3/9/2009—The new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) released today shows both the rapid secularization predicted by my book, Hallowed Secularism, and the emptiness that the book seeks to address. The study, sponsored by The Program on Public Values (somehow related to the Institute for the Study of Secularism and Culture) at Trinity College in Hartford, was reported as the first since 1990, but there are also figures from 2001.
The basic numbers are astounding. Just about every religious category shrank since 1990 while the “No religion” category grew from 8.2% to 15% of the population. Even that number may be an understatement, since the category, “Don’t Know/Refused (to answer)" also grew, from 2.3% to 5.2% of the population. One would have to assume that some of the people in that category are secular as well. So the total number of secularists in the population may be closer to 18%, or about 40 million people.
While America remains overwhelmingly a Christian country—about ¾ of the population identifies with some form of Christianity in the survey—secularism is now a mainstream phenomenon.
As my book Hallowed Secularism suggested, this secularizing trend is likely to continue because secularists probably represent a younger cohort of the population than do religious people. In addition, at least for the moment, it is much more likely that the children of secularists will remain secular than that the children of religious people will remain religious.
Unfortunately, the stories about the Survey also demonstrate the emptiness of this new secularism. Barry Kosmin, co-researcher for the Survey, was quoted in USA Today as follows about the no religion group: “These people aren’t secularized. They’re not thinking about religion and rejecting it; they’re not thinking about it at all.” What then is replacing religion as a source of meaning, a guide to action and a lens for history? Apparently nothing. The same story quoted Kosmin more generally, “More than ever before, people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ‘I’m everything. I’m nothing. I believe in myself.’”
Given what we know about ourselves, and especially given the bloody 20th century, is there any justification for such unwarranted belief in oneself? The biblical account of the fall seems a much more realistic starting point. It may be that Americans are not only ignorant and rejecting of religion, but of history, literature and philosophy too. At some point, this is just shallowness, not liberation from dictatorial religion.
I repeat here what I wrote in the book. Rejection of the supernatural makes sense. But rejection of the wisdom of Our Religions is crazy.