Have you heard? Atheism is definitely on the rise in the USA, and it seems to be gaining traction with incredible speed. I’m a bit late to the party on this one, so I’ll just quote some of the big sources that have already weighed in with their opinions:
Among the key findings in the 2008 survey:
• So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990), that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, “the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion,” the report concludes.
• Catholic strongholds in New England and the Midwest have faded as immigrants, retirees and young job-seekers have moved to the Sun Belt. While bishops from the Midwest to Massachusetts close down or consolidate historic parishes, those in the South are scrambling to serve increasing numbers of worshipers.
• Baptists, 15.8% of those surveyed, are down from 19.3% in 1990. Mainline Protestant denominations, once socially dominant, have seen sharp declines: The percentage of Methodists, for example, dropped from 8% to 5%. (Source)
Note that this makes atheists and agnostics among the largest religious groups in the USA, second only to Catholics and Baptists. That’s a pretty staggering thought, and one that indicates the strength of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. While I may have my doubts about some of its tactics, you can’t argue with progress like that. (Although, if I may put a mild dampener on the festivities, I have to wonder how many of the atheists who responded to the poll are of the frequently-juvenile ‘I just read The God Delusion and you all suck’ variety.)
You can find the ARIS report itself here, although it doesn’t add much to what’s already been reported elsewhere: Catholicism is losing ground fast, while atheism and agnosticism continue to grow. The geographical breakdowns are quite interesting, though, and you can track the grown of ‘No Religion’ by state on this Google map.
Needless to say, not everybody is overjoyed that those who predicted the death of atheism were apparently way off. One commentor on the Friendly Atheist blog had this to say (and yes, he was apparently being serious):
Yeah, go ahead and yuck it up right now you immoral liberal fornicators. Know that your ways of spreading global iniquity will fall in 2012 when the GOP leads America and the world to a new age of morality via Sarah Palin.
The numbers you celebrate here are the same numbers that will all be sharing the same fierty eternal fate if you don’t change your perverted atheistic ways!
His username links to a conservative Christian website with more vitriol, but it’s just a little bit too psychotic and deranged for my tastes. If you’re really curious, do a Google search for ‘christwire.org’ – among the site’s recent offerings is an article called ‘Michelle Obama’s Sinful and Unholy Prom Dress’. Just letting you know what you’re in for… (Upon closer inspection, I cannot for the life of me work out whether that site is a prank.)
This is all welcome news, but it does not mean that the ‘battle’ (if you want to call it that) is anywhere near being over. The great majority of Americans are still theists, and a majority of those theists still seem to be more than willing to oppose gay rights, stem cell research, abortion and the teaching of evolution in high schools. Only a very small percentage of Americans are ‘out’ as atheists – we might be gaining ground, but we are still very much in the minority.
UPDATE: The humorously well-disguised ‘Reverand Right’ predicts that the rise in atheism will soon mean that the USA becomes ‘like Denmark‘. Good heavens. Unfortunately, there probably are plenty of right-wingers out there who would view this as a bad thing.