardian of London reported:
“Fifty-two percent of the public say they do not belong to any religion, compared to 31 percent in 1983 when the BSA began tracking religious belief…. One in four members of the public stated, ‘I do not believe in God,’ compared with one in ten in 1998.”
The London Telegraph added that 26 percent of Britons labeled themselves “confident atheists,” up from 10 percent in 1998. It quoted researcher Nancy Kelley as saying the surprising retreat of religion is “one of the most important trends in postwar history.”
Similar findings are reported across western Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the like. Secularism has soared since the 1990s. Europeans spent centuries killing each other over religion, but now it elicits a mere shrug.
America traditionally was an exception, a faith stronghold, but the United States is joining the secular tsunami. A recent Gallup poll found that church membership fell twenty percent in the past two decades. One-fourth of American adults now say their faith is “none” – and the ratio is one-third among those under thirty.
In fact, this country has more nonreligious adults than any other nation except China, according to a 2015 book, American Secularism.
However, like many profound culture shifts, the change is barely noticed in daily life. Television still teems with big-money evangelists who buy air time to beg for cash to buy more air time. Politicians (especially Republicans) still invoke the holies daily and demand public displays of the motto “In God We Trust.”
Speaking of Republicans, the GOP relies heavily upon white evangelicals as its political base. As religion shrinks, the future power of the conservative party is thrown into doubt.
Polls show that born-again whites were 27 percent of America’s population in the 1990s, but now they’ve slipped as low as 13 percent. Southern Baptists have lost 1.5 million members since 2006. But those who remain are intensely active in politics. They gave 81 percent of their votes to Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Why do fundamentalists embrace a vulgar, shallow, obnoxious, juvenile, self-worshiping racist who abuses women and boasted that he can “grab ‘em by the pussy”? Why do they want the extreme opposite of Jesus? Wake Forest University church historian Bill Leonard says white evangelicals flock to Trump because they’re in “panic at the precipitous decline of Christianity.”
In other words, conservative Christians feel their dominance of America’s culture evaporating, and they’re desperate. For example, they spent centuries demonizing “evil” gays – yet most Americans now accept homosexuals cordially, and the Supreme Court allowed same-sex marriage. It was a crushing blow to the “religious right.”
In fact, repulsive political activity by white evangelicals is a strong reason why many tolerant young Americans renounce religion.
Of course, faith remains strong in Muslim lands (where several nations decree death for ”blasphemy”) and in the tropics (where millions of Africans and Latin Americans are Pentecostals who “speak in tongues”).
But in Western civilization, profound demographic change is happening in this 21st century. It’s major news, although not fully recognized.
James Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice,is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.