Changing belief patterns in the USA

By Simon Barrow
March 15, 2009

The dominance of religion in American public life has taken a different form to that of Europe under Christendom. But the US picture is changing too.

Commenting on the latest in-depth survey of religion and belief in the United States, Andrew Sullivan, writing in the Sunday Times, says:

Barack Obama’s Christianity – educated, nuanced, social – is in many ways more striking than that of, say, Nixon, Truman or Eisenhower.

Americans are losing faith, though; and those who have it are moving out of established churches. The nonreligious are now the third biggest grouping in the US, after Catholics and Baptists, according to the just-released American Religious Identification Survey. The bulk of this shift occurred in the 1990s, when they jumped from 8% to 14% of the population – but they have consolidated in the past decade to 15%.

As elsewhere in the West, mainline Protestantism has had the biggest drop – from 19% to 13%. Despite heavy Latino immigration, the proportion of Catholics has drifted down since 1990, and their numbers have shifted dramatically from the northeast and the rust belt to the south and west. Take South Carolina, a state you might associate with hardcore Protestant evangelicalism. It certainly does exist there – but in that southern state, the percentage of Catholics has almost doubled since 1990 and the percentage of atheists has tripled.

America, it turns out, is a more complicated spiritual place than the stereotypes might imply.

The article is here:

Commenting on the paucity of Christians in mainstream US life, Sullivan concludes:

American Christianity may be stronger in some pockets, but it is dumber too. In the end, in the free market-place of ideas and beliefs, that will count.

What one yearns for is a resuscitation of a via media in American religious life – the role that the established Protestant churches once played. Or at least an understanding that religion must absorb and explain the new facts of modernity: the deepening of the Darwinian consensus in the sciences, the irrefutable scriptural scholarship that makes biblical literalism intellectually contemptible, the shifting shape of family life, the new reality of openly gay people, the fact of gender equality in the secular world. It seems to me that American Christianity, despite so many resources, has ignored its intellectual responsibility. And atheists, if this continues much longer, will continue to pick up that slack.

Lauren Meade, founder of the Alban Institute (a leader in the field of congregational studies) referred in his book The Once and Future Church to the Protestant version of Christendom in the USA. Even with church and state formally separated, hegemonic forms of institutional religion have arisen.

But with the patterns changing, slowly but surely, the idea that Europe is an exception in the the overall religious map of the world begins to look less credible. The emerging picture in free societies, however, is one of diversity (sometimes conflictual and sometimes harmonious) rather than straightforward 'religion or areligion'

Keywords:usa | Religion | atheism
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