I recall hearing someone say (more accurately write) recently that religious people constituted a large majority of the population in the United States, and that it's simply not going to change. It's not a hard point to argue, what with the bible thumpers, Presidents who exploit their faith to get elected, and a lot of people who are happy to tell you how much they disapprove of your life style in one breath and how you should be living it in the next.
But is the statement fact, and will it ever change?
I recall a moment during the 2002 elections when I was sitting in my car, listening to NPR for some reason or another. It was one of those days where it's not really dark outside, but cloud cover aplenty, it looks like it just stopped raining and is about to start up again any moment, but it never quite does.
The subject of the interview was man who had just written a book about how life is different in the European Union then it is in the United States with it comes to health care, same-sex civil rights, and religion amongst other things.
The author recalled how his daughter had succumb to an infection in her newly pierced ear, and their subsequent trip to a local hospital over there. After they had seen a doctor and were ready to get their bill, he tells of how surprised he was that there wasn't going to be any bill at all. The nurse or attendant was equally as surprised, but at how people in this country have to pay by the procedure and can't have certain things done if they can't afford it personally.
Surprised indeed, many EU countries have universal health care that is paid for by a national consumption tax called the VAT., significantly higher than our own sales tax, but it pays for basically everything. Want to go to college over there? Don't expect to have to pay more than $5,000 for it, though you better be ready for 15% on a cheese burger and whatnot.
So the story goes, it is becoming more common for people to join in civil unions and their counterparts in the EU than it is to wed via marriage. Seems same-sex civil rights isn't really such an issue across the pond. Who would have thought the much vaunted superior American culture and society would evolve at a slower pace than that which we left behind?
And then there is religion.
Not quite so easy to quantify, and ever harder to dismiss; there are so many people of faith in the world that progress is taking its time with this one.
No where is this more clear than in the United States, where nearly 80% of the population identified itself as some denominate of Christianity during the last census that provided such information. That represents nearly 224 million people, as of the year 2001, but that number has dropped 8.5% since 1991 -- for a loss of 23.8 million faithful.
Compared to other prominent religions, only Islam showed an increase, but at a minuscule 0.3%. Since the actual population has been on the rise since the countries founding, this cannot be attributed only to deaths or generational turnover. There is however another another number that seems to correspond pretty darn well with the drop in Christian and other sects of faith in the United States, and according to a recent poll, it was the most distrusted group in America: Atheists.
Though I probably should not, I do not have numbers any more specific than to say that atheist, agnostic, and the non-religious in America were the fastest growing "faith" from 1991 through 2001. The data was not specific enough to list them independently. This category though rose 6.7% over the course of the decade, with Atheists accounting for nearly one-in-six Americans in 2001, an increase from one-in-eleven -- or just over 42.1 million people overall.
To put this into perspective and based on the 2005 census for state populations, there are more non-religious people in the United States than the populations of the second and third most populous states in the union -- Texas and New York -- combined. Agnosticism out paces the largest in California by 13%.
The reasons why are up for speculation, but if the census data is to be considered accurate, then the conclusion is quite clear: religion, slowly but surely, is on its way out in the United States, and the trend is probably not local. According to 2005 numbers, the third largest "faith" in the world was Atheist/agnostic at 16%, or somewhere between 960 million and 1.1 billion, depending on how you measure.
This places non-religious just 5% or 200 million behind Islam for second largest group on the planet. In this authors best estimation, not only can the state of religion in the United States change, it is doing so today. Perhaps more bible thumpers will do the trick.