Chicken Littles Needlessly Stoke Fears over Christianity’s Decline

Christianity’s Decline

Contrary to progressives’ worries about the death of activism, research shows that the nonreligious are the most politically engaged

"Christianity is falling, Christianity is falling!” practically every American opinion columnist under the sun has been crying. 

This, after the Pew Research Center report documenting—“Heaven forfend!”—the decline of Christianity in the United States.

Most of these Chicken Littles, particularly conservatives, repeat the hackneyed equivalence between religion and morality, as did U.S. Attorney General William Barr during his appallingly unconstitutional speech at the Notre Dame Law School on October 11, 2020, where he claimed that the ascendancy of secularism is to blame for the violence, suicide, and the ongoing drug epidemic. 

Unfortunately for these false Cassandras, the facts don’t bear out in their favor. Based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map, “Drug Overdose Death Rates, by the State of Residence,” there is zero correlation between the religiosity of a state and its rate of overdose deaths. 
A 2016 study sponsored by the Institutes of Health found that suicide attempts are more common among depressed patients with a religious affiliation (Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Nov. 2016, 204 (11): 845-50).
 
When we expand our outlook to countries across the globe, the falsity of this claim is even more apparent. 

By every measure of societal well-being (per capita income, education, poverty, life expectancy, infant mortality, STI rates, corruption levels, and murder rates) secular countries outperform religious ones. 

According to the United Nations’ Global Study on Homicide 2019, predominantly nonreligious countries like Japan, Luxembourg, and Norway are among those with the lowest murder rates, while religious El Salvador, Jamaica, and Honduras top the charts for nations with the highest homicide rates. So much for Barr & Company’s claim. 

Given the facts, it’s hard not to scoff at Washington Examiner columnist Nicole Russell’s view that “America cannot turn its back on religion, [since] it provides the moral center upon which many of the rest of our values.” 

With countries like Norway and Japan boasting lower levels of gun violence, nothing could be further from the truth. 

However, the false equivalence between religion and morality is not the only argument leveled at secularism. 

Other voices, particularly progressive Christians, fear a decline in societal cohesion and community organizing. 

“By leaving religion, we’re shrugging off the ties that bind, not just loosening them temporarily,” writes Washington Post columnist Christine Emba

To advance progressive causes, we need the church as “a place to solve disputes and center political organizing,” claims Bianca Vivion Brooks, writing for The New York Times

“I fear that absent the structural and rhetorical power offered by organized religion, it will become increasingly difficult for the left to fight the growing ideology of right-wing extremism, an ideology that has always been heavily undergirded by its own religious agenda.”

Not so fast. According to Philip Schwadel, professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, “[O]n some measures, atheists are more politically active than the religiously affiliated (“The Politics of Religious Nones.” 

And according to an October 11, 2018, poll by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), activism is the highest among non-religious Democrats.

Reporter Emma Green found it “surprising” that religiously unaffiliated voters, far from being apathetic, “seem most excited about supporting or donating to causes, going to rallies, and expressing opinions online, among other activities.” 

In fact, “political engagement may be providing these Americans with a new form of identity,” she writes

Instead of doing political organizing within the confines of a house of worship, atheists, agnostics, and religious “nones” are tending to the work on the ground themselves with extra fervor, and it will benefit the United States. 

Indeed, according to PRRI’s 2019 American Values Survey, nonreligious Americans most often chose “progressive” (80%) and “environmentalist” (78%) as self-descriptors. 

In addition, we are the demographic most likely to support immigration and, according to Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, at 94% we are the group most likely to accept homosexuals. 

In other words, by virtue of our disassociation from religious organizations, atheists and other non-religious Americans are making their lives meaningful by becoming engaged in pro-secular politics at the local and national levels. 

And not only that, we are working towards greater equality. As American Atheists’ founder, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, put it, “Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.”

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American Atheists’ communications director.

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