(International Humanist News, May 2011)




By James A. Haught

When I came of age in the 1950s, America’s religious taboos were locked into law.

It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath.

Buying a cocktail or lottery ticket was a jail offense. Police often raided bootleg clubs and “numbers racket” operations.

Birth-control devices were illegal in some states. In my region, Appalachia’s Bible Belt, they were legal, but hush-hush.

Looking at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or an R-rated movie containing nudity was against the law. Pornography raids and jail terms were frequent.

It was a crime for an unwed couple to share a bedroom.

Homosexuality was a felony, and gays were sent to prison under biblical-sounding “sodomy” laws. One I knew committed suicide to escape prosecution.

If a desperate girl terminated a pregnancy, both she and her doctor faced prison.

Some “Christian-only” clubs barred Jews, and property deed covenants excluded them from restricted neighborhoods -- along with, of course, blacks.

Today, all those puritanical strictures have vanished so completely it’s difficult to remember them. They were wiped out, decade after decade, by Supreme Court rulings and human rights laws. The transition was amazing. Nowadays, millions of unmarried couples live together without social or family disapproval. Gay sex no longer is a crime. Sunday is a whopper shopper day. Nudity in movies and magazines is so common it’s boring. The numbers racket is run by state governments. Cocktail bars are everywhere. Morality has turned upside-down in a half-century.

Why did it happen? Because religion lost its grip on America. Old taboos against “sin” fell by the wayside.

The United States remains churchy. Millions belong to 350,000 congregations and donate $100 billion a year. But the power of religion to dictate daily life ended. Barely noticed, a cultural shift is reducing supernatural faith to insignificance. The scientific mentality is taking control.

Secularism is a rising tide in all Western democracies. Since World War II, it has swept Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and other advanced societies, where only a tiny fraction of aging people still attend church. It’s a new phase of civilization, rather like former transitions away from the age of kings, the era of slavery and such epochs. Philosopher-historian Will Durant saw it occurring and called it "the basic event of modern times."

Pope Benedict XVI protested: "Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience." Columnist George Will called the Vatican "109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief."

Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman spent a year interviewing Scandinavians and wrote Society Without God, describing the disappearance of invisible spirits from the Scandinavian worldview. Dr. Zuckerman said:

"The notion that religious belief is childish, that earnest prayer is something only children engage in, and that faith in God is just something one dabbles with in childhood but eventually grows out of as one becomes a mature adult, would strike most Americans as offensive.  But for millions of Scandinavians, that's just the way it is."

Stuart Macdonald of the University of Toronto's Centre for Clergy Care described "the rapid secularization of Scotland," noting: "The Church of Scotland, which had the power to force its morality on the society to the extent that swings in public parks were chained up in the early 1960s in order that the Sabbath be properly observed, is now invisible within Scottish society."

America seems an exception -- with booming megachurches, gigantic sales of "Rapture" books, fundamentalist attacks on evolution, hundred-million-dollar TV ministries, talking-in-tongues Pentecostals, the white evangelical "religious right" attached to the Republican Party, and the like.

But quietly, under the radar, much of America slowly is following the path previously taken by Europe. In addition to the reversal of past “sin” laws, here's further evidence:

| Rising "nones." Various polls find a strong increase in the number of Americans -- especially the young -- who answer "none" when asked their religion. In 1990, this group had climbed to 8 percent, and by 2008, it had doubled to 15 percent -- plus another 5 percent who answer "don't know." This implies that around 45 million U.S. adults today lack church affiliation. In Hawaii, more than half say they have no church connection.

| Mainline losses. America's traditional Protestant churches -- "tall steeple" denominations with seminary-trained clergy -- once dominated U.S. culture. They were the essence of America. But their membership is collapsing. Over the past half-century, while the U.S. population doubled, United Methodists fell from 11 million to 7.9 million, Episcopalians dropped from 3.4 million to 2 million, the Presbyterian Church USA sank from 4.1 million to 2.2 million, etc. The religious journal First Things -- noting that mainline faiths dwindled from 50 percent of the adult U.S. population to a mere 8 percent -- lamented that "the Great Church of America has come to an end." A researcher at the Ashbrook think-tank dubbed it "Flatline Protestantism."

| Catholic losses. Although Hispanic immigration resupplies U.S. Catholicism with replacements, many former adherents have drifted from the giant church. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that 20 million Americans have quit Catholicism -- thus one-tenth of U.S. adults now are ex-Catholics.

Sociologists are fascinated by America's secular shift. Dr. Robert Putnam of Harvard, author of Bowling Alone, found as many as 40 percent of young Americans answering "none" to faith surveys. "It's a huge change, a stunning development," he said. "That is the future of America." He joined Dr. David Campbell of Notre Dame in writing a new book, American Grace, that outlines the trend. Putnam's Social Capital site sums up: "Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate."

Oddly, males outnumber females among the churchless. "The ratio of 60 males to 40 females is a remarkable result," the 2008 ARIS poll reported. "These gender patterns correspond with many earlier findings that show women to be more religious than men."

Growing secularism has political implications. The Republican Party may suffer as the white evangelical "religious right" shrinks. In contrast, burgeoning "nones" tend to vote Democratic. Sociologist Ruy Teixeira says the steady rise of the unaffiliated, plus swelling minorities, means that "by the 2016 election (or 2020 at the outside) the United States will have ceased to be a white Christian nation. Looking even farther down the road, white Christians will be only around 35 percent of the population by 2040, and conservative white Christians, who have been such a critical part of the Republican base, will be only about a third of that -- a minority within a minority."

Gradually, decade by decade, religion is moving from the advanced First World to the less-developed Third World. Faith retains enormous power in Muslim lands. Pentecostalism is booming in Africa and South America. Yet the West steadily turns more secular.

Civilization never stops evolving. We are living through another profound transition -- but most of us are too busy to notice.

(Haught is editor of The Charleston Gazette, West Virginia’s largest newspaper. He can be reached by phone at 304-348-5199 or e-mail at haught@wvgazette.com. His personal Web site is http://www.wvinter.net/~haught. This essay is adapted from a widely distributed newspaper column and his ninth book, Fading Faith: The Rise of the Secular Age.)