By Peter Foster, Telegraph.co.uk
Next week Jesus gets the full Hollywood treatment with the launch of Son of God, a movie biopic that Christian groups are determined will take America by storm, much like the HBO mini-series on The Bible did last year.
From Los Angeles to Houston multiplex cinemas have been block-booked for the February 28 premiere, in what promises to be a stark display of mega-church muscle.
On days like that, it feels hard to argue that religion in America is really on the decline, but after our recent piece on secular groups in Virginia, I’ve been delving further into the data.
The decline of mainstream Protestantism in America over recent decades has been well documented, but for much of that period Evangelical Christianity appeared to be immune to that wider trend, as mega-churches continued to grow and George W Bush took the White House.
But now, according to Mark Chaves, a divinity and sociology professor at Duke University and author of “America Religion: Contemporary Trends”, it seems that Evangelicals are now succumbing to the same forces of secularization.
Using data from the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, Chaves discovers that among White Evangelicals born in the decade 1981-90, some 22 per cent now say they have no religion, a figure is close to the 24 per cent of mainstream Protestants born in the same decade who say the same.
What is interesting, is that if you go back a decade and look at White Christians born 1971-80, just 12 per cent of Evangelicals say they have no religious affiliation, compared with 19 per cent of mainstream Protestants: the secularisation trends are clearly converging.
This tallies with the anecdotal evidence that we picked up in Virginia that suggested that non-belief was rising among the young Christian community much faster than headline polls suggested.
After several decades of doubt over the data, says Chaves, it is now clear beyond reasonable doubt that America is secularizing, but that doesn’t answer a much trickier – and more interesting question: how far, and how fast?
America still feels highly religious on the surface, but is it possible that attitudes to religion in the US could undergo a sudden shift – as they have, say, on gay marriage – or is religion so fundamental to the US that any change will continue to be incremental?
Right now, the shift in attitudes to religion is, according to the famous“nones” Pew survey, driven by so-called “generational replacement” – ie the younger generation slowly becoming less religious and their attitudes filtering into society and the polling data, as their parents and grandparents die off.
If that trend continues, then change will be very slow. But there is another scenario, which is when a shift in attitudes leaps across generations, as happened with gay marriage, precipitating a much sharper change which has seen those in favour of gay marriage leap from 33% a decade ago to 55-57% today. (More trivially, a similar cross-generational shift in attitudes has been seen, say, in attitudes to smoking in bars, or wearing seat belts, or drink-driving.)
Analysis of European secularisation might provide us some pointers for the US going foward. There, according to analysis by David Voas, a sociologist at Essex University, it is clear that the rise of so-called “fuzzy fidelity” – ie those with no explicit religious affliation, 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”.
“Indifference,” Voas writes in his 2008 paper The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe, “is ultimately as damaging for religion as scepticism.”
If that’s the case in the US, then the belief among many Evangelicals that the “nones” are still fundamentally religious may prove to be wishful thinking.
So will a gay marriage-like tipping point occur in the US? “Impossible!” I hear you cry, but you only have to think of Ireland, where attitudes to the Catholic church have shifted sharply in the last decade, or Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s to realise that religion is not immune to such changes.
Despite the polling data showing the decline of US Christianity, there isn’t a single openly non-believing or secular member of Congress. There is a huge disconnect there, which creates the potential for substantial latent pressure for change: imagine, a decade from now, if attitudes towards non-believers were to become as tolerant, say, as they have towards gay marriage, how the dam might burst.
This might not be so much a revolution, as a collective acceptance that – as seems to have happened with gay marriage – people can be honest about who they are, without fearing repercussions from friends, and family or indeed, the moral collapse of society.