Toward a Secular America

Fertility and faith stand and fall together.

Over the years, many commentators on religious matters have agonized over the paradox of American religiosity. As a great many examples demonstrate, nations that are wealthy and technologically advanced also tend to be noticeably secular. Poorer, less developed societies, on the other hand, tend to be pious. The United States has appeared to be an outlier to this trend: it is a wealthy country in the vanguard of technological sophistication, but retains many of the features of a highly religious land. Is America really this exceptional?

The American religious conundrum is finally resolving itself, but not because some great sage has finally diagnosed the secret of America’s stubborn devotion. Distressing as it is to report, the United States is now finally joining the secularism of the other nations of the West. The main question left to agitate academics is just why America took a generation or so to catch up to European secular norms. At every stage of these debates, one key lesson emerges: faith is inextricably bound up with family.

In the 1960s, anyone with eyes to see had to be aware of a tectonic change in progress in Europe. Starting in Protestant countries in Northern Europe, religion was going into steep decline. That may not sound surprising in light of later events, but at the time it was amazing enough. In the Netherlands, for instance, prior to the 1960s, people were divided by the three distinct and scarcely overlapping worlds of Calvinist Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and socialist secularity. Membership in one of those three religious pillars determined what you read, how you voted,  who you married, and other vital life choices.

Suddenly in the 1960s, the Dutch rapidly flocked to the secular position. All organized religions went into precipitous decline and Dutch society adopted very liberal social policies that would until recently have been anathema to all churches. Scandinavian countries followed the same course as the Netherlands in the same years. Figures for religious belief and practice plummeted across Northern Europe.

Scholars and journalists at the time stressed confidently that it was just a Protestant phenomenon irrelevant to pious Catholic bastions such as Spain, Italy, and Ireland. And then, from 1975, those countries followed the very same pattern.

In comparing pre-1960s religious practice in the West to today, we can regularly observe what we might call the Rule of Ten. Just look at what figures were for vocations or churchgoing around 1958, and then divide by ten to accurately predict the numbers for the new century. Of course there are exceptions to this pattern, but generally much of Europe abandoned God in a very brief period. Across the continent today, the pressing problem for most churches is what to do with all the surplus buildings that once accommodated booming congregations, but which now stand quite empty.

Tell me the total fertility rate of a society, and I will tell you how its religious institutions are faring, and be able to make a good guess whether it permits abortion or same-sex marriage. 

In many countries, you can track the process quite neatly by the adoption of radically secular policies in matters of sexuality and morality, commonly determined through popular referenda, and in the teeth of ferocious opposition from the churches. In Catholic countries, the prohibitions against divorce and contraception were the first to fall, followed after a barely decent interval by liberalization of laws concerning abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage. Pornography proliferated. The secular juggernaut then advanced to matters not connected to sexuality and intimate relationships, notably to euthanasia and assisted suicide.

In understanding this process, we have to turn to another social revolution in progress at the time of the secularization, namely a demographic shift that was quite unprecedented in the whole of human history. Although it is by no means the only measure, the key trend involved fertility rates, or average number of children a country’s women will bear in the course of their lifetimes. If a country averages at 2.1 children per woman, the population will remain broadly stable, and that level is termed the replacement rate. If the rate is much higher than that, say 4 or 5 children per woman, then the country will see an expanding population with many young people and young adults, with all the restlessness and turbulence that suggests.

A fertility rate below 2.1—what we call a sub-replacement rate—results in a contracting population and an aging society. Briefly, European nations quite suddenly shifted from very high to very low fertility rates in what was historically the blink of an eye, and that happened during the years of religious collapse. In Italy, for instance, the twin processes coincided neatly between 1975 and 1985. Denmark and the Netherlands hit fertility rates of 1.5 or below. Rates across Catholic Europe fell to frightening (and thoroughly unsustainable) levels of 1.2. 

One can argue about just why fertility and faith are so tied together, but it is my belief that is a matter of correlation rather than causation: the one does not directly explain the other. It might be that advanced economies generate plenty of jobs for women, who can no longer contemplate having large families. Higher education also plays its role in shaping aspirations. As family size declines, societies no longer have the flocks of children who would once have bound families to their local religious institutions, to religious schools or confirmation classes. Meanwhile, in the 1960s new moral values separated sexuality from reproduction, aided by the emergence of readily available contraceptive drugs. This opened the way to new sexual liberalism, and to growing resentment against clergy who, according to these new moral values, sought to impose their own irrelevant, patriarchal standards on autonomous individuals.

But whatever the linkage, the correlation is very strong. Tell me the total fertility rate of a society, and I will tell you how its religious institutions are faring, and be able to make a good guess whether it permits abortion or same-sex marriage. From the 1980s, moreover, the low-fertility and low-faith trend in Europe spread worldwide alongside the advance of globalized economies. Fertility collapsed across South Asia, East Asia, and Latin America, while the evidence of secularization soared. Today, half the states of India stand at or below replacement fertility. Brazil’s fertility rate now looks distinctly Danish, and the fastest-growing section of Brazil’s population is the “Nones,” people who deny having any religious affiliation whatever. The lowest fertility rates of all are in East Asian countries such as Japan, where governments argue despairingly over the disposition of thousands of shrines and local temples that have now thoroughly fallen out of use.

This demographic revolution is far from universal, and many regions still retain the old high-fertility, high-faith model. This is the norm in Africa, South Asia, and much of the Middle East. The question then is whether the arrival of “European” norms will take a couple of decades, or several generations. 

Fertility and faith stand and fall together, generally speaking, everywhere we look. And, in most cases, there are obvious connections to the prevalent levels of prosperity and education. The equation works wonderfully, until we turn to that curious and isolated territory stranded in the North Atlantic, which we call the United States of America, and which is, by any reasonable standard, the heart of the Western economic and political world. Yet ever since the end of the 20th century, the vigor of America’s religious faith has baffled social scientists. Some jokingly mapped the world’s degrees of faith with Europe at one extreme, Africa at the other, and the United States as an island floating half way between the two, somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Religion has been an inescapable aspect of American public life: Bill Clinton actually deployed more explicit God-talk than George W. Bush, and Obama was thoroughly conversant with religious talk. But at every level, Americans demonstrated their incredible passion for faith. European visitors marveled at all the new megachurches with their vast carparks, which were symbols of faith quite as ostentatious as the spires that surmounted medieval Gothic cathedrals. And accordingly, the United States retained its very traditional family patterns, with a fertility rate around replacement, far above any comparable European society. 

What could explain this paradox? Some turned to forms of exceptionalism. Perhaps America was so large and its families so mobile that they always needed to have places of worship wherever they moved. Or, America’s tradition of self-sufficiency meant that people had nothing like the government-security safety nets that were so obvious a feature of European societies, and which gave a sense of existential security. Lacking that blessing, people had to depend on their own communities and networks, which found their highest expression in religious congregations.

I had a great deal of sympathy for exceptionalist views, and was very skeptical about a rival approach held by the esteemed scholars Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart. They held that the transatlantic demographic and religious difference was not qualitative but chronological: the United States would assuredly follow the European route, even if it took an extra 20 years or so, and the early signs were already appearing by 2003 or so. Here is my mea culpa: I was wrong, and Norris and Inglehart were dead right.

Any number of measures can be used to measure religious transitions, and all tell a broadly similar tale. If we just look at the number of Americans who self-described as Christians, then the United States figure fell from 85 percent in 1990 to 63 percent in 2021, and the trend line is strongly downwards. Nor is the decline made up by non-Christian believers of other religions, who remain a tiny proportion of the overall population—America is becoming irreligious.

An abundance of other studies confirm the general picture. I would not put too much stress on this figure by itself, but in Europe, one quirky but oddly effective gauge of secularization is the cremation rate. The number of people disposing of human remains in a way that was long condemned by the churches as a rejection of ideas of bodily resurrection continues to rise. Since 1960, the United States cremation rate has risen from under 4 percent to almost 60 percent, and the national figure has doubled just in the past 20 years. Based on our stereotypical assumptions about religiosity, would you care to guess the states with the highest and lowest rates of cremation, which are also presumably the least and most pious regions of America? If you guessed Nevada (82 percent) and Utah (42 percent), you would be correct. Two states, so near and yet so far apart.

One of the best gauges of change is the so-called Nones, to whom I referred earlier. It’s crucial to note that those who fell into this category were not rejecting faith or the supernatural, and were not necessarily atheist. Rather, they eschewed any religious affiliation, even if they might still adhere to broadly religious practices, such as prayer or Bible reading. But the growth of those Nones has been a dominant theme in modern American religious history. Although the terminology dates back to the 1960s, a Pew study published in 2012 drew intense media attention to the rising social trend. The Nones had grown from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2007 and to 20 percent by 2012. By 2021 the figure was 29 percent. Among America’s three largest constituencies, Nones have now edged ahead of both Catholics and evangelical Protestants. No later than the 2060s, they should constitute an overall majority of the population, and will far outnumber America’s self-described Christians. This is a revolution in progress—not so much a Great Awakening as a Sizable Somnolence.

And what about that fertility link that is so prominent elsewhere in the world? In the first decade of the century, the United States figure floated between 2.0 and 2.1, respectably in the “replacement” range, but then fell steadily, to 1.66 by 2020, a little below that of Denmark. The decline was much steeper in some regions and states than others, with the fall amounting to 25 percent to 30 percent in most western and southwestern states, and exceeding 20 percent even in relatively conservative Texas and Georgia. Suddenly, since around 2010, America is moving into demographic, political, and religious territory that is uncharted in its own history, but one well-known by the European nations that travelled through it decades earlier.

In all these changes, we note one crucial moment of transformation, and that was the economic crisis that reached its dreadful height in 2008. A religious history of the Great Recession remains to be written, but we know that it suddenly ended a long-term trend towards homeownership by lower- and middle-class people, who could no longer form new households and families, with the obligations that normally entails. The crisis had its greatest impact on that ethnic group that were stereotypically assumed to be naturally and viscerally pious, the Latinos. It is from 2008 that we witness both the fast shrinkage of fertility rates among those groups, and the consequent growth of religious Nones. At present, it is too soon to tell what the long term effects of the recent COVID pandemic might be, either social or religious, but it is highly likely to mark another stage in the detachment of traditional believers from their long familiar places of worship.

Beyond question, Americans are far less likely to declare themselves as members of any religious faith, even generically “Christian,” and certainly not to identify with particular denominations. By any customary standard, that represents a very sizable degree of secularization.

It also coincides with an enormous shift in public attitudes to views and policies that not long since would have been regarded as radically contrary to religious orthodoxy. Same-sex marriage provides an excellent measure. Prior to the 1990s, we can only speculate as to what proportion of the population supported such an institution: precisely because it was considered so daring and outré that pollsters never inquired about it. When the issue did drift into public awareness in the mid-1990s, it had the support of around a quarter of Americans, a figure that became an absolute majority in 2011, and which today exceeds 71 percent. Support for same-sex marriage is of course far higher among the young.

above: A homosexual “marriage” at the Episcopal Church
of Saint Sebastian in Magdeburg, Germany in May 2022.
(Ronny Hartmann / Associated Press)

A question still remains. If we agree that Americans do not use religious labels, and that they support non- or anti-religious stances, can we properly say that they have abandoned the practice of religion as such? To the contrary, I would suggest that what we are seeing mainly represents a drift away from assumed conformity in religious matters rather than a collapse of faith.

Think for instance of a religious survey carried out in 2000 asking, “What is your religion?” A lifetime of habit would lead most to respond with an automatic default reply such as “Catholic” or “Evangelical,” on the assumption that other options really did not exist. That did not mean that the individual was a fervent believer, or ever attended church, but the affiliation was assumed. Now advance the film a couple of decades. Many of those same respondents, or their children, would be painfully familiar with many undesirable qualities associated with those labels—with the abuse scandals in Roman Catholicism, or the cynically ambitious politicking of some evangelical pastors in the age of Trump. No, they might think, I am not going to affiliate with those awful groups. But I do hear so much in the media about these “Nones.” Is that really an option? Oh, why not…

It is not that the beliefs and behaviors have necessarily changed, but the attitude to institutional faith has been transformed, and very much in negative directions. But then a question arises. As long as people retain some notional religious affiliation, it can remain in the background, to serve as a haven in times of trouble or life-changes. But once that has gone, how long will even the vague sense of a religious dimension continue? Again to use the European analogy, what originally occurred was a collapse in institutional affiliation and practice, but over a few decades, that mutated into a thorough rejection of all religion, and the espousal of open atheism. In many countries, the present religious norm is not lukewarm faith and pallid institutional affiliation, or a residual religion that could still be revived by vigorous evangelism: it is rather a total lack of interest in God in any recognizable sense. I would argue that that is at least a possible trajectory for the American Nones.

Assume a mid-century America where Nones are approaching a majority, and where it becomes increasingly difficult to assert any concept of religious liberty in the public sphere, if and when those rights clash with the rigid orthodoxies of secular hedonism. Does any hope remain for the religious institutions, except to accept managed decline in the most graceful way possible? 

A couple of answers suggest themselves. One is that a secular society produces very few children, and someone needs to do the jobs and pay the taxes. That means immigration, presumably from high fertility societies in Africa or Asia, from areas where God remains firmly on the cultural agenda. Inevitably, the immigrant presence within American Christianity will grow steadily. Old-established churches can also do things to help themselves, by emphasizing innovative structures that no longer assume the existence of Christian belief as a standard social norm. We look especially at the new ecclesial movements in the Catholic church, which assume a membership of highly devoted believers who will serve as a leaven in the larger community. They are missionaries to the pagan world, much like their predecessors in the second or third centuries. Protestant and Anglican churches can offer plenty of their own analogies here. Churches have always adapted and improvised.

Beyond question, Americans are far less likely to declare themselves as members of any religious faith, even generically “Christian,” and certainly not to identify with particular denominations. 

But assume the worst, that churches and temples really do disappear. Does God vanish? I like to turn to a literary work that we might call the Gospel of the Nones. In 1955 English poet Philip Larkin published “Church Going,” which describes a passing cyclist stepping into a deserted church. Finding nothing of special aesthetic interest, he leaves rapidly but is puzzled at why he even bothered to stop. What exactly is the remaining pull of a place that is notionally holy? And if, as seems obvious, religion is in such sharp decline, what will be the ultimate fate of such places when they fall into disuse and ruin? Superstition might endure a while, but ultimately, even that will fade. So what happens when disbelief has gone, along with faith itself? 

Yes, churches and creeds may fade, but holy places remain to focus our desires and hopes, our need for rootedness and continuity. People will always need to seek such places, “a serious house on serious earth”:

And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round. 

In any era, religion responds to a deep-seated need for connection to the “serious” past. That connection might be a sacred place, but it might be to something more generic—to bodies of practice and ritual, to culture and especially music. Here too we can find the significant, the rooted, which together form the irreducible core of religion. Something always remains.

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