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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Religiosity Slowly Declining in the US

A lot of people think of the United States as a religious country, but really, it’s just a religious world out there. The US simply happens to have a lot of Christians. If you go hunting statistics, you’ll generally find estimates between about 12 and 17% for the “nonreligious” (atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, etc.) world population. From my personal heathen perspective, the religiosity in America and around the world is a bit puzzling. I doubt I will ever truly understand the need people seem to have for religion, though some of what I read indicates that it may increase life expectancy in some places and for various reasons. (But then again, so does owning a pet, so I figured I’d skip the religion bit and adopt four cats.)

This season tends to annoy me a tad, primarily due to the “in your face” attitude of so many southern Christians. Most of them mean well, of course, so it’s hardly something I feel comfortable directly criticizing; it still makes for many moments of slight vexation and exasperation, however, which I do my best to cover with a polite smile.  

I’m one of those people who truly prefers a “happy holidays” to a “merry Christmas” (from strangers, anyway), and that has been the case for well over a decade now. But down here in Alabama — the second most religious state in the union and primarily Christian — “happy holidays” are in short supply. No matter how far I go out of my way to wish people a nice “holiday” in local shops, I am going to get a “merry Christmas” out of all of them. It’s one thing coming from people who know me well enough to remember that I was raised in a Christian household and will be stuck doing the Christmas thing with family on December 25 along with most of the rest of the country. But it’s another thing altogether coming from strangers who have no idea whether I am Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic. Putting aside my problems with Christianity and organized religion in general, I just think it’s rude on principle. Were I Jewish, I feel pretty certain I would not be thrilled by the scores of Christmas wishes I would invariably receive every December regardless. There seems to be a kind of subtle arrogance in that which I am uncomfortable with — the idea that because one celebrates a certain holiday, it should be acceptable to wish a merry/happy whatever to everyone with whom one crosses paths… just strikes me as somewhat narrow-minded.

I know, I know — “Bah humbug.”

But whether I am a bitter, cynical young Scrooge or not, issues like this will slowly become more prominent in coming years, so we might as well begin considering them now. Already Faux News accuses people like myself of waging a war on Christmas every winter for complaining about nativity scenes placed in potentially inappropriate locations. The religious composition of the country is changing, though, and it’s something for Christians to keep in mind.

A Gallup poll of Americans’ attitudes towards religion released on Christmas Eve found significant recent increases in those responding either that they have no religious preference, that religion is not very important in their lives, or that they believe religion “is largely old-fashioned or out of date.”

Only 78% of Americans now identify as Christian, while 22% describe their religious preference as either “other” or “none.”

Most of these changes have occurred since 2000 and represent the first significant shift since a sharp decline in religious adherence during the 1970s. Over the last nine years, the number with no religious preference has grown from a level of around 8% to 13%. The number for whom religion is not very important has climbed from just over 10% to 19%. And the number who believe religion is out of date and has no answers for today’s problems has jumped from slightly more than 20% to 29%.

Raw Story

There appears to be a steady decline in people identifying with the Christian religion, along with a rise in the number of people identifying with no religion at all.

The trend results are based on annual averages of Gallup’s religious identity data in America that stretch back over 60 years. One of the most significant trends documented during this period is the substantial increase in the percentage of American adults who don’t identify with any specific religion. In 1948, only 2% of Americans did not identify with a religion. That percentage began to rise in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Eleven years ago, in 1998, 6% of Americans did not identify with a religion, a number that rose to 10% by 2002. This year’s average of 13% of Americans who claim no religious identity is the highest in Gallup records.

The percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic, Protestant, or some other non-Catholic Christian faith has been concomitantly decreasing over the years. This suggests that one of the major patterns of religious transition in America in recent decades has been the shift from identification as Christian to the status of having no specific religious identification.

In 1948, 91% of Americans identified with a Christian faith. Twenty years ago, in 1989, 82% of Americans identified as Christian. Ten years ago, it was 84%. This year, as noted, 78% of all American adults identify with a Christian faith.


So what do these trends mean for the US?

In the short term, probably very little. Religious members of the Democratic party are already less inclined to allow religious doctrine to dictate policy, and the religious Right will be loud and abrasive no matter how small it becomes. Religion — and Christianity in particular — will continue to be entangled with both domestic and foreign policy and many of the pressing issues of the times for many, many days and many moons to come. But today, this fine morning after Christmas, as I look at recent Gallup polls and graphs, my hopes of one day receiving a nice, benign, secular “happy holidays” from a retail clerk while doing my holiday shopping have increased just a wee bit — and the thought of it makes me smile. (“And they say the Grinch’s sricki’s heart grew three sizes that day!”)

Whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, or something else — or just enjoying a bit of widespread Christianity-induced time off work — I hope you and your families are all happy, safe, and healthy. I do not tend to get sentimental about the season, but cheers and season’s greetings to those of you who do.

Happy holidays, my Moosey friends.


  1. GrassrootsOrganizer

    Here’s what I don’t get —  if you were visiting Israel and everyone you met wished you a happy Hanukkah, would you feel offended or consider them presumptuous?  Because I would assume they were only trying to pass along their own joy and good wishes in a way that was meaningful to them.   And why is it I can’t imagine the world traveler who isn’t delighted to be greeted or give holiday greetings true to the culture he or she is in.  And I just don’t get why anyone is offended on either side of the Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas debate.  

    Fer cripes sake now I’m going to be critiqued for wishing someone a merry Christmas without quizzing them first on their spiritual background?  What?

    Trust me — life is too short for this silliness.

  2. creamer

    He attends a public shool in Hudsonville wich is proably one of the most chistian towns in the midwest. WHile I found the setting a little peculiar I was even more suprised when my wife told me to be quiet as the Principal was opening with prayer. Now this un-nerved me a little as it didn’t seem proper for a public school official to open a school event with a prayer. Next thing I knew I was being critical of their song selection as being to christian.

    After I calmed down(days later) it became apparent to me that no one else cared. I decided it was time to get over myself and go with the flow, realizing that as my boys grow I will need to expose them to different beliefs and philosophies so they can ,ake their own choices when their time comes. I geuss that was my plan all along, this incident just reinforced the need.

    I’ve had people lay hands on me in prayer, and I continue to have people from the church I occasionaly attend want to have reasons to pray for me. It used to make me uncomftrable, but as I realize the kindness in their intent I try to recieve it with grace and respect.

    With respect to everyone here, life is short, enjoy it.

  3. louisprandtl

    Kwanzaa, Foozeball, whatever day they prefer, make my day. I’ll return their saying with a polite nod and a Happy Holiday. If they don’t like that, they can go launch their rockets elsewhere.

  4. I am a Buddhist. Not a particularly good one, but I still try to walk the Middle Path.  I was also given the opportunity to be dropped in the middle of Germany as my tastebuds matured, and I was in Beir Himmel, and then worked in one of the best microbreweries for several years as a cook, and manager.

    This being said, I take Merry Christmas and someone handing me a Budweiser in the spirit that it’s meant.  While I might wish that folks took “Happy Holidays” or “Blessings of the Season” in the same spirit, and a really nice Heffeweisen instead of the Bud, it is the thought that counts.

    I’m a Buddhist, my ex-wife is a pagan. My daughter is being raised up betwixt those traditions, and yet, Christmas is a time for family. It’s a confluence of traditions for the pagans, our Hebrew brethren and sistren–albeit kinda of a minor holiday, but fun–and our Christian brethren and sistren. It’s also a sort of secular day of rampant consumerism and charitable giving mixed in as well.  

    We are at a crossroads in this country, with the promise of that pesky “freedom of religion” coming to bear more and more often, as Christian traditions that have been at the fore of the public eye are beginning to slip away, and other traditions are being recognized, and even celebrated.  It is not an easy transition, and I suspect that if the traditions that are digging their heels in and screaming NOOOOOOOOOOOOO! to the changes in our society would embrace those changes, and even celebrate them with us, they’d be more vibrant and invigorated–and likely more relevant to the national conversation, as opposed to stumbling blocs of very cranky folks who want to ignore the changes around them.

    It is the lack of change that is hitting them the hardest, and it is shaping the public debate, by putting folks who oppose a message of river stopping objections to progress on one side, and what amounts to a set of public and well funded tantrums on the other.

    And the question of spirituality and that search is on the block with the whole question.

    The idea that spirituality and science are mutually exclusive is a muddied part of the public debate.  On one hand you have atheists who are militant in their mien, who oppose any suggestion that spirituality should even be in the public discourse, and those who have antiquated and often troubled ideas on what science and religion are about, and with both thinking that science and spirituality are mutually exclusive.  

    If you try to use religion to answer EVERY question, you will fail in some fashion.  If you use the methodology of science and experiential reasoning always, you will fail in different but equally spectacular fashion.  The idea that people can ONLY use reason OR faith is part of the problem, and it is fallout of the increasing incalcitrant branding of a debate that does more harm than good, over all.

    Sadly, we have societies that have grown used to there being two sides to every argument.  It is a lovely myth, and useful to a degree, but it fails to appreciate that every argument has often many sides.  This idea of simple black vs white, up vs down, theist vs atheist debate makes things simpler to frame in articles, but terrible to the real questions and discussions.  

  5. …in the UK, where religious attendance is only a fraction of US churchgoing, and formal adherence way, way, way lower, Christmas is mainly seen as a cultural and commercial festival: a third millennium saturnalia with shopping and a few Christian baubles. Therefore, no one, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Gentile, Jew or Zoroastrian, gets offended by the phrase

    Happy Christmas

    Two reasons I suppose: it does not reflect a cultural tyranny (as it clearly does in some parts of the American south). The second takes us back to the sexist language debate: so many of America’s civil rights struggles have focussed on the role of language and cultural description, it’s tempting to take changes in usage as signs of real social change.  

  6. fogiv

    …for ya’ll to chew on:

    For those lacking, this study indicates that, both regionally and on grand scale, economic disparity and religiosity are strongly linked:

    The survey finds a strong relationship between a country’s religiosity and its economic status. In poorer nations, religion remains central to the lives of individuals, while secular perspectives are more common in richer nations. This relationship generally is consistent across regions and countries, although there are some exceptions, including most notably the United States, which is a much more religious country than its level of prosperity would indicate.

    Despite her wealth, the United States is far more religious than other western industrialized nations, which tend to be more secular.  Interestingly, the only other prosperous nations with such quantities of devout “believers” are Arab states like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.  Some company.

    This is from an ancient (April 2008) diary at the D (my first ever actually).  In the comments there’s some praise from a young scamp calling himself ‘Brit’.  The good old days.

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