The long, slow death of religion

James A. Haught

(Investigator 173, 2017 March)

By now, it's clear that religion is fading in America, as it has done in most advanced Western democracies.

Dozens of surveys find identical evidence: Fewer American adults, especially those under 30, attend church — or even belong to a church. They tell interviewers their religion is "none." They ignore faith.

Since 1990, the "nones" have exploded rapidly as a sociological phenomenon — from 10 percent of U.S. adults, to 15 percent, to 20 percent. Now they've climbed to 25 percent, according to a 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.  

That makes them the nation's largest faith category, outstripping Catholics (21 percent) and white evangelicals (16 percent). They seem on a trajectory to become an outright majority. America is following the secular path of Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and other modern places. The Secular Age is snowballing.

Various explanations for the social transformation are postulated:  That the Internet exposes young people to a wide array of ideas and practices that undercut old-time beliefs. That family breakdown severs traditional participation in congregations. That the young have grown cynical about authority of all types. That fundamentalist hostility to gays and abortion has soured tolerant-minded Americans. That clergy child-molesting scandals have scuttled church claims to moral superiority. That faith-based suicide bombings and other religious murders horrify normal folks.
All those factors undoubtedly play a role. But I want to offer a simpler explanation: In the scientific 21st century, it's less plausible to believe in invisible gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons — plus virgin births, resurrections, miracles, messiahs, prophecies, faith-healings, visions, incarnations, divine visitations and other supernatural claims. Magical thinking is suspect, ludicrous. It's not for intelligent, educated people.
Significantly, the PRRI study found that the foremost reason young people gave for leaving religion is this clincher: They stopped believing miraculous church dogmas.
For decades, tall-steeple mainline Protestant denominations with university-educated ministers tried to downplay supernaturalism — to preach just the compassion of Jesus and the social gospel. It was a noble effort, but disastrous. The mainline collapsed so badly it is dubbed "flatline Protestantism." It has faded to small fringe of American life.
Now Catholicism and evangelicalism are in the same death spiral. One-tenth of U.S. adults today are ex-Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention lost 200,000 members in 2014 and 200,000 more in 2015.
I'm a longtime newspaperman in Appalachia's Bible Belt. I've watched the retreat of religion for six decades. Back in the 1950s, church-based laws were powerful:
It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. All public school classes began with mandatory prayer. It was a crime to buy a cocktail, or look at nude photos in magazines, or buy a lottery ticket. It was a crime for an unwed couple to share a bedroom. If a single girl became pregnant, both she and her family were disgraced.  Birth control was unmentionable. Evolution was unmentionable.

It was a felony to terminate a pregnancy. It was a felony to be gay. One homosexual in our town killed himself after police filed charges. Even writing about sex was illegal. In 1956, our Republican mayor sent police to raid bookstores selling "Peyton Place."
Gradually, all those faith-based taboos vanished from society. Religion lost its power — even before the upsurge of "nones."
Perhaps honesty is a factor in the disappearance of religion. Maybe young people discern that it's dishonest to claim to know supernatural things that are unknowable.

When I was a cub reporter, my city editor was an H.L. Mencken clone who laughed at Bible-thumping hillbilly preachers. One day, as a young truth-seeker, I asked him: You're correct that their explanations are fairy tales — but what answer can an honest person give about the deep questions: Why are we here?  Why is the universe here?  Why do we die? Is there any purpose to life?
He eyed me and replied: "You can say: I don't know." That rang a bell in my head that still echoes. It's honest to admit that you cannot explain the unexplainable.  
The church explanation — that Planet Earth is a testing place to screen humans for a future heaven or hell — is a silly conjecture with no evidence of any sort, except ancient scriptures. No wonder that today's Americans, raised in a scientific-minded era, cannot swallow it.

Occam's Razor says the simplest explanation is most accurate. Why is religion dying? Because thinking people finally see that it's untrue, false, dishonest.

White evangelicals tipped the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump, giving an astounding 81 percent of their votes to the crass vulgarian who contradicts church values. But white evangelicals, like most religious groups, face a shrinking future. Their power will dwindle.

It took humanity several millennia to reach the Secular Age. Now it's blossoming spectacularly.

James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper,
The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Is Religion Dying?

(Investigator 174, 2017 May)

I refer to "The long, slow death of religion" by James A. Haught in Investigator #173.

I am a little confused where this article came from. #173 infers that it was submitted by James A. Haught, who is the editor emeritus of some newspaper in West Virginia and is also a regular contributor to the Secular Web on Haught is supposedly a high flyer in America and it would surprise me if he submitted this article to Investigator Magazine. In fact, Laurie Eddie sent me a copy of this article in late January. Was this article submitted by Laurie Eddie, James Haught or someone else?

I agree that Christianity is currently in decline in Western countries, such as Australia and America, in terms of church attendance and nominated affiliation. However, Haught suggests why and that is where I disagree. He basically claims that belief in the supernatural (expressed in derisive terms) is "not for intelligent, educated people” and "thinking people will see that it's untrue, false, dishonest.” He then concludes that the "Secular Age… is blossoming spectacularly."

So, there we have it. If you want to be considered intelligent, educated, thinking, honest and follow the winning team, then you had better get on the same bravado train as James A. Haught. The pressure is on and you don't want to look silly, do you? As for me, I am in a bad way, as I believe in the supernatural. Therefore, I must be unintelligent, uneducated, unthinking, dishonest and so on. Is this true? I don't think so.

One of the strongest points of sceptics is self-congratulation. They refer to themselves as "brights", "free thinkers", "rationalists" and other effusive terms, but does claiming that you are bright necessarily mean that you are bright? If you go with the flow, does that mean that you are a free, independent, rational thinker or just another sheep that is going astray?

James provided speculation that was unsupported by evidence, so I think I should have a go too. My observations are that rejection of Christianity is mainly based on prejudice, ignorance and apathy. Simon Smart has described Australian cultural attitudes as "a thin veneer of resentment toward religion on top of a sea of apathy!" Most people do not want to have a conversation, as the barriers are already up. They have absorbed the subliminal and overt messages in the media and advertising, their eyes are covered and their ears stopped. They are distracted by the pursuit of wealth and happiness.

The gospels give their own reasons why people fall away. Some are love of riches, the cares of the world, fear of persecution or ridicule, and so on. These factors were true then and are still true today. In Australia, the people who hold the microphones are celebrities, pop-stars, sportsmen and comedians. These people have no idea about the veracity of Christianity, but the public listen to what they say and absorb their values and opinions, but "If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matt 15:14).  In surveys, respondents may well claim that their disinterest in Christianity is due to unbelief, but is this unbelief justified? In philosophy, knowledge is defined as "justified, true belief". The fact is that, for many who claim that they reject Christianity due to unbelief, their belief systems are not warranted and so do not constitute knowledge. Delusions are common at the highest level. A paper by Cross in 1977 reported on a survey where 94% of professors thought they were above average amongst their peers.

I am involved in apologetics and sometimes I wonder whether I should target the world or the church. In Israel, the problem was often bad leadership and that is often the case in the church today. I believe the church could do much better at addressing the causes of decline, and so the state of the church is part of the problem.

The decline in the West is not necessarily mirrored in non-Western countries. Christianity is now growing quite rapidly in China, but the current decline in the West does seem real. Cultural decline is nothing new. The pattern was regularly repeated in the life of Israel. Gradual decline is followed by a disaster, then reform and then gradual decline again. In all societies, this pattern repeats, even though no social movement has ever persisted. So, why presume that current Western trends are forever?

None of this should be surprising. Jesus warned, "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt 7:13-14). G.K. Chesterton also put it this way, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." The crowd is not always right.

Kevin Rogers
Director, Reasonable Faith Adelaide.

[Editor's note: "The Long, Slow Death of Religion" is published on various websites; James A. Haught gave permission by e-mail to reprint it in Investigator.]

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