Americans Becoming Less Christian And Less Religious, Survey Says

A new survey shows that Americans are becoming less Christian, and less religious overall.

American Flag Bible

A new survey from the Pew Center finds some profound and interesting changes in the religious beliefs of Americans, and signs that things will change even more dramatically as the millennials come of age:

The Christian share of adults in the United States has declined sharply since 2007, affecting nearly all major Christian traditions and denominations, and crossing age, race and region, according to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center.

Seventy-one percent of American adults were Christian in 2014, the lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date, and a decline of 5 million adults and 8 percentage points since a similar Pew survey in 2007.

The Christian share of the population has been declining for decades, but the pace rivals or even exceeds that of the country’s most significant demographic trends, like the growing Hispanic population. It is not confined to the coasts, the cities, the young or the other liberal and more secular groups where one might expect it, either.

“The decline is taking place in every region of the country, including the Bible Belt,” said Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at thePew Research Center and the lead editor of the report.

The decline has been propelled in part by generational change, as relatively non-Christian millennials reach adulthood and gradually replace the oldest and most Christian adults. But it is also because many former Christians, of all ages, have joined the rapidly growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated or “nones”: a broad category including atheists, agnostics and those who adhere to “nothing in particular.”

(…)

Over all, the religiously unaffiliated number 56 million and represent 23 percent of adults, up from 36 million and 16 percent in 2007, Pew estimates. Nearly half of the growth was from atheists and agnostics, whose tallies nearly doubled to 7 percent of adults. The remainder of the unaffiliated, those who describe themselves as having “no particular religion,” were less likely to say that religion was an important part of their lives than eight years ago.

The ranks of the unaffiliated have been bolstered by former Christians. Nearly a quarter of people who were raised as Christian have left the group, and ex-Christians now represent 19 percent of adults.

Attrition was most substantial among mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, who have declined in absolute numbers and as a share of the population since 2007. The acute decline in the Catholic population, which fell by roughly 3 million, is potentially a new development. Most surveys have found that the Catholic share of the population has been fairly stable over the last few decades, in no small part because it has been reinforced by migration from Latin America.

Not all religions or even Christian traditions declined so markedly. The number of evangelical Protestants dipped only slightly as a share of the population, by 1 percentage point, and actually increased in raw numbers.

Non-Christian faiths, like Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, generally held steady or increased their share of the population, reaching 5.9 percent of adults, up from 4.7 percent in 2007. Jewish adherence was steady at 1.9 percent of adults, a statistically insignificant increase of 0.2 percentage points from 1.7 percent in 2007. Adherence to Islam grew faster than any other major religious affiliation, rising by 0.5 percentage points over the last eight years, but Muslims still represent just 0.9 percent of adults in the United States.

Younger adults have been particularly likely to join the unaffiliated in recent years. In 2007, 25 percent of 18-to-26-year-olds were unaffiliated; now 34 percent of the same cohort is unaffiliated.

But the unaffiliated share of the population is increasing among older Americans as well. The Christian share of the population born before 1964 has dipped by 2 percentage points since 2007.

These results don’t mean that America is on the verge of becoming even more of a European-style secular society, of course. Even with these declines in people identifying themselves as Christian, which occurred most dramatically among so-called “mainline” Protestants and Catholics, Christianity in one form or another remains the predominant religious faith in the United States. Additionally, church attendance in the United States remains at far higher rates than it does any other similarly advanced nation and that’s likely to be true for the foreseeable future. It’s also worth noting that, when you add in members of non-Christian religions, the number of people who could arguably be called either agnostic or atheist still remains a minority of the population. In fact, it’s probably the case that the segment of the population which Pew classifies as “unaffiliated” isn’t necessarily purely atheist or agnostic. Many of these people likely have some idea of what they consider a higher power or some sense of “spirituality.” However it’s likely a largely secular sense of  spirituality that can’t be identified as being affiliated with any major faith. Additionally, these would be people who don’t see regular church attendance or adherence to what Evangelical Christians would call “traditional” Christian morality or social codes as being necessary. This is one reason, I think, why the general public has become so quickly accepting of something such as same-sex marriage. The fact that homosexual relationships are condemned in some portion of the Bible doesn’t mean very much to them, especially when it comes up against the fact that they have come to know gays and lesbians personally.

All that being said, the survey does show that an increasing number of young Americans do in fact say that they don’t believe in any kind of God at all, According to the survey, as many as 25% of people born after 1980, which actually encompasses part of Generation X as well as the “Millennials” depending upon which demographer you’re talking to, do not adhere to any religious beliefs at all. This is much higher than the 11% of baby boomers who respond in this way, and the 7% of those born between 1928 and 1945. This causes people like Rod Dreher to respond rather predictably, but in this case I think that his response is probably not far off the mark. Absent some kind of vast social change, these non-religious people are unlikely to become religious later in their life and it’s unlikely that their children are going to be very religious either. That means that the trend that we see playing itself out in this poll is going to become more pronounced, and there will be more Americans who don’t identify as either Christian or particularly religious.

In other words, what we are likely seeing here is the beginning of an accelerating trend of even further secularization in the United States. To a large degree, this has been happening for a very long time. Laws based in religious belief or practice that used to be quite common, such as those that required businesses to remain closed on Sundays, or forbid the sale of items such as alcohol on Sundays, have increasingly fallen by the wayside. Similarly, issues such as premarital sex, homosexuality, and a whole host of other issues that used to be considered taboo are now viewed in a different light. Even something that most people believe is wrong, such as a married person having an affair, is generally seen as wrong not because it says that its wrong in some book somewhere, but because it involves a violation of trust and honesty and causes real psychic harm to another individual. That’s not to say that this is true of all Americans, of course, but to a much larger degree than ever before there seems to be a sense that traditional religion isn’t really necessary to living a fulfilling, happy, and moral life.

The Pew survey doesn’t really get into trying to explain why we’re seeing these changes, of course. That will be something for sociologists and others to ponder over the coming years. However, in a piece that was published before the survey was released, Tufts University Professor Daniel Dennett argues that one of the main factors behind this phenomenon is the fact that people have basically discovered that they don’t need religion:

Could anything turn this decline around? Yes, unfortunately. A global plague, a world war fought over water or oil, the collapse of the Internet (and thereby almost all electronic communication) or some as-yet unimagined catastrophe could throw the remaining population into misery and fear, the soil in which religion flourishes best.

With hardly any significant exceptions, religion recedes whenever human security and well-being rises, a fact that has recently been shown in numerous studies, but was suspected by John Calvin in the 16th century. He noted that the more prosperous and comfortable his Genevans became, the less dependent they were on church. Presumably, those who deplore the decline of religion in the world today would not welcome the sort of devastation and despair that could give religion its second wind.

There is no other plausible scenario that could halt the slide, for a fairly obvious reason: the recent rapid growth of mutual knowledge, thanks to the global spread of electronic and digital communication.

Any institution—just like a person or an organism—depends on a modicum of privacy in which to conduct its business and control its activities without too much interference and too many prying eyes. Religious institutions, since their founding millennia ago, have managed to keep secrets and to control what their flocks knew about the world, about other religions and about the inner workings of their own religion with relative ease. Today it is next to impossible.

What is particularly corrosive to religion isn’t just the newly available information that can be unearthed by the curious, but the ambient knowledge that is shared by the general populace.

Although he doesn’t explicitly say it here, what Dennett is clearly referring to, of course, is the spread of education and knowledge, both in the formal sense through schooling and in other ways. Once people start becoming more exposed to knowledge about the world around them, it becomes harder for them to continue to hold on to a system of belief that really only survives if it closes out the outside world. This isn’t to say that people who are religious are less intelligent, or ignorant about the world around them. Indeed, even today there are many profoundly intelligent people who are also deeply religious, and it would be foolish to deny the role of institutions such as the Catholic Church in preserving knowledge in the past and spreading it to the masses. However, it seems undeniable that the more education, more prosperous, and safer a society is, the less religious it tends to be. It’s a phenomenon that has been ongoing since at least the Renaissance, of course, and at various times religious institutions have adapted their beliefs to confirm to the modern world, but in today’s day and age it seems as though an increasing number of people have come to the conclusion that religion doesn’t really teach them anything about the world after all. The rise of technology likely plays a large role in how quickly the change seems to be happening now, but whatever the cause it seems as though it is something of an irreversible process.

None of this is to say that religion will disappear from American life any time soon, or that it ever will, but it’s likely to become something far different than what it is today just as modern Christianity is profoundly different from what existed in Europe during the Middle Ages. Or, as Emma Green puts it in The Atlantic, Americans will adapt religion to their own purposes:

The most important caveat to keep in mind in reading this survey is that religion, and particularly Christianity, is not losing its overall influence in American culture. Culture-war rhetoric often implies an epic battle between Christian conservatives and the creep of secularity; in general, that narrative is an oversimplification of American religion. But what these numbers do suggest is that Americans are claiming more latitude how they practice their faiths. Religious influence is slowing becoming disaggregated, so that the Catholics or the Baptists or the Latter-day Saints don’t necessarily keep their flocks for the duration of their lives, in this world or the next. There may be a growing number of people for whom religion is irrelevant, but this is less true within some parts of the population that are growing most rapidly, particularly the Hispanic community. America continues to be a nation under God—just with more flexibility in how its citizens choose to worship.

This won’t make Evangelicals, or those who consider themselves strong in their faiths, very happy, of course, and we’ll likely see more people like Dreher who seem obsessed with the notion that their faith is about to come under attack. That won’t be true, of course, but their faith will have to deal with the fact that it is being more strongly challenged and rebutted than at any other time in American history. That’s probably not the world they’d like to live in, but it doesn’t seem like there’s very much they will be able to do about it.

FILED UNDER: Religion, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. KM says:

    Color me skeptical. I’m fairly certain a large driver in this is the poor publicity many are seeing for the term “Christian” due to the actions of a few. Like the whole Republican – > Independent issue a few years ago, the individuals’ core beliefs are the same but they feel the brand’s leaders have gone crazy so they’re going “generic” to avoid the name label and any social negativity. They’re ditching dogma and all the baggage that goes with it (social, emotional, political, etc) but keeping the faith, so to speak.

    A good follow-up would have been to quiz them on the associated belief set to see what still remained and how much is still coloring their world view. For instance, ask an agnostic-former-Christian if they believe Jesus is the Son of God and what happens to non-believers, when does life begin, duties to the poor and sick, yadda yadda. Their answers will be remarkably similar to what they would have been if you’d asked beforehand. This feels like a name change, not a sea change.

  2. Dave D says:

    This isn’t to say that people who are religious are less intelligent, or ignorant about the world around them.

    Anyone who thinks the world is 6,000 years old or who thinks that evolution through natural selection can’t be true because “monkeys” still exist are demonstrably less intelligent than people who do not think that. A 2,000 year old book told me so is no excuse to bury your head in the sand, in a word that is ignorance.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    Religion is quickly becoming an underclass thing. The rich countries are secular, the poor countries are religious. City mice are secular, country mice are religious. Educated people are more secular, less educated people, not so much. Wealth, security, education, and the growing freedom to be able to identify publicly as atheist are all deadly to religion.

    The tipping point has arrived.

    It’s also been greatly helped by the intransigent refusal of the Roman Catholic church to adapt to even the 19th century, and by the fact that they turned their churches into refuges for men who rape children. And I think it’s gotten a very nice boost from the Reagan-era politicization of Christianity in the US. The Christian “brand” has been badly damaged by being associated with morons waving fetuses and Republican hate-mongers trying to rationalize their bigotry. A politicized Christianity is a weakened Christianity.

    And I toldja so. Okay, I didn’t actually tell any of you, but years ago, way back when Mr. Reagan decided to meld the GOP with evangelical protestantism I pointed out that if you put politics and religion in a room together, politics will eat religion. It misses the point to argue that evangelicals suffered somewhat less than mainline churches – the evangelicals, as the name implies, are in the business of recruiting and growing, the mainline churches are not. So, even though the evangelicals make robust growth a part of their business plan, they are slipping along with everyone else, and this despite IIRC a higher birth rate.

    And yet. . . murder rates? Down. Teen pregnancy rates? Down. Interesting, no?

  4. Rafer Janders says:

    Most surveys have found that the Catholic share of the population has been fairly stable over the last few decades, in no small part because it has been reinforced by migration from Latin America.

    A lot of those Latin American immigrants are now evangelical Protestants. Those denominations have made massive inroads in Central and South America over the last two decades, largely at the expense of the Catholics.

  5. Pinky says:

    It’s also worth noting that, when you add in members of non-Christian religions, the number of people who could arguably be called either agnostic or atheist still remains a minority of the population. In fact, it’s probably the case that the segment of the population which Pew classifies as “unaffiliated” isn’t necessarily purely atheist or agnostic.

    Unaffiliated 22.8%
    … Atheist 3.1%
    … Agnostic 4.0%
    … Nothing in particular 15.8%

  6. michael reynolds says:

    @Pinky:

    The atheist number will rise as people begin to feel safe. Identifying as an atheist is still a dangerous thing to career and relationships in most of this country.

  7. The most important caveat to keep in mind in reading this survey is that religion, and particularly Christianity, is not losing its overall influence in American culture.

    This is actually a concern. “I’m spiritual, but I’m not in any particular religion” correlates strongly with lazy anti-intellectualism.

  8. Mr. Prosser says:

    Even though 71% may identify as Christian I’m curious how many fall into an institutionalized denomination. I would guess a large percentage aren’t active in any church except at Xmas and Easter. Activist atheism is a waste of time and as irritating as evangelical/pentecostal tub thumping. I suspect the unaffiliated will continue to grow. I keep remembering the saying that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference and I think that is what is going on here.

  9. Scott says:

    Whenever religion gets too powerful, there is almost always a reaction, a pushback. Christianity and politics have been increasingly intermingled for 30-40 years now. I think the religious decline is directly related to that.

  10. Modulo Myself says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Not really. You can believe in a higher power, or the impossibility of a strictly materialistic universe, without believing in the moral and historical claims of a religion. Modern religion is desperate to assert how much we have changed, but I wonder if it’s the other way around. Reality has changed and believers and non-believers have not. Most non-zealots since the Middle Ages have probably all been very similar in outlook. These are the people who make up the masses of the religious. They think intuitively that there’s a higher power and good and evil in the world. A plausible story is an answer to personal intuition, and religions used to have a lot of these.

    What’s changed is that the stories don’t work. The only way to make them work is to dive deeply into anti-intellectualism, or to ignore the glaring flaws. The best you can say is that people stay actively religious because of respect for their parents, but even that seems shifty now. So what’s left are the spiritual intuitions and nothing else.

  11. Scott says:

    @Modulo Myself: I think a lot of people adapt their learned faith to the modern world by rejecting literal readings of their religious literature and embracing the metaphorical and symbolic aspects and calling that spiritual. Unless the same thinking is embraced by their particular denominations, they find themselves in a state of spiritual homelessness. I don’t think it is intellectual laziness so much as having lost the intellectual scaffolding of their birth faith. You can’t expect ordinary individuals to supply that scaffolding.

  12. @Modulo Myself:

    The type of person I’m concerned about is the sort Tim Minchin was talking about in his beat poem “Storm”:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhGuXCuDb1U

    I’m an agnostic myself and think growing secularism is a good thing, but if people are just jumping from one form of goobledygook to another, the ultimate results aren’t going to be any different.

  13. grumpy realist says:

    Well, according to Rod Dreher, the Western world started to go to pot when the Nominalists beat out the Scholastics back in the 13th century…

  14. Tony W says:

    Religion seeks to explain that which is not well understood. It is particularly effective in this regard explaining those elements of life that are the most scary.

    Science has jumped in and explained lots of things that used to be immutable religious doctrine. So the doctrine changed. Easy communication has exposed religion at its cynical worst.

    Summary: We don’t need it anymore to explain things we don’t understand, and we recognize how easy it is for adherents to be manipulated into doing the bidding of the leaders, who serve at “God’s will” (as interpreted by them). It is no wonder religion is on the decline.

  15. Ron Beasley says:

    I think the number of atheists/ agnostics is probably greater than the polls would indicate. One thing that is left out of the analysis is the number of people who attend church for social reasons only.

  16. Pinky says:

    @michael reynolds: Identifying as an atheist to a pollster is still a dangerous thing to career and relationships in most of this country?

  17. Jeremy says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Yeah, I was looking at those numbers…and while I have zero scientific evidence to back this up, I think the number for atheists and agnostics should be much higher. I would reckon about 10% of Americans are atheists, most just don’t admit it. There was a poll — by a company called Harris — in 2013 that said only 74% of Americans believed in God. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it seems more accurate than the paltry numbers Pew provides.

    Then you have to factor in the apatheists, those who don’t find the question of a deity’s existence relevant. I would bet a large minority of self-identified Christians in this country are actually apatheists in disguise. Certainly not a plurality, but they’re significant. So the numbers on Christians are accurate in one way…but in another, they seem really inflated.

  18. grumpy realist says:

    @Jeremy: Heck, I don’t think many self-professed Christians believe in God any more, either.

    Note that when someone ends up hacking up someone with an axe and says he’s done it under instructions from “God”, we don’t believe him, but consider him mentally ill….

  19. sam says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Well, according to Rod Dreher, the Western world started to go to pot when the Nominalists beat out the Scholastics back in the 13th century…

    I thought of quoting J.L. Austin’s quip to Dreher, that nominalists and realists subsist by taking in each others’ dirty laundry, but thought better of it. So much about modernity depresses him, adding to the sad seemed cruel.

  20. Rafer Janders says:

    @Jeremy:

    I would reckon about 10% of Americans are atheists, most just don’t admit it.

    About 100% of the American population are atheists when it comes to the gods of other religions. The formal atheists are just atheist about one more god than everyone else….

  21. Jeremy says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    You know what I mean! :p

    @grumpy realist:

    Pretty much. Dunno if the number who don’t believe in god is up at 26%, though. Maybe it is.

  22. grumpy realist says:

    @sam: Sometimes I really wish I had a time machine. Anyone who hates modernity and believes that A Golden Age existed at any point should be dumped back in the middle of it. Enjoy as you wish–together with smallpox, fleas, and famine.

  23. gVOR08 says:

    @Jeremy: I describe myself as an ignostic. Technically, IIRC, one who believes it’s fruitless to talk about God if God is not defined in a way that is falsifiable. I agree with that, but I also feel that His existence a) seems unlikely, and b) has no particular relevance. In my youth I spent several mornings in church praying, “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.” until one Sunday I realized no, I don’t. Now I just don’t regard it as a question for adults.

    I guess the difference between me and an “apatheist” is sort of like Yossarian and Lt. Scheisskoff’s wife, both atheists, arguing in bed about whether they don’t believe in a kindly god or don’t believe in an angry, vengeful god.

  24. Rob Prather says:

    Others have said this, but the commingling of religion and politics since the 80s hasn’t done anyone any favors. There are people who basically identify as Republican and Christian and believe that ONLY Republican Christians are the real ones. Pretty sad.

  25. Jeremy says:

    @gVOR08: I too call myself ignostic! Well, I actually use “igtheist”, as I’ve found that when I say “ignostic”, people think I said “agnostic”. But it’s the same thing.

  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I can easily see many being driven from Christianity by the toxic mix of religion and politics because the world is evolving much faster than Religion is capable of. I do not however see any significant growth in atheists at any time. Agnostics? (those who are too lazy to put any thought into the question) Sure. But actual true blue atheists? People who truly believe that when we die, we die die? No. That fear of the end, of non-existence, is the elixir that feeds religion and will see to it that it always exists. People want to believe, and so they will. In something, even if they aren’t sure what it is.

    Atheism takes a special kind of… honesty I guess is the word, tho that sounds too self aggrandizing. But how else does one describe the acceptance of one’s own superfluousness?

  27. michael reynolds says:

    @Pinky:

    Fair point, but yes, people are reluctant to admit to a pollster what they won’t admit to friends or family.

  28. michael reynolds says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I have never understood the fear of one’s own death and ascribe it to a lack of intellectual rigor. Death is the end of pain, the end of worry, the end of responsibility. There’s nothing to fear because there is nothing after death. People should fear pain and debility and loss of function, not death.

    Say I give you a choice: be doused in gasoline, burn and die in three minutes, or be doused in gasoline, burn and continue burning for hours, days, weeks. . .

    Of course there are diminishing returns. Eventually one gets used to anything. So the notion of hell is stupid because being boiled in oil is really only unpleasant for a few decades, maybe a century. But after a million years? The real threat of eternal life is eternal boredom.

  29. gVOR08 says:

    @michael reynolds: I also note that people who ostensibly believe they are going to heaven seem no less fearful of death than the rest of us.

  30. @michael reynolds:

    I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.

  31. grumpy realist says:

    @Pinky: Dearie–if you’ve gotten in the habit of hiding your atheism, why would you spill all to a pollster?

    I’d hide as well.

  32. grumpy realist says:

    @michael reynolds: That’s what really drove me away from Christianity (well, even before I ended up dealing with a goddess): the concept of Hell.

    It just seemed to me to be so incredibly unjust that actions taken during a finite period of time and confined to a finite number of people would be punished by an infinite amount of torment. That’s not something dreamed up by a just god, but by a sadistic jerk. It’s a revenge fantasy used by humans to threaten others.

    I also felt that Christian theology was loading the dice. If the Truth was so self-evident, why did the theologians need to threaten unbelievers with Hell?

    So I basically decided Christian theology made no sense and stopped believing.

  33. Pinky says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    The formal atheists are just atheist about one more god than everyone else….

    I’ve never understood that line. There are a lot of things in life that are in the 0-1 range. I’ve been hit in the forehead with a crowbar 0-1 times today. There are 0-1 planets in our solar system with an atmosphere hospitable to human life. Explain to your wife that you’re sleeping with 0-1 other women, or to a judge that you’ve committed perjury less than two times.

    I don’t think ISIS or Dawkins, me or Tony would be willing to compromise that there are .5 gods, +/-.5.

  34. Tyrell says:

    There is an important factor that is missing from these studies and data. And that is the Hispanic numbers. For obvious reasons the numbers of most immigrants aren’t included. It is well known that the Christian percentage of Hispanics is very high. In this country some stick with the Catholic church, while most of the rest head into the Pentecostal churches. The rest of the Christian denominations have made little headway into the Hispanic population in this country. The implication is that as immigration continues at its current pace (which could increase a lot depending on who gets elected) then the number of Christians will increase, even doubling in 5-10 years. The growing Hispanic population will impact the Christian church in this country.
    Another factor is the huge growth of the independent churches, many of which do not keep or report membership statistics. So their numbers are largely missing.
    One thing that is really hard to get a number on is “active Christian”. The requirement to be an active church member can vary wildly from church to church. In most cases being an “active” church member carries less requirements than being a member of a book club or bridge club.
    The 5% doctrine”doctrine”: most Christian pastors would agree that in most churches 5% of the members do all the work and give most of the money.

  35. Tillman says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I have never understood the fear of one’s own death and ascribe it to a lack of intellectual rigor.

    You don’t describe an intellectually rigorous accounting of death. The most intellectually rigorous position on death is that it is a completely unknowable state, presuming it is a state to begin with. In spite of the hundred thousand years of human existence and wisdom that’s survived, we’re all canaries in the coal mine when it comes to death. 🙂

    Montaigne had the best advice on this: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”

    @grumpy realist: I found better theologians, plus scholarly work on how the Christian idea of hell was really just an evolution of Greek thought on Tartarus and such. Jesus doesn’t even talk about hell except as a giant pile of flaming garbage. (Which leads to all sorts of interesting thoughts about purgatorial afterlives, universalism, etc.)

    Frankly, the ministers are hiding a very interesting religion behind quotations from John. But that’s what happens when you decide to marry your religion to the politics of the day: you end up needing to enforce conformity of thought above honest thinking, and get a stale religion for your efforts.

  36. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:
  37. michael reynolds says:

    @Tillman:

    I play the odds. Having seen exactly zero evidence of anything occurring after death, and a whole lot of evidence of dead things staying dead, I’m prepared to say that death is the end. Could I be wrong? Actually, I think I’m far more likely to be wrong in predicting that the sun will rise in the east. I mean, enjoy the doubt if it floats your boat, I don’t care. But I don’t live my life around odds that long.

  38. michael reynolds says:

    @Pinky:

    The point being made is that Christians are atheists about the million gods they choose not to believe in, while atheists are just atheist about all of those plus one. It’s not a philosophical point, it’s a snark, but it makes the point that we and Christians both reject any number of divine pretenders, and it places the believer in the position of a person making a choice among many possible gods rather than how they prefer to present themselves.

  39. george says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    This is actually a concern. “I’m spiritual, but I’m not in any particular religion” correlates strongly with lazy anti-intellectualism.

    I don’t see anything particularly anti-intellectual about it. In fact, it describes a fair amount of physics profs I know – a sense there’s more to the universe than what can be described by reductionist philosophy combined with the sense that the current religions are unsatisfactory.

    Interestingly enough such spiritually often supposes no god, and no soul – you end when you die, there’s no conscious being guiding everything from outside, but its not a mechanical system.

    Coming up with your own religion strikes me as actually a fairly creative intellectual activity, better than blindly following a pre-existing one.

  40. Tyrell says:

    Many people have left churches in the large denominations because the Bible is no longer preached and taught. Some of these denominations have lost members by the millions.

  41. @george:

    There’s a distinction between thinking “we don’t know everything” and “therefore everything is unknowable”.

  42. gVOR08 says:

    @grumpy realist: I’ve long felt that it’s difficult to trust people who need the threat of eternal damnation before they’ll behave decently.

  43. Barry says:

    Doug: “Presumably, those who deplore the decline of religion in the world today would not welcome the sort of devastation and despair that could give religion its second wind.”

    If it doesn’t affect them directly, they’d be happy with it. Notice how often the right’s attitude is that other people aren’t suffering enough? Go read the ‘Left Behind’ series, and see how much of it consists of the Saved protagonists smugly being comfortable while others suffer.

  44. george says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    There’s a distinction between thinking “we don’t know everything” and “therefore everything is unknowable”.

    Sure, but what does that have to do with spiritualism? Spiritualism is basically the statement that there are truths about the universe that cannot be found by the scientific methodology (ie that experiments can be repeated at different times and locations and get the same results – ie that space and time are isotropic). Non-repeatable results in short. It doesn’t say everything is unknowable, it says some things can never be known.

    Which even from a completely mechanical viewpoint of the universe (say Laplace’s demon) is almost certainly true for any finite intelligence (say the human brain). We simply haven’t the capacity to know everything.

    That’s analogous to Godel’s theorem that there are mathematically true statements that cannot be proven within math (or that any formal system has true statements that cannot be proven within that system).

  45. Pinky says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Having seen exactly zero evidence of anything occurring after death, and a whole lot of evidence of dead things staying dead,

    Good news: 11 guys said they saw something different.

  46. JKB says:

    @Rob Prather: There are people who basically identify as Republican and Christian and believe that ONLY Republican Christians are the real ones. Pretty sad.

    If you’ve seen this thing called the Internet, you’d know that you can find that “there are people” who basically identify and believe just about anything.

    You might consider it Modern Theology analogous to Modern Physics, it’s more about the probability of a stated belief and how you measure that defines the belief at any specific point of space and time.

  47. JKB says:

    Actually, there is one more instance that could spark a resurgence of religious belief/affiliation in the US. It has been predicted that once same-sex marriage is “law of the land” that the next target is to go after churches and religious organizations that do not modify their beliefs and sanctify same-sex marriages in those churches. Such direct attacks may just provoke a response even from the “unaffiliated”.

  48. Mikey says:

    @JKB:

    It has been predicted

    It has been predicted that Sofia Vergara would show up at my front door begging for a threesome and my wife would say yes.

    That is every bit as likely as the horseshit you’re pushing.

  49. grumpy realist says:

    @Pinky: Yeah, well there are far more than 11 people out there who claim to have been swooped up into UFOs and experimented upon by aliens.

    I’m still not putting out the welcome mat.

  50. grumpy realist says:

    @Pinky: You might also want to consider the possibility that those 11 guys lied. Or that they never existed and someone else made the whole story up. Or that Jesus had a secret twin who was dragged out. Or that the whole story got mashed together with Mithras and Osiris, given that a) none of the Gospels were actually written down until 70 AD or so and b) Christianity definitely was influenced by at least some Egyptian religion (all the Virgin and Child imagery seems to have swiped from Isis/Horus imagery). Or Jesus was a devotee of Neo-Platonic mysteries and was able to put himself into a zombie state and come back out again.

    There are a lot of possibilities, none of which require an actual death and bodily resurrection.

  51. J-Dub says:

    @Tony W:

    Science has jumped in and explained lots of things that used to be immutable religious doctrine

    I think I just saw this on a Facebook post, to paraphrase: Of all the technological advances made in the last few hundred years, not have been attributed to “magic”.

  52. charon says:

    @Pinky: You of course have some evidence establishing these 11 people actually existed, no?

    Or Jesus? Actual evidence such a person really existed?

  53. J-Dub says:

    @gVOR08:

    I’ve long felt that it’s difficult to trust people who need the threat of eternal damnation before they’ll behave decently

    Someone tried to use that on me once, “You don’t believe in the bible? Then what is keeping you from being a rapist?” My answer is that if the only thing keeping you from being a rapist is a book then remind me to keep you away from my daughters.

  54. Rafer Janders says:

    @JKB:

    It has been predicted that once same-sex marriage is “law of the land” that the next target is to go after churches and religious organizations that do not modify their beliefs and sanctify same-sex marriages in those churches.

    If you’ve seen this thing called the Internet, you’d know that you can find that there are “predictions” of basically just about anything.

    You set ’em up, I smash ’em back.

  55. Pinky says:

    There’s an old philosophical problem, how do you know that reality wasn’t created 5 minutes ago, with all our memories etc? The answer is that you can’t know, but there’s no reason to believe that it was created 5 minutes ago, rather than 10 minutes ago or any other seemingly random time.

    There’s no break in the Christian story where you can say, after 311AD this story appeared but before 311AD it was nowhere to be found. You can speculate if you want to that Jesus didn’t exist, or that his apostles got together and decided to pretend that he existed in 70AD, or that he was an invention of a writer in 14th century France. But there’s no discontinuity to suggest it. We can speculate that certain words appeared in Gospel accounts after a given century, but there’s no real reason to believe it.

    We know, to the extent that we can know anything, that there’s a long-standing tradition, written and oral, from different parts of the world, that reaches back to around the time of this Jesus. That tradition includes that he died and rose from the dead. Also, the people who claimed to have seen it took that claim pretty seriously, with the same unbroken tradition having them dying rather than denying it. You don’t find many scams where the main participants act that way.

    Have I never considered the possibility that they lied? Of course I have. I assume you’ve at least considered the possibility that they didn’t lie. To me, there’s more evidence that they existed and told the truth than that they didn’t exist, or lied.

    As for Mithras, I’ve actually looked into that one a bit. It was a mystery cult; in other words, we don’t know much about its practices, so anyone who says that it was exactly like Christianity is making stuff up. What we do know of it come from the temples, which have three recurring images: Mithras being born fully adult from the ground, Mithras fighting the great bull, and Mithras ascending into heaven. That’s one out of three for the parallels with Christianity.

  56. Pinky says:

    @Pinky: I’ve seen people claim that Mithras emerging from the ground is identical to Jesus being born Mary, because Mithras emerged from rock – which is unproductive ground, just like a virgin is unproductive. And Mithras fighting the bull is like Jesus fighting the Roman Empire, never mind that the imagery doesn’t fit. When people are groping like that, it’s hard to believe them.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve looked up the supposed parallels between Egyptian mythology and Jesus, but I wasn’t impressed by them either.

  57. Pinky says:

    @Pinky: CS Lewis:

    Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. Apart from bits of the Platonic dialogues, there are no conversations that I know of in ancient literature like the Fourth Gospel. There is nothing, even in modern literature, until about a hundred years ago when the realistic novel came into existence. In the story of the woman taken in adultery we are told Christ bent down and scribbled in the dust with His finger. Nothing comes of this. No one has ever based any doctrine on it. And the art of inventing little irrelevant details to make an imaginary scene more convincing is a purely modern art. Surely the only explanation of this passage is that the thing really happened? The author put it in simply because he had seen it.

  58. grumpy realist says:

    @Pinky: Mithras was also considered to have been born on December 25th, which is one of the things you would have discovered if you had done any real research on him….

  59. grumpy realist says:

    @Pinky: There’s also the old axiom as stated by Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

    I think I’ll stick to that, thank you.

  60. george says:

    @Pinky:

    We know, to the extent that we can know anything, that there’s a long-standing tradition, written and oral, from different parts of the world, that reaches back to around the time of this Jesus. That tradition includes that he died and rose from the dead.

    There are also as long or longer standing traditions around Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, some forms of paganism, Taoism … its hard to pick and choose among them. Basically most people seem to believe the dominant religion of their region.

    Which doesn’t mean they’re all wrong. Or that any of them are wrong – the universe doesn’t seem especially beholden to human ideas of the impossible (quantum mechanics makes that clear).

  61. @george:

    Basically most people seem to believe the dominant religion of their region.

    For a variety of evolutionary reasons, there’s is a period during early childhood where a person will believe literally anything their parent tell them (e.g. if the parent tells the kid it’s dangerous to stick their hand in the fire, it’s important for their survival that the child just accepts this at true without trying to verify it themselves). The propogation of most religions depends on this period because it is a time where children will accept stories that would be dismissed as blatantly ridiculously at any other time in their lives.

  62. Grumpy Realist says:

    @Stormy Dragon: which is why parents are so eager to load their belief systems into their offspring at an early age. Otherwise kids would treat the stories with much more skepticism.

    I think that everyone in the West should read through the Bible at least once and study Christian thought, but mainly because it’s so intertwined with out common culture. (I also think people should bone up on Greek and Roman thought for similar reasons.) But if you have a good solid background in philosophy and logic, you realize how much most theology is infested with circular reasoning, assumptions, and bad semantics.

  63. Fred says:

    @KM: @Pinky:
    Before the development of papayrus scrolls (the first form of paper, developed in ancient egypt), much was passed on by word of mouth… and i am pretty sure we have all played that game of “telephone” in grade school or later; little changes happen, and end up into a different story than when it started.
    Did they lie? COULD they have lied? maybe… OR they heard X and relayed it as Y; that little extra that is absent from the Y that makes X changes the dynamic of the statements.