When the New York Times published The End of Faith, it provided a number of interesting statistics which appeared to back up the authors’ thesis that the rise of Christianity had “altered fundamental aspects of the social order” and led to “the weakening and erosion of our institutions and the social structures that sustain us.”1
In the article, Thomas P. Murphy pointed out two possible sources of the decline in the number of religious people: a “rising rate of divorce” as well as “a falling birthrate” of “about 2 percent per year in the United States.”2 It was the number of births that, in turn, were estimated by the authors to have “skewed the national rate downward by more than a third since 1940.” While the article was more or less on target from the point of view of statistics, it didn’t explain the nature of these secular trends and how they might affect the church.
New Atheist author Richard Dawkins took up the question in his 2007 book The God Delusion:
“I wish to know from a religionologist’s perspective why the number of Christians in the United States, relative to the total population, has declined so much. Why have the total numbers of active congregations gone from three million in 1940, to 5.4 million in 2014, a decline of over 50 percent since 1960? What has happened to “the Christian faith”? What has been the source of the decline?”
While it made sense that a decline in religious people in the US might have been caused by the rise in anti-religious prejudice, that is the only explanation that makes sense in the absence of religion. To explain what would cause a decline in the total number of religious people in the USA – by any accounting – it is necessary to look at the other religious groups that were, and still are, in the USA.
If the decline in the total number of people involved in religious belief in the USA since 1960 is caused by a decline in the total number of people religious than it follows that the increase in the percentage of atheists among the population must be a direct cause as well. But it is not. If religious people were only declining because they are not engaging in religious activities – a problem that the religious have solved for centuries with a bit of persuasion (and some prayer), this is far different than the rise in anti-religious prejudice. Moreover, there is another group of religious people in the US that might have been increasing: non-believers. It is estimated that between
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