I'm Nevets: Skeptic, cinephile, TV-junkie, bookworm, gamer, and slacker extraordinaire.
The results are in!
Good news, heathens! According to a recently released study by the Pew Research Center, it looks like America is becoming less Christian with each passing day. More surprising? The religiously unaffiliated is growing in a big, bad way.
The study (available here) found that the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has skyrocketed from a mere 16.1% to 22.8% of the population. This number consists of a combination in the rise of atheism, agnosticism, and "nothing in particulars." This now makes the non-religious (the "none" category) the second largest "religion" in the nation.
Christianity, of course, still rules the roost with a staggering 70.6% of the population on their team. But as large as this number is, it's one that's rapidly declining with each passing year. In just seven years (since the last massive Pew study), the number of American Christians has dropped nearly 8 percentage points from its previous 78.4%. This is a mighty steep decline for such short period of time, and the question remains: Why is it happening?
While there isn't one particular answer why Christian numbers are declining and the numbers of atheists, agnostics, and "nones" are rising, there are several possible (and probable) reasons for the change. This is the topic we're going to explore today with the following 10 possible reasons why Christianity is losing its grip on Americans.
10) Science has become popular and mainstream
It's true! Just take a look at your Facebook feed; chances are you won't have to scroll down too far before you find that someone has either shared or "liked" something science related. Even astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's very image (accompanied by a "Badass over here" text) has become an inescapable internet meme. Pretty cool-weird, huh? This is just a small example of how science's popularity is spreading in our culture that's suddenly seeing science as a fun, interesting, and valid, non-magical source for answers that we couldn't find anywhere else.
Speaking of Tyson, his reboot of The Cosmos recently became a hit documentary series on 10 different television networks, and his podcast, Startalk, was ranked number 13 on Rolling Stone Magazine's "Top 20 Best Comedy Podcasts Right Now." (It's since become a TV talk show!) Couple this bizarreness with the knowledge that the top-ranking sitcom over the last several years is about a group of nerdy physicists and engineers (CBS's The Big Bang Theory), and the fact that movies about Stephen Hawking, mathematician Alan Turing, and even one about time dilation and black holes have each won Academy Awards in 2015, it shouldn't take long before the evidence adds up — science has finally begun to get its time in the limelight.
How this corresponds with the decline of Christianity and the rise of atheism could simply have to do with the fact that science itself is devoid of religious ideas, and that it so often directly contradicts specifics of religious beliefs. Christian views having to do with spontaneous creation, a 6,000 year-old earth, virgin births, Noah's flood, miracles, resurrections, and so forth, are all improbabilities (and more likely, impossibilities) in the scientific point of view. And when we adopt and accept that point of view, we're left disposing of those less-worldly explanations. This may not always cause someone to let go of their religion, of course, but it may act as a very real starting point, where letting go of the magical tales and the need to use religion as an explanation, is only the beginning.
As scientific knowledge grows, it's always had the tendency of wedging religion out of the way (just look at the number of scientists who are non-believers). With scientific awareness now becoming widespread among the general public, this effect may be occurring in a lot more lives.
9) Famous non-believers have come out of the closet
Like it or not, we're living in a world where the rich and famous are idolized, respected, and adored. This includes not just movie stars and musicians, but politicians, news commentators, comedians, science popularizers, authors, and pretty much anyone else under the sun who happens to be in the public eye. And with Twitter, Facebook, gossip blogs, the paparazzi, and even news channels getting into the mix (hooking us up with an onslaught of daily access to celebrities' personal lives), we now know everything about these famous figures — including their religions.
You only need look at people's fashions to know how highly influenced we are by famous figures whom we admire and/or respect. Being influenced by their religion (or lack thereof) isn't too different. When someone sees Brad Pitt on TV telling us that he's an atheist-agnostic, it wouldn't be unusual for people to think "Hey, I always thought atheists were bad. But if Brad Pitt is one, then maybe there's something to it. I always liked him." Similarly, if someone is already having atheistic thoughts, maybe hearing that a favorite celebrity is an atheist could be enough to let them know it's okay for them to be one too.
Not too different from how Will & Grace made it okay for more gays to come out of the closet, sometimes non-believers just need to know they're not alone (and not weirdos) so they can muster up the courage to tell the world how they feel.
8) TV, film, and the media
Not unlike how the influence of celebrity, film, television, and other forms of media can also be highly persuasive in determining our opinions on religion, when shows like South Park or Family Guy poke fun at religion, ridicule faith, or make a joke out of Jesus, that can have a huge impact on a viewers' religious perspective (especially a young viewer). Because, while the jokes are only jokes, they can also convey an irreverent opinion, point out flaws otherwise unnoticed, and result in the viewer henceforth associating the mocked beliefs with silliness and absurdity.
To understand this from an outside point of view, think about Scientology — a comparatively new religion — and how often we've heard it joked about in movies, on TV, and from the routines of comedians. For some of us, the first time we were introduced to religion was hearing someone making fun of it. Because of this, many couldn't disassociate Scientology from wackiness and ridiculousness even if we tried. Thankfully, comedy has ruined it for us. If we were to primarily hear Christianity spoken about in a mocking or irreverent sense, then perhaps we'd disassociate ourselves from that as well. After all, no one wants to be the butt of the joke.
Of course, it's not just how media mocks or makes fun of religion that turns us off to it. We're also now exposed to more open debates and conversations having to do with those beliefs and their proposed fallacies. On popular TV shows such as Real Time with Bill Maher, for example, we often find theists and atheists getting into deep discussions (sometimes even arguments) over the topic. On shows such as Penn & Teller's Bullsh!t, we were shown sociological experiments disproving supernatural events, and the promotion of a more scientific outlook on supposedly miraculous events. On science documentaries we're repeatedly presented with a stream of scientific theories and explanations about the universe that run contrary to what our religions would have us believe. This list goes on and on, and has even carried on to films (see The Atheist Friendly Movies List, for more on those).
Combined, all of these movies, TV shows, news programs, and stand-up comedians have an impact on us as viewers. More so for younger viewers, for sure, but an influence on all of us nonetheless. They have the ability to open us up to new ideas, they give in-the-closet non-believers the extra nudge they need to come out, and most of all, they cause us to think more deeply about the topic of religion when they openly question it in their respective popular mediums.
7) Non-belief is in style and reaching a critical mass
As with the spread of African American culture, the almost unanimous acceptance of homosexuals and diverse races in society, and even the strange growth in the popularity of comic book heroes (seriously, there was actually a time when it was just "nerds" who liked that stuff), the counterculture keeps growing into the cultural norm all the time. All it takes is a group of supporters, proponents, fans, activists, a good idea, or a new innovation to set the ball in motion, expose us to their influence, and finally for the trend to catch on and eventually take over. This is called reaching a critical mass. And it's occurring with non-belief.
People have been becoming less religious for decades, but today it's happening quicker than ever. This may be due to the introduction of the internet and other social media in our world, and how it's helping spread ideas at a much faster rate. Now, an inevitable critical mass (which could typically take decades or even millenniums to occur) can be achieved quicker than ever before.
6) America's changing political climate and religion's bad image
We're in an atmosphere of big changes in America, especially when it comes to such issues as the rights for gays to marry — something which we never would have thought possible just a mere 10 years ago, but is now quickly becoming a reality all over the country (and the world). Not too different from the changing attitudes about people of color from the late 19th century through the 1960s, progressiveness is occurring. Those not onboard are quickly being left behind, and Americans are steadily beginning to disassociate themselves from those dissenters; who, typically, consist of a lot of Christians.
When we see the Tea Party and others from the religious right fighting so vehemently against these issues, it doesn't bode well for their image in this increasinly progressive public eye — or, subsequently, the image of the religion which motivates them. In essence, they're becoming a large contributor to what's giving Christianity such a bad rap.
Due to the emergence of this vocal and highly visible sect of the religious right, we're all forced to focus more on issues such as homosexuality and evolution, and the religion that's against them. Whether liberal or conservative, the God issue is now a relevant topic in politics. People who normally never gave their Christianity a second thought are now being forced to face it, and either defend or question the beliefs that come with it. And the youth of the nation is growing up not seeing the religion as one of love; but one of hate, ignorance and bigotry.
5) The Internet" oirreligion goes viral
How the internet may have affected religious affiliation could have to do with two long-known facts:
- The biggest influence on an individual's personal religion is their home life and immediate environment.
- Studies have repeatedly shown correlations between the rise in education leading to a decrease in religious affiliation.
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Since the rise of the internet, the following has occurred:
- People (now beginning at young ages) are no longer restricted to discussing topics with only their friends, family, teachers, acquaintances, and coworkers. They now have access to communicate with different kinds of people with varying ideas, knowledge, and beliefs, from all over the world.
- Intelligence has risen, likely helped by the internet's open access to every opinion, idea, study, statistic, scientific discovery, and answer to almost any question we can think of.
Before the internet, the only access we had to the outside world was our televisions, radios, libraries, and newspapers; with our only personal influences being those around us. With all of the information, opinions, and knowledge of the world now at our fingertips and literally in our pockets, our lives and beliefs were bound to be impacted.
It's not only that information is available to us, though. We're also generally exposed to more than just the opinions of whatever circle we choose to affiliate ourselves with. Just one look at the comments section of any religious or atheist website, article, or video will clearly show how impossible it is to ignore dissenting opinions these days. No longer can we simply insulate ourselves from outside views.
Which brings us to our next reason for the drop in religious beliefs...
4) We're now forced to talk about and question religion
The topic of religion and belief has become unavoidable in today's culture and society. As mentioned above, it's now a relevant talking point in politics, it's debated all over the internet (anywhere religion is even slightly mentioned), and it's regularly becoming comedy fodder in film, TV, and standup comedy. And with the rise of vocal secularist groups and such high-profile atheists as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss, religion is also now being specifically called out for its shenanigans on a regular basis.
Because of this exposure, religious groups that hold firm to their beliefs are being put in the spotlight, and have become even more vocal in their views, in order to defend them. The results include incidences such as the one pictured above, where biblical creationist Ken Ham and popular scientist Bill Nye ("The Science Guy") went head-to-head in a sold-out debate concerning the origins of the human race. It was watched live on approximately 750,000 computer screens by about 3 million people — pretty amazing numbers for a science debate.
It's at the point where we're all forced into the position of picking sides. We no longer simply accept our religions without questions, or easily isolate ourselves from the voices of dissenting opinions. And while this may strengthen many believers into more strongly defending their faith, for some, the dissenters are making sense, and the "converts" — who were otherwise unaccustomed to seeing alternative views — are growing.
3) People are getting smarter
IQ scores have been increasing steadily since the beginning of the 20th century. This is a fact that was first discovered by James R. Flynn, a researcher at the University of Otago in New Zealand over 28 years ago. It's now called The Flynn Effect, and it's a phenomenon that's still occurring to this day. The bottom line is: we're getting smarter. Our health is improving, our schools are improving, and thanks to the internet, our easy access to knowledge and new ideas has become almost limitless — all contributing factors to intelligence.
It's also been found in numerous studies (dating as far back as the 1920s) that there is a direct correlation between the rise in intelligence and education with a drop in religiosity. Meaning it's highly possible that the reason for the steady decline of Christianity in America may be due to the increased knowledge and education in the American people.
2) A new generation is taking control
Taken from The Pew Research Center:
"One of the most important factors in the declining share of Christians and the growth of the 'nones' is generational replacement. As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations. Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33). And fewer than six-in-ten Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with seven-in-ten or more among older generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Just 16% of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11% identify with mainline Protestantism. Roughly one-in-five are evangelical Protestants."
While it's true that rise in the "nones" is appearing in all ages, the unavoidable conclusion here is that, regardless of the reasons, the newest generation of adults is composed of one heck of a lot of non-believers. And these numbers are rising steadily, showing no signs of slowing down. The results being, as the older generation dies out, the most religious of our nation goes right along with them.
1) Everything combined
In the end, the answer as to why Christianity in America is dwindling and the non-religious is growing is more than likely a combination of everything mentioned above; and then some. Together, they all culminate into a perfect storm of reasons to say goodbye to our previously held beliefs.
With the decline in the literal interpretation of scripture causing religion to lose its relevance, our rise in scientific awareness, the less religious youth growing up, our easy exposure to new and diverse beliefs and opinions, and our continuous bombardment of the negative aspects, effects, bigotry, and fallacies of religions, every day we're being given more and more reasons to drop our religious ideas.
Whether this trend will last, no one knows. But for the moment, we're seeing no sign of it slowing down.
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Regardless of how rational and pragmatic you may think you are, or how immune to silly superstitions and wild ideas you might believe yourself to be, the truth is that none of us are Star Trek Vulcans. We're each just as susceptible to illogical thoughts and strange beliefs as the next guy. In fact, we're sorta hardwired that way; so don't feel bad... CLICK HERE to read more articles from the author on this subject
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