We’re a long way from the day when the United States could reasonably be described as a non-religious nation. But we’re getting there. It’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees, but the longer-term trends are pretty unambiguous. (Which is not to say it’s impossible they will someday reverse course.) I suspect that, hand-wringing about arrogance and “fundamentalist atheists” notwithstanding, the exhortations of Richard Dawkins and his ilk have had something to do with it. If nothing else, they provide clear examples of people who think it’s perfectly okay to not believe in God, and be proud of it. That’s not an insignificant factor. It’s most likely a small perturbation on top of more significant long-term cultural trends, but it’s there.
Newsweek reports the facts: the number of self-identified Christians in the U.S. has fallen by 10 points over the last twenty years, from 86 to 76 percent. The number of people who are unaffiliated with any religion has jumped forward, from 5 percent in 1988 to 12 percent today. And the number who are willing to label themselves “atheists” has, it’s reasonable to say, skyrocketed — from 1 million in 1990 to 3.6 million today. That’s still less than two percent of the population, so let’s not get carried away. But it’s double the number of Episcopalians! (I was raised as an Episcopalian. Always been a shameless front-runner.)
Here’s how Jon Meacham sums it up in Newsweek:
There it was, an old term with new urgency: post-Christian. This is not to say that the Christian God is dead, but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory. To the surprise of liberals who fear the advent of an evangelical theocracy and to the dismay of religious conservatives who long to see their faith more fully expressed in public life, Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population.
I’ve said it before, but it’s time for us atheists to diversify our portfolio, as far as popular culture is concerned — skepticism and mocking of creationists are all well and good, but we need to put forward a positive agenda for living our lives without the comforting untruths handed down by religion. I’m doing my part by joining the Epicurus fan page on Facebook.