One of the most sobering images for religiously-minded Americans has to be a graph showing 80+ years of Gallup Poll results to the question, “Do you happen to be a member of a church, synagogue, or mosque?” From 1937 until 2000, the result hovered around 70% (the high was 76% in the late 1940’s and the low was 68% in the late 1980’s). Essentially, for more than 80 years seven out of every ten Americans were members of some religious body.
Then, in 2000, the bottom fell out.
Since that year, the percentage of Americans who are members of a religious institution has dropped from 70% to 47%, and the decline shows no sign of slowing down. Another recent poll showed that only 39% of Americans said that religion was “very important” to them, down from 62% who said it was “very important” to them back in 1998.
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In the past two decades our country has gone from being one that is at least outwardly religious to one in which the majority of citizens do not think it worthwhile to belong to any church, synagogue, or mosque.
Other data reveal that the Catholic Church is not immune to this decline; in fact, it’s one of the hardest hit religions. Since 2000, there’s been a 41.5% decrease in infant baptisms:
Other Catholic indicators (adult baptisms, Mass attendance, etc.) show a similar downward trend.
So what happened?
Since the precipitous drop began in the first decade of this century, it would do well to reflect on what was happening during that time that might have influenced the decline. As always, we should caveat any analysis with the acknowledgement that there are always many factors that lead someone to leave his or her religion, and sometimes these reasons are personal and have nothing to do with what is going on in the wider world. Yet we can still look at overall trends and connect the dots, so to speak, to discover what the major influences were. I would argue that four primary factors worked together to greatly diminish the role of religion in 21st century American lives.
The first was 9/11. Culturally speaking, this century “began” with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This was one of the most traumatic events in American history, and it reshaped the way Americans viewed the world, setting the tone for this century. It also significantly impacted how Americans viewed Islam in particular but also religion in general.
In spite of President Bush and other world leaders attempting to downplay the role of Islam in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, most people realized that there was a religious impulse behind them. The 9/11 terrorists did what they did because they believed God wanted them to do it. For many Americans (and as we’ll see in a moment, this included some very influential Americans), 9/11 represented the worst of religion.
Soon after the 9/11 attacks, another event affected the American view of religion. This would be the 2002 revelations of widespread sexual abuse among Catholic clergy and a massive coverup of that abuse by the bishops of the Church. These revelations understandably sent shockwaves throughout the Catholic Church (which has still to this day not adequately responded to them). But they also impacted how Americans viewed religion in general.
While it’s true that the United States is fundamentally a Protestant nation, the Catholic Church has long been a dominant force in the American religious landscape. More Americans are members of the Catholic Church than any other single religious body, and throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Catholic Church in this country carried huge moral weight in the eyes of most Americans. The unveiling of deep corruption in the Church, which suggested that many of the Church’s leaders did not act as if they themselves believed in God, undermined that exalted status of the Church, but it also called into question the value of religion in general. If the leaders of the largest religion in the country (and the world) don’t believe in God, why should anyone?
Thus, 9/11 and the Catholic sex abuse crisis gave a powerful 1-2 punch to religion in America to begin this century.
Enter the New Atheists.
In 2004, atheist Sam Harris published The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which was an aggressive attack on religious beliefs, exalting reason and science as all one needs in this life. Harris explicitly noted that he was motivated to write his book by the 9/11 attacks. The book became a best-seller, and launched a new, far more aggressive wave of attacks on religion by atheists.
Harris’s book was soon followed by The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, and many others. Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens became household names, leading the charge of the New Atheists.
The premise of the New Atheism was essentially this: We all see how horrible religion is, so we should look to the source: a belief in God. And we don’t have to believe in God anymore because science has disproved His existence. All we need to do is believe in what we can understand through our senses: the material world.
The immense success of these New Atheists was fostered by a fourth and final major factor in the decline of religion: the rise of social media on the Internet. The first decade of this century saw the creation of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other social media giants. This burgeoning technology recreated the social landscape of America, and it also allowed the evangelists of the New Atheism to spread their message far and wide.
In the time before the Internet, atheism existed of course, but was unable to spread virally. Most major media institutions in the 1950’s, for example, would not allow atheism to be promoted in any way (while it did allow someone like Bishop Fulton Sheen to promote Catholicism!). Of course, beginning in the 1960’s anti-religious sentiment grew stronger in the media, but it still rarely directly attacked religion.
The Internet, however, was a breeding ground for evangelical atheism. Anyone who has spent even a little time on a site like Reddit knows it is swarming with young, aggressive atheists who love to attack religion at any opportunity. Whereas in earlier times atheism was usually restricted to urban areas like San Francisco or New York, by the early 2000’s with the Internet and charismatic New Atheist leaders like Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens, anti-religious fervor could spread like wildfire, and it did.
It’s important to point out, however, the New Atheists didn’t make the whole country atheist. Only 19% of the country doesn’t believe in God (although that is an all-time high). While the New Atheists did convert many to their areligious religion, most Americans maintained their belief in God. But that doesn’t mean the New Atheists weren’t wildly successful. For while they might not have converted the country to atheism, they did convert most Americans to accept the underlying foundation of the New Atheists—materialism.
A materialist might profess a belief in God in a vague way (or to a pollster), but he will typically not practice that belief in any real way; i.e., he will not be part of a religious body, which is exactly what we are seeing happening in this country. He will treat religion as unimportant, and religious practices as unnecessary and perhaps even harmful.
For example, when I mentioned on Twitter recently my disappointment that the bishops shut down all public Masses at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, someone—who called herself a Catholic—responded that I was “fetishizing religious observations over physical health.” Richard Dawkins couldn’t have said it better himself.
The New Atheists’ successful undermining of religious belief is not to say that there were no attempts to counter them by religious believers. Francis Collins, for example, the head of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian, wrote The Language of God in an attempt to show that not only does science not “disprove” God, but it gives many indicators that point to His existence. In the Catholic world, Scott Hahn wrote Answering the New Atheism and Trent Horn penned Answering Atheism to demonstrate the reasonableness of religion and particularly Catholicism.
These apologetical works were (and are) important, but clearly they fell far short of arresting the ascendance of atheism and materialism and the rejection of organized religion. Sadly, in many real ways the New Atheists won.
By this author:
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So what do we do now? How do we revive religious sentiment in this country, specifically Catholic belief?
First, we should continue to offer apologetical defenses of Catholicism in particular and belief in God generally. The New Atheists reveled in supposed scientific findings that “disproved” the existence of God. A dangerous temptation for religious believers is to respond by rejecting legitimate scientific findings. However, that is a project that will ultimately fail, as reasonable people will conclude that religion and reason are opposed, when, as Catholics, we know that the God of reason is also the God of revelation. (A noteworthy book in his regard is Stephen Barr’s Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, which demonstrates that scientific discoveries of the past century have actually done more to point to a Divine Creator than disprove Him.)
But apologetics is not enough. While many Catholics wrote praiseworthy defenses of religion, too many Catholics—including Church leaders—do not act as if God really exists. They live as the New Atheists do: materialists who see our physical world as all there is in the universe. Their actions have spoken much louder than their words.
There are countless ways in which this implicit materialism manifests itself in the Church today. Youth sports on Sundays (even in “Catholic” leagues!) downplay the spiritual importance of this divinely-ordered day of rest; Catholic schools prioritizing public school educational standards over imparting the Faith to children undermine the importance of their spiritual health; attempts to make the Mass more “relevant” instead of more transcendent fashion a man-centered, rather than God-centered, liturgy; emphasizing “social justice” as the top priority of the Church diminishes its spiritual mission; and, of course, agreeing to classify the Sacraments as “non-essential” services (while Home Depot remained open) undercut the very purpose of the Catholic religion.
So I think we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that the New Atheists have won this round, mostly without a fight on our side. America has become a nation of materialists on its way to a nation of atheists. But the battle is not over, and we still have time to reverse the troubling trends in this country. To do that, we need to respond with strong apologetics, using reason to defend the fundamental truths of our Faith. We need to demonstrate that this material world is not all there is, but that we are made for so much more.
And we need to act like it too. We need to live our our religion like it’s the most important thing in the world—because it is. Until we combine our words and actions, we will continue to be pummeled by the New Atheists, and that Gallup graph will only become more and more sobering.