Is Religious Belief in Decline?

Is Religious Belief in Decline?

Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson
9 min read

On January 8, 1697, 20-year-old Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy on the Gallowlee execution ground in Edinburgh. Two weeks earlier, he had been convicted of such grave crimes as questioning the historicity of Jesus Christ and the logic of the Trinity, and the authorities wanted his death to serve as a warning to other would-be dissidents.

In The Blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead: Boundaries of Belief on the Eve of the Enlightenment, Michael F. Graham explains why his subject was taken to an “execution site reserved for those guilty of the most heinous crimes”:

For common thieves, murderers and even many witches, the Grassmarket below Edinburgh Castle would do. But this execution was far from typical. On the contrary, it was a smokeless auto-da-fé aimed at placating an obviously angry God, invoking new laws against blasphemy that would never be used with such force again.

Aikenhead was the last person executed for blasphemy in Britain, and in the century that followed his death, Edinburgh would become one of the most important intellectual centers of the Enlightenment. In the year 2019, it’s impossible to imagine a Western country so saturated with religious dogmatism that its justice system would condemn a young college student to death for questioning Christianity. The arguments against tyrannical punishments and religious absolutism made by Enlightenment thinkers such as Cesare Beccaria, Montesquieu, and David Hume deserve much of the credit for this progress, and the execution of Aikenhead was one of the events that created the conditions for radical social and political change in the West.

Aikenhead’s case is a powerful reminder that Western societies are far less religious than they used to be. To many people, this is an uncontroversial claim—we no longer torture and execute blasphemers, wage wars on God’s behalf, or regard natural disasters as divine punishments for human sins. Nor do we require citizens to observe a particular religion on pain of death—citizens in liberal democracies are free to worship (or not worship) without interference from the state. As Thomas Jefferson explained in Notes on the State of Virginia:

Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

But hasn’t the separation of church and state created the space for religion to flourish? That’s not what the data suggest. Even in the United States, which has long been an outlier in terms of religiosity among developed countries (as societies become wealthier, they tend to become less religious), more and more people are abandoning religion.

When Americans are asked about their religious faith, almost 23 percent of them check the “none” box—a proportion that rises to more than a third among respondents between the ages of 18 and 49. According to the Pew Research Center, the “nones” have increased dramatically in recent years and the upward trend looks likely to persist. While a lack of religious affiliation doesn’t automatically entail a commitment to materialism or atheism—a joint Pew/PBS survey found that “many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way”—plenty of indicators suggest that religious feeling is declining along with religious practice.

For example, the number of self-described atheists doubled between 2007 and 2014. Among these Americans, 92 percent say they don’t believe in God, 97 percent say they “seldom or never” pray, 94 percent say they don’t believe in heaven, and 95 percent say they don’t believe in hell. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who claim they don’t believe in God (but aren’t necessarily atheists) increased almost twofold between 2007 and 2014.

And as the proportion of “nones” increases, their level of abstract religious commitment decreases. Over the same seven-year period, disbelief in God among unaffiliated Americans increased from 22 percent to 33 percent, those who say “religion is not at all important” in their lives increased from 33 percent to 39 percent, the percentage who “seldom or never” pray increased from 56 percent to 62 percent, and disbelief in heaven and hell increased from 46 percent to 53 percent and 58 percent to 65 percent, respectively. These findings are consistent with other surveys: Gallup reports that the number of Americans who don’t believe in God jumped from 2 percent in 2001 to 11 percent in 2016, while belief in the devil, angels, heaven, and hell has fallen substantially.

Despite all the evidence that we live in an age of ascendant secularism, there will always be intellectuals who wave the data away and insist that the religious impulse remains as strong as ever. “Every human being worships something,” we’re told, whether it’s the movement of the planets, alien civilizations, a political cause, science, or even reason.

In New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan writes, “Even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion. Their denial of any God is as absolute as others’ faith in God, and entails just as much a set of values to live by…” In Quillette, meanwhile, Clay Routledge observes that a “deeper investigation into the religious nature of our species casts doubt on the view that science-centered secular culture can succeed without a space for the sacred.” And in his bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan Peterson argues that any atheist who isn’t a murderous, rapacious psychopath is, in fact, religious: “You’re simply not an atheist in your actions.”

These claims about the immutable religious character of individuals and society are built upon misleading and selective definitions of “religion.” Sullivan takes a particularly broad view of the word, describing “something we have called progress—a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity—as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism.” He goes on to describe Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as “one of the most religious writers I’ve ever admired. His faith in reason is as complete as any fundamentalist’s belief in God.”

This is simply a category error. As Pinker explains in Enlightenment Now: “We don’t believe in reason; we use reason (just as we don’t program our computers to have a CPU; a program is a sequence of operations made available by the CPU).” What does it even mean to have “faith in reason”? Don’t we all tacitly declare our commitment to reason the moment we make any argument? Does Sullivan disagree with Pinker’s claim that “reason is prior to everything else and needn’t (indeed cannot) be justified on first principles”?

Pinker’s argument that humankind has moved toward “reason, peace, and prosperity” relies not on faith, but on empirical evidence about rates of violence, wealth and poverty, life expectancy, human rights, education, and a vast range of other indicators of human well-being. What’s more, Pinker doesn’t have blind faith in the idea that these trend lines will inexorably rise—he repeatedly acknowledges the possibility of relapses and exceptions. If he had faith that Enlightenment values would prevail and the world would inevitably continue to improve, why would he claim that the “ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense”? Why would he bother writing Enlightenment Now in the first place?

When a fundamentalist Christian declares his immovable, unfalsifiable belief in God—a belief that cannot be disturbed by any rational argument or presentation of evidence – he’s explicitly rejecting reason. To collapse the distinction between contradictory concepts like “faith” and “reason” is to strip both words of meaningful definitions.

The same objection applies to the word “religion.” While I would agree with Sullivan’s point that many non-religious doctrines—such as social justice politics or nationalism—can seem religious in character and elicit zealotry in their adherents, he’s stretching the meaning of the word beyond the point of usefulness. On Sullivan’s view, shouting “Allahu Akbar” before blowing yourself up in a crowded street and writing a book about secular Enlightenment values are both expressions of religious conviction. One God is called “Allah,” while the other is called “Reason.” It doesn’t matter if you write a sermon or an attack on God—you’re engaging in a variation of religious exercise.

Sullivan rehearses the cliché that atheists have just as much faith in their worldview as the devout, and goes so far as to claim that they have a specific “set of values to live by,” although he doesn’t specify what those values are. While it’s true that atheists may converge on some issues (such as the scientific reality of evolution, the political importance of secularism, and the protection of civil rights for homosexuals), they are not bound by a rigid set of doctrines, rules, and punishments. Ever since the emergence of the “New Atheists,” it has become fashionable to claim that any robust criticism of religion is itself religious. But, as Sullivan demonstrates, just about anything can be religious if your definition is vague and capacious enough.

In his article in Quillette, Clay Routledge acknowledges the “gradual replacement of religious doctrines with rationalist, evidence-based methods for explaining the world,” but he argues that “explaining the natural world is only one of religion’s functions. Ultimately, religion is about the human need for meaning. This need is inherent, not learned. It is a fundamental component of the human condition.” This is why, despite all the data indicating an increasingly secularized West, he contends that “most people who imagine themselves as irreligious simply haven’t come to terms with their religious nature.”

Routledge emphasizes the growing popularity of beliefs he describes as “supernatural-lite,” such as UFO conspiracies and transhumanism, the adherents of which “dream of transcending mortality through medicine and bioengineering.” He also notes that many of the people who reject traditional religion are attracted to other “supernatural, paranormal, and related beliefs,” like “ghosts, astrology, clairvoyance, and spiritual energy.” Routledge points out that “infrequent church attendees are roughly twice as likely to believe in ghosts as regular churchgoers,” while belief in “supernatural-lite” phenomena is concentrated among young (disproportionately irreligious) adults and “places where secular liberals are predominant.”

While many of these beliefs are similar to religious commitments, religion has never had a monopoly on human irrationality and credulity. In Enlightenment Now, Pinker cites the historian David Wootton’s account of the average educated Englishman in 1600:

He believes witches can summon up storms that sink ships at sea. … He believes in werewolves, although there happen not to be any in England—he knows they are to be found in Belgium. … He believes Circe really did turn Odysseus’s crew into pigs. He believes mice are spontaneously generated in piles of straw. He believes in contemporary magicians. … He has seen a unicorn’s horn, but not a unicorn.

Wootton could have added the belief that the state-sanctioned murder of a curious college student would put God in a better mood. The list of superstitious convictions and fears that haunted our ancestors could fill thousands of pages, and many of these beliefs had no problem coexisting with religion (when they weren’t being nurtured or inspired by it).

Is Routledge contending that there’s a static level of religiosity and superstition in the world that simply manifests itself in different ways over time? Would he argue that we’re just as religious and superstitious as Wootton’s seventeenth century Englishman? If not, he has to admit that human beings have generally become more secular and rational overall, despite his claim that the “religion-shaped hole” in our lives can only be filled with ever-more superstition and pseudoscience.

As Pinker observes, we have so fully internalized the values of the Enlightenment and the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution that we don’t even recognize how secular our society has become. Yes, we may see the occasional uptick in certain supernatural-lite beliefs, but this is hardly the same as burning witches or hanging blasphemers. Routledge points out that people who view their lives as meaningful are healthier than those who don’t, but religion and superstition are not the only sources of meaning. He worries about the rise in supernatural-lite beliefs, but doesn’t explain how this poses a significant threat to “science-centered secular culture.”

He also agrees with Sullivan that people often replace religious belief with dogmatic faith in “various political cults”: “The more people abandon religious spaces to meet existential needs,” he writes, “the more likely they are to turn to extreme political tribalism, and to blur the lines between spiritual and secular pursuits.” But this extraordinary claim ignores the long (and often ugly) history of religious influence in politics. Far from being a bulwark against political tribalism, religion is one of the most powerful engines of it. Why does Sullivan think 81 percent of evangelical Christians voted for Trump? Why does he think abortion is the most radioactive subject in American politics? Would the Israel-Palestine conflict be more or less intractable if the belligerents dropped their mutually exclusive claims that God awarded them certain pieces of real estate in Jerusalem? Didn’t the people who condemned Thomas Aikenhead to die think they were doing God’s work?

Sullivan and Routledge argue that the religious impulse is innate. That may be true, but so is the cruelty and tribalism that can make a human being feel righteous as he puts the noose around an innocent man’s neck. Thankfully, we have one innate capacity that allows us to leave all these horrors behind: Reason.


Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson has written for many outlets and is the author of the forthcoming book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment (Fall 2022)