As part of my work on America's declining Christian denominations, I've spent a lot of time looking through the GSS to get some sense on what Americans actually believe when it comes to religion. The so-called New Atheists may crow about the rising number of "nones" -- those that, when asked for their religious affiliation, say that they have none. It is certainly true that fewer Americans go to church than was the case in the recent past, and the rate of decline seems to be speeding up.
It is possible that religion is declining simply because people no longer believe religious claims. One can make the case that new scientific discoveries slowly erode the plausibility of religious explanations for the origins of the universe and mankind. Modern science undermines the creation story in Genesis. No serious cosmologist argues that the universe was created 5,000 years ago. No serious biologist argues that human beings were created, in their current form, from dust a few days later. As neuroscientists learn more about how the human brain works, notions such as free will and the immortality of the soul become less believable.
This is the explanation that will be most satisfying to the aggressive atheists who view religion as nothing but foolish superstition, enforced by those who stand to gain from the public’s ignorance. However, this explanation also probably overestimates the degree to which people actually think about questions about the creation of the world and the nature of the mind. Anyone who claims we live in a world of doctrinaire empiricists who will believe nothing not backed by clear, verifiable facts has clearly interacted with very few actual human beings. Indeed, there is probably some truth to the cliché, typically misattributed to G.K. Chesterton: “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” That is, people who abandon traditional religion tend to find a substitute, such as a belief in the healing power of magic crystals.
If religion in general, and Christianity more specifically, is on the decline simply because people increasingly embrace a higher degree of rational skepticism, we should expect other kinds of beliefs not founded by scientific evidence to also be on the decline. For example, we should see a decreasing belief in astrology. Unfortunately, the GSS has only asked for views on astrology for a limited number of years – beginning in 2006 – and it would be more useful to have data for a greater time period. However, we have seen a large decrease in religious affiliation and observance even over that short period of time. Have we also seen a decline in the belief in astrology? No. In 2006, a little more than 32 percent of respondents said that astrology was either “very scientific” or “somewhat scientific.” We see a comparable number in 2014 (about 33 percent). It is also interesting to note that those who describe themselves as having no religion were not any more or less likely to believe in astrology. When we examine the views of nones in all years the question was asked, we find that about 35 percent believed at least somewhat in astrology. We similarly see that a significant (and apparently growing) minority of people who adhere to no particular religion nonetheless consider themselves “spiritual” people. In 1998, about 36 percent of those belonging to no religion considered themselves very spiritual or moderately spiritual. In 2014, this number was about 39 percent. Other research has shown that a strong majority of young people who are not involved in any particular religion nonetheless say that “spiritual growth” is at least somewhat important to them.[i]
An increase in rational skepticism should also lead to a decline in the belief in life after death. This is obviously a key element of Christian theology – indeed, part of most religions – but one does not need to believe in a particular religion to believe in an afterlife. Once again, we see very little change when it comes to this question. Fortunately, the GSS has asked this question for a longer period of time, beginning in 1973. The first time this question was asked, a little over 76 percent of the population said they believed in life after death. In 2014, a little over 79 percent of the population said this. In other words, this belief appears to have actually increased – though the difference is not statistically significant.
The belief in life after death is even very common among those who claim to have no religion. A slight majority of the irreligious (about 52 percent) said they believed in an afterlife in 2014. This is actually a small increase compared to 1973. In the earlier year, about 49 percent of the irreligious believed in an afterlife. Once again, those without religion are not, on average, cold-eyed empiricists who reject any belief that cannot be verified using the scientific method.
[i] Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 134