The Rising Tide of Secularity: Barry A. Kosmin

This speech was delivered on Nov. 7, 2009, at the 32nd annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation at the Red Lion Hotel, Seattle.

Barry in discussion with convention attendeesUntil March 9, 2009, when we released the Summary Report of the American Religious Identification Survey—ARIS 2008, it was fashionable and widely accepted common knowledge in academia, among the media and political elites that we were living through an era of faith and that the Zeitgeist and the general ethos in the U.S. favored religion. It was widely proclaimed that Americans have gotten more religious in recent years and that there is a great gulf in worldviews that separates Americans from other West­er­ners, particularly the secular Europeans.

It was only admitted reluctantly that we might be slightly less religious than the Saudis or Indians. The most recent example of this fashion is the recent book by Micklethwaite and Wood­ridge, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Religion is Changing the World (Penguin, 2009). This is not to say that the hysterical reaction to our ARIS finding that the proportion of Christ­ians had fallen from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008 in the Newsweek cover story of April 4, 2009, entitled “The Decline and Fall of Christian Ameri­ca,” is justified either. Fortun­ately, most of the massive amount of re­portage, analysis and comment on TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and blogs has been more balanced and objective.

My chosen task here is to disabuse you of the idea that secularization was dormant in the U.S. until we proclaimed the rise of the “Nones” by revealing that currently one in five Americans does not identify with a religious group when asked directly, “What is your religion, if any?” We showed that the percentage of adult Americans replying “None or no religion” to the question increased from 8% or 14 million in 1990 to 15% or 34 million people in 2008. This irreligious population is currently growing by around 750,000 persons a year.

Furthermore, I plan to show you that organized religion, by which most people mean the Christian Right, has not been on the march in most of the U.S. for some years, and I shall provide an evidence-based counterargument.

The social facts show that in terms of the three B’s favored by sociologists of religion (belonging, belief and behavior), the average American has become markedly less religious over the past two decades, and that society as a whole has become more secular. This secularizing trend has not only affected public sentiment but also the law, the economy, education and family life, despite the valiant but largely ineffective efforts of many conservative clerics and Republican politicians to hold back the tide. With hindsight we can observe in 2009 that the Christian Right failed to make its desired impact on law and public sentiment in areas they considered most critical to the nation’s moral health.

The long-term effect was to produce a reaction against the judgmentalism of the Religious Right.

In retrospect, our ARIS survey time series data show that the 1990s were the decade of the “secular boom,” when nearly all the national social indicators and measures pointed in one direction: toward increased secularity. The “no religion” population grew by over one million every year.  This is not surprising from a sociological perspective. It was a period of prosperity with a corresponding emphasis on consumerism and materialism as a result of the peace bonus with the end of the Cold War.

If one accepts the old adage that religion is for the poor and fearful (the opiate of the masses), then one theory for the loosening hold of religion, particularly among younger Americans, is that this period of national security and prosperity was an ideal environment for the rise of individualism and its correlate secularity.

Though the rhetoric of American politics and public life did indeed change after 1976 and there was more “God talk,” the actual situation in law and on the ground in society has not mirrored this change. In fact, in the course of the “culture wars,” the reversals suffered by traditional religion and its claims have been manifold. There has been a measurable decline in religiosity and in religion’s impact in the economic and social sphere, which is not unexpected given that the intellectual elite, and much of the business elite, never subscribed to the agenda of the religious right. Key indicators of belief, belonging and behavior, such as identification with religion, membership of congregations and attendance at worship services, have all declined.

Today, half of U.S households do not currently belong to a religious congregation and, on the average Sunday, 73% do not go to church; 27% do not anticipate a religious funeral and 30% do not believe in a personal biblical-style God.

The Sunday blue laws and restrictions on gambling have been abolished in most states. Abortion, contraception and pornography are available. Euthanasia and assisted suicide have been endorsed by courts and voters in Oregon and Washington. Prayer in public school remains banned. Homosexuality is no longer a crime and is largely accommodated in law and society. Civil unions of same-sex couples are now recognized in several states, and same-sex marriage has been legislated into law in four New Eng­land states this year.

At the outset, I would like to offer an explanation as to why so many otherwise sensible and observant people in the media and intelligentsia misinterpreted the evidence around them for the rise of secularity. One reason is that they are oriented to party politics and focused on the electoral process. This, as I shall demonstrate, is the main arena where religion has had a real impact. The reason for this is that since the 1970s, the center of gravity within American Protestantism has shifted from more liberal, mainline (sometimes now called old line) de­no­minations, whose adherents dominated the levers of power and government since the founding of the Republic, to more conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical denominations.

In recent decades, the connection between frequent religious service attendance and political, social and religious conservatism became increasingly tight. In some cases, it has grown tighter because the most religiously active people have become more conservative over time. That concentration began to intensify in the 1970s and it continues. This produced the so-called culture wars phenomenon of the 1990s.

Another trend in the congregational organization of American religion also played its part. This was the church-growth movement which in­creas­ed the number of very large churches across the country. This trend occurred in nearly every Pro­testant denomination on which we have data, and it resulted in an increasing concentration of churchgoers within very large churches. The new phenomenon, especially in the in­creas­ingly electorally powerful Sun­belt states, was the mega-church with its impressive facilities and broad array of social and recreational activities, often led by a politically and media savvy conservative, charismatic preacher.

The mega-churches were the natural home of the new brand label of “non­­­denom­inational Christians,” whose num­bers recorded in ARIS rose from under 200,000 in 1990 to over 8 million in 2008. Pastors who could mobilize large numbers of congregants often became powerful political actors on the local media and political scene, especially where they were linked to national organizations.

These religious entrepreneurs were expert exponents of supply-side religion.

These trends, combined with an increased affiliation among Protest­ants with conservative and evangelical denominations, resulted in an increasing public presence, social prominence and political influence for American religion, but really evangelical and conservative Protestantism. This is the social reality behind, and in part created by, the rise of the Religious Right in recent decades, a development that has tremendously increased religion’s visibility in politics at every level.

The result, as my co-author, Ariela Keysar, and I pointed out in our 2006 book, Religion in a Free Market, was that there was an increasingly tight connection between religiosity and political and social conservatism, and for the first time there was a real religious divide—a God gap—between the constituencies comprising the two main political parties. It was the power and influence of the Religious Right in the Republican Party that led many observers to claim that recent decades are ones of religious revival, awakening or revitalization for all Americans.

The energy and innovation of the evangelicals and fundamentalists al­low­ed them also to successfully appropriate the terms “Christian” and even “religious.” They operated very efficient public relations and direct-mail fundraising linked to televangelism. This religious entrepreneurialism had short-term success in dominating the debate on many aspects of the domestic and economic agendas in the public square through interest groups like the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family, but the long-term effect was to produce a reaction against the judgmentalism of the Religious Right, particularly among women and Gener­ations X and Y, which created the increased secularity in society that is now becoming evident. Never­the­less, in 2008, one of every three adult Americans self-identified as “born-again or evangelical.”

The evangelicals were also able to dominate the political debate because of a greater diffidence among the largest American religious group, the Catholic Church, to enter the arena of party and electoral politics. The Catholic community is literally a much broader and less socially and politically cohesive church. Divided between liberals and conservatives and cultural and practicing Catholics, it was less willing and able to involve itself in party politics and mainly confined itself to moral issues, particularly around abortion and sexuality. But the Catholic population has been eroded by defections, particularly among young and middle-aged white males, since 1990. They have been replaced by Latino immigrants.

The decline in the prestige and influence of the Catholic Church, particularly in New England, where the proportion of Catholics fell from 50% to 33% between 1990 and 2008, was recorded by ARIS 2008. Sociological trends played their part, but an anti-clerical reaction to the sexual scandals among the priesthood was obvious, and the bad publicity continues. The Boston archdiocese alone shuttered 60 churches and paid out $85 million in compensation in 2002-03. The trials and tribulations of the Catholic Church have not ended. A report issued March 13, 2009, by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops showed 803 allegations were filed by 706 victims in 2008 against 518 clergy. The church also spent more than $436 million in legal settlements, attorney fees and counseling costs. That’s a lot of collection plates.

Finally, it is necessary to point out that many on the left of the intellectual and political spectrum also enhanc­ed the salience of religion.  Antagon­ism to modernity and Enlightenment values led post-modernists and multiculturalists in academe to valorize and exaggerate religious diversity and ethnic particularism resulting from immigration from the developing world. One would never learn from these studies that, in total, all the non-Christian religious groups in the U.S. comprise less than 4% of the total population, and that the challenge to the supremacy of Christianity comes not from other world religions or new religious movements but from irreligion.

Studies of new immigrants funded by the Templeton, Lilly, Luce, Mellon, Carnegie and Ford foundations tended to emphasize their religiosity and differences, as well as to overstate the numerical contribution of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Santeria, Rastafar­ian­ism, etc., to the American religious landscape (Eck, Haddad, Warner, Casanova). The fact that by far the largest religious group among Asians is “nones” (27% in 2008), and that Hispanics without a religious identity far outnumber Latino Pentecostals, by a factor of 4 to 1, and are only slightly under the national rate was ignored and hidden by an intellectual and ideological outlook fascinated with the exotic that mimicked elements of Victorian anthropological essentialism.

This school of scholars also tends to ignore the many immigrants to the U.S. attracted not by its guarantee of freedom of religion but by the possibility it offers for freedom from religion. This is especially true for secular and democratically oriented people from the Middle East and Asia seeking to escape from the restrictions of Shari’a law, Muslim fundamentalist persecution and Islamist violence.  
In an area of major concern to the Religious Right—sexuality, marriage and abortion—they failed to advance their agenda during the supposed era of their political ascendance in the 1980s and 1990s, and since then they have lost ground. The Roe v. Wade decision was not reversed, and the secularization of the family has been advanced.

Initially, civil unions of homosexual couples were recognized by several state courts during the 1990s, but now the fight is about marriage itself.  Marriage and matrimony are words once reserved for “holy wedlock” and regarded as a sacrament. Recently, marriage has been redefined by courts in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa to allow homosexual unions. Elsewhere, it’s a political conflict between two views of liberty—human rights and the power of popular sovereignty to reinforce religious strictures.  Increased secularity has meant that this battle has moved away from the legal elites and into the legislatures. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act and 30 states have passed constitutional amendments, in effect banning homosexual marriage.

In 2008, Proposition 8 passed in California. Traditionalists in Florida and Arkansas won state referenda against gay marriage and adoptions by gays. But in Vermont, the most irreligious state in the union where “nones” have a plurality of religious identification (34%), a gay marriage bill passed the Senate and House, which overturned a veto by Gov. Jim Douglas in April 2009. In New Hampshire (nones, 29%), legislation also passed. Inter­estingly, the New Hampshire Senate is the only legislative body in the U.S. with a majority of female members.

Connecticut passed a marriage “equality” bill in spring 2009. Maine (nones,  25%) was unique in that legislation on marriage equality preceded a court decision. The defeat of the reform in a referendum Nov. 3 is not a surprise. What is amazing from a historical perspective is that 47% of the electorate in a rural state with two Republican senators voted for marriage equality. Given that 25% of Gen X (ages 29 to 42) and Gen Y (ages 18 to 28) are “nones,” this is probably only a temporary reversal. As I have stated publicly: It’s a standoff between young people with a tremendous sympathy for civil rights and what appears to be biblical injunctions from religion that appeal to older voters. And the civil rights equality argument is making inroads in public opinion.

Organized religion has traditionally placed great emphasis on control and supervision of marriage and support for the traditional notion of the family. Significantly, marriage as an institution has been eroded in societal significance in recent decades. Rates of divorce increased rapidly from the 1960s until the 1980s but tended to flatten after that, paradoxically because of a decline in the numbers and rates of marriage.  Young adults tended to postpone marriage or abandoned interest in it entirely. Marriage as an institution lost its monopoly on sex and procreation. The number of single people living with a partner and rate of nonmarital parenting—the number of children born out of wedlock—has increased annually for decades and reached 37 percent of all live births in 2005. Religion has lost ground as a result of these trends.

The decline in church membership and worship among young adults can be traced to the decline in the rate of marriage and its delay, which has caused a rise in the age of marriage. This trend increases measures of secularity.

Another behavioral issue that illustrates the strides made by secular forces in society at the expense of religion is the fate of laws restricting Sunday activities. America has long been envisioned as a nation that observes and preserves Sunday as a sacred time, protected from the mundane and the profane. This normative American Sunday emerged from the Puritan notion of the Christian sabbath, inspired by the fourth of the biblical Ten Commandments. This meant the exclusion of economic production and the marketplace and the avoidance of any pleasurable consumption.

The first Sunday law enacted in an American colony (Virginia, 1610) required church attendance, setting the death penalty for third-time offenders. Penalties, for sins of omission or commission, were clearly laid down under a similar New Haven Colony law enacted in 1656.

To protect the sacred time, the profane was defined not only as the commercial, but also as any amusement devoid of an uplifting message.  Exhilaration through inebriation has been correctly viewed as the antithesis of Puritan sobriety and austerity. If it could not be expunged during the six days of the secular work week, at least one day would be kept pure.

Bible-inspired laws, forbidding nu­merous activities (“blue laws”) have been a part of the Sunday culture, symbolically and practically, and  formalized what became known as the Puritan sabbath, a day of rest, worship and sobriety in every sense. This complex of normative Sunday behaviors marked the young American republic.

De Tocqueville provided us with an eyewitness account of the reality of American Sunday observance in one major city in 1831/32:
All social movement begins to be suspended even on Saturday evenings. . . . Not only have all ceased to work, but they appear to have ceased to exist. You can hear neither the movements of industry, not the accents of joy, nor even the confused murmur that arises from the midst of a great city.

This description makes clear that Sunday in those days started on Saturday night and extended until Monday morning, creating in reality a unique sacred time-space that lasted about 36 hours. In a sense, these were 36 hours of worship. H.L. Mencken described Sunday as “a day given over by Americans to wishing that they themselves were dead and in Heaven, and that their neighbors were dead and in Hell.”

Sunday athletic competition was banned since it was regarded as frivolous entertainment. Nevertheless, in 1934, religion lost the struggle over Sunday baseball. The growing influence of major sports corporations in the transformation of Sunday is best expressed in the history of the Super Bowl. It has been played on Sunday since 1967 and it is now widely recognized as a national secular holiday.

The elimination of Sunday laws has been a gradual and complex process. In 1872, California became the first state to abolish all restrictions on Sunday business. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on four Sunday law cases. A majority, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, upheld them, ruling that such laws do not interfere with the free exercise of religion, do not constitute the establishment of a state religion, and serve the purpose of providing a day of rest for all (e.g., McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 1961). These decisions caused both surprise and criticism at the time, and proved the special status of Sunday laws. Paradoxically, these affirmative rulings also marked the beginning of the end for these laws.

After 1960, the forces of individualism and consumerism which operated to eliminate Sunday laws gained much strength. With the accelerated pace of opposition to and elimination of Sunday laws, religious leaders of all Christian denominations were speaking out against  the new trend, with no visible impact.

During the 1950s and 1960s, four states repealed them. In the next three decades, 13 more states followed, including the bible belt states of North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas. Current­ly before the legislature in my home state of Connecticut are measures to eradicate the last vestiges of Puritan colonial legislation: a Republican measure to end the ban on Sunday hunting, and a Democratic bill to abolish the ban on Sunday alcohol sales.  This is presumably consensus politics at work! It can also be seen as the final vanquishing of the once powerful temperance movement, led by the Protest­ant churches that created Prohibition in the early 20th century. 

There has been a coalition of forces fighting for the preservation of Sun­day, mostly a variety of religious lobbies. The coalition fighting to secularize Sunday has been most visibly made up of business organizations and secular individuals. The history of these struggles illustrates the various steps in the secularization of Sun­day. Secular­ization may be described as the continuing process of devaluing religious ideas, and religious authority has become marginalized.

It seems that the secular activities of shopping and entertainment on Saturday have invaded the Sunday space. The culture of the automobile, which changed every aspect of modern life, has changed the nature of both work and leisure. It gave families easier access to both church and shopping, both work and entertainment over the weekend.

Does the gradual elimination of blue laws have any behavioral effects? Gruber & Hungerman (2006) reported that following the repeal of Sunday blue laws, church attendance falls by about 5% on average. It turns out that about 15% of those who had been attending religious services weekly attend less frequently. Donations to religious organizations fall by 13%, or about $109 per person per year. Spending by religious organizations in those states falls by about 6.3%.

Elimination of blue laws has meant that the prescribed religious nature of the day was no longer supported. Religion no more monopolizes your time and entertainment activity. Church has to compete for people’s time and mind. The pressure for culture differentiation, as shown in the case of the American Sunday, comes from secular forces, both economic and symbolic. Alternative forms of entertainment also contribute to the change.

It is all possible because religion is fragmented. This is part of the secularization process, as all religions are becoming weaker. On the other hand, due to economic pressures, Sunday becomes a day of work. If we examine changes over time, what we observe can be described as clear erosion in the status of Sunday as a separate space-time. As of the 21st century, Sunday has become a mixed-use day, combining work, worship and entertainment.

Now let’s turn to another controversial arena, the topic of gambling. The Baptist minister Walter Rauschen­busch founded the Social Gospel movement in about 1900. In his book, Christianity and the Social Crisis, he described gambling as the  “vice of the savage . . . a true civilization ought to outgrow it, as it has tattooing and cannibalism.” 

Billy Sunday also opposed gambling, which was forbidden to his followers. This was the period when the Religious Right nurtured strong anti-capitalist sentiments. They opposed gambling, of course, because greed is one of the seven deadly sins, as well as an addiction, a regressive tax on poor people and a habit that causes family break-ups, etc. So what happened?

In 1964, only one state, New Hampshire, had a lottery. Now they operate in 41 states and the District of Columbia. Forty years ago, only Nevada had casinos. Ten states now have casinos and 11 have racetrack betting. It’s estimated that one in four Americans visited a casino in 2006.

Interestingly, the Southern Baptist Convention in 1997 passed a resolution that Christians “should refuse to participate or promote gambling.” And they called on politicians to prohibit gambling and its advertisement. No national movement of religious opposition to gambling emerged. Opposition has gone the way of Prohibition. The Baptists’ only success against gambling was in Alabama, where casinos were defeated largely by religious opposition.

Having illustrated the trend toward increased secularization in the realms of belonging and behavior, we can now look at the third “B” of religiosity: belief. There has been an erosion in the underlying levels of religious belief. Key indicators include reduced belief in an inerrant bible, reduced confidence in leaders of religious organizations and reduced tolerance of certain kinds of religious involvement in the public sphere.

ARIS 2008 revealed that 70% of Americans subscribe to a belief in a personal God. This is lower than earlier surveys reported. Part of the reason is the more-nuanced nature of the response options, which included a  deist-style option of a “higher power” (12%) as well as agnostic (10%) and atheist theological response categories (2%).

What is interesting here is that theological questions reveal much greater numbers of atheists and agnostics among the American public than do self-identification, i.e. “belonging” questions. The General Social Surveys (GSS) of recent years provide supporting evidence that both illustrates and explains these data. The GSS have shown a decline in the percentage of the public which has “great confidence” in organized religion from 32% in 1976 to 20% in 2008. The American public now expresses as low a degree of confidence in religious leaders as they do, on average, in leaders of other major institutions.

The percentage strongly agreeing that “religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions” increased from 22% in 1991 to 31% in 1998. More recently, according to Gallup polls, the percent of people who agree that organized religion should have less influence in this nation increased from 22% in 2001 to 34% in 2008.

The interrelationship of belief and behavior plays out in a number of ways.  ARIS 2008 discovered that 27% of Americans do not expect to have a religious funeral. Since religion deals with mortality and has traditionally placed much emphasis on providing a gateway to salvation and the afterlife, this is another indicator of Americans’ lack of attachment to religion. The percent of people who never attend religious services, while still relatively small, has increased from 13% in 1990 to 23% in 2006. A gradual but steady decline in belief in an inerrant bible is under way. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of people who say they believe that the bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word, has decreased. This trend appears in two different time series (Gallup polls as well as the GSS), which both show that  more recently born individuals are less likely to believe in an inerrant bible than those born longer ago.

However, as a result of the ARIS findings and similar results from other recent social inquiries showing a more secular public, there are signs of increasing public interest in secularism, atheism, irreligion and related subjects—more books, blogs, more institutions, more discussion and debate.

The salience of religious strictures and practices in the lives of most people has clearly diminished, particularly in the past two decades. This does not mean that organized religion will vanish. Religion is also a commodity far too valuable (in every sense of the word) to many of its purveyors for that to happen. In fact, a counterattack on freethinkers and “nones” is already beginning.

Last week I attended an academic lecture by Robert Putman, the Harvard University author of “Bowling Alone” fame. His new project, which I predict will be a blockbuster, is entitled American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping our Civic and Political Lives. Putnam claims that half of the nation’s social capital comes from religion. Putnam admits that religious people are more Republican, more conservative and less tolerant, but claims that religious Americans are happier, better citizens and are “more generous, volunteer more, better neighbors, more civically engaged.” He believes that religious liberals are better citizens than secular liberals.

Participation is the key to all this (i.e., attending services). “Having friends is good, having church friends are very good. Church friends make you nicer,” according to Putnam, who adds that America’s grace is that Americans are very religious, which makes them “nicer.”

Nevertheless, I believe the evidence shows that the Zeitgeist, if not the Force, is with the “nones.” Seculariz­ation in America has occurred, is occurring and will continue to occur as the authority of religion and clergy erodes in our society.

Barry Kosmin, a sociologist, is director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College. He is a principal researcher of the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, which shows the nonreligious as 15% of the U.S. population, as well as the 2001 ARIS study. He holds degrees from the Universities of London and McMaster (Canada). He has taught internationally, and is now director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture and Research Professor, Public Policy & Law Program. He is author of more than 20 books and research monographs. He has taught at Universities in Europe, Africa and North America. Prior to coming to Trinity he was on the faculty of the Ph.D. Program in Sociology, CUNY Graduate School and was a Visiting Professor at the University of Cape Town and University College Chichester, UK. He is editor of several books on secularism in relation to science, society and women.

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