(Photo: REUTERS/Eric Thayer)
British newspaper Telegraph's U.S. editor, Peter Foster, has written a blog post to follow up on his previous article on the rise of atheism in the country, saying that research data shows evangelicals succumbing to the forces of secularization in America.
While mainstream Protestantism has declined in the U.S. over recent decades, Evangelical Christianity appeared to be immune to that wider trend with the continued growth of megachurches and George W. Bush as president, writes Foster on the blog of his newspaper.
However, Mark Chaves, a divinity and sociology professor at Duke University and author of America Religion: Contemporary Trends, found that Evangelicals are now succumbing to the same forces of secularization, the writer adds in his post, titled "America is turning secular much faster than we realise."
Foster's previous article, "Is America losing faith? Atheism on the rise but still in the shadows," published earlier this month in Telegraph, was based on the sudden rise of the "nones," as they were dubbed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace, Pew found in an October 2012 survey. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults younger than 30 – are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling, the survey noted. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15 percent to just under 20 percent of all U.S. adults, it found.
While America still remains outwardly far more religious than Europe, the rise of the nones has raised the question of whether the U.S. is on the cusp of a dramatic sea-change in attitude toward religion in public life, Foster wrote.
Over the last five years the number of student "freethinker" groups in the U.S., has begun to snowball: from 100 in 2007 their number has leapt to more than 350 today, according to the nationwide Secular Student Alliance, the author added.
Foster adds in his latest post that Chaves used data from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey, showing that among White Evangelicals born in the decade 1981-'90, some 22 percent now say they have no religion. This is close to the 24 percent of Mainstream Protestants born in the same decade who say the same, he points out.
A decade ago, just 12 percent of white Evangelicals born 1971-'80 said they have no religious affiliation, compared with 19 percent of Mainstream white Protestants, Foster writes.
He quotes Chaves as saying that after several decades of doubt over the data, it is now clear beyond reasonable doubt that America is secularizing, but that doesn't answer a much trickier question: how far, and how fast.
Foster then muses over whether it is possible that attitudes to religion in America could witness a sudden shift, as was the case with the issue of gay marriage. The shift in attitudes in favor of gay marriage wasn't just because of a generation change, but it was across generations, he explains.
The U.S. might see something similar to what happened in Europe, Foster argues.
The rise of those with no explicit religious affiliation, but who still believe in some kind of higher power and go to church on Christmas, has proved to be a "staging post on the road from religious to secular hegemony," according to analysis by David Voas, a sociologist at Essex University, Foster says. "Indifference, is ultimately as damaging for religion as scepticism," he quotes Voas as saying in his 2008 paper, "The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe."
Foster concludes with the warning that the belief among many Evangelicals that the nones are still fundamentally religious might prove to be wishful thinking.