A huge survey of American religious belief was published today, and the results are devastating for those who believe that the USA, unlike "secular" Europe, will always be a nation of churchgoers.
Many Americans worship themselves (photo: 7E55E-BRN)
The percentage of Americans who call themselves Christian has dropped 11 per cent in a generation. And I think this is the beginning of a very long slide.
"More than ever before, people are just making up their own stories of who they are," says Barry Kosmin, co-author of the survey. "They say, 'I'm everything. I'm nothing. I believe in myself.' "
The new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) is based on 54,000 interviews carried out last year, updating a database of 113,000 interviews carried out in 1990. The new figures show that the percentage of non-believers has nearly doubled from 8 to 15 per cent in the past 18 years.
Non-believers now outnumber every religious group in America except Catholics and Baptists. This is not a surprise to me - though it may surprise British people who are regularly fed garbage by our media, who insist on portraying Americans as people of simple and sunny faith, whatever form it takes.
You only have to read the blogs to realise that there is a vast number of young Americans out there who share a liberal contempt for religion. It was no coincidence that Sam Harris's apocalyptic tirade against religion, The End of Faith, sat in the New York Times bestseller lists for 33 weeks.
YouTube is crawling with videos of young Americans expressing their contempt for the politics of the Christian Right and, increasingly, the whole concept of the supernatural. Here's an example of a young American who begins every video by denying the existence of God.
Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today gets it right:
When it comes to religion, the USA is now land of the freelancers. The percentage. of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation. The faithful have scattered out of their traditional bases: The Bible Belt is less Baptist. The Rust Belt is less Catholic. And everywhere, more people are exploring spiritual frontiers — or falling off the faith map completely.
Catholics are doing OK - thanks to immigrants. As Grossman writes: "Catholic strongholds in New England and the Midwest have faded as immigrants, retirees and young job-seekers have moved to the Sun Belt. While bishops from the Midwest to Massachusetts close down or consolidate historic parishes, those in the South are scrambling to serve increasing numbers of worshippers."
But mainline Protestant denominations - especially Methodists - are in big trouble, as are Jews: the number of people identifying their religion as Jewish has fallen from 1.8 per cent of the population in 1990 to 1.2 per cent today.
I've seen this coming for a long time. Five years ago I was doing academic research on evangelical religion, and I was struck by just how secularised even born-again, Bible Belt Christianity had become. US Christians whom the BBC would describe as "fundamentalist" were becoming increasingly focussed on a narcissistic spiritual journey in which the figure of Jesus was sometimes little more than a disposable spirit guide or a life coach.
The fast-growing evangelical churches of America base much of their appeal on experiential excitement and therapeutic storytelling; everything is turned into a commodity, including courses of sermons. No wonder there is a signficant (if unacknowledged) overlap with the New Age.
The trend towards religious apathy and improvisation is clearly illustrated by the Obama administration and its supporters: never have there been so many young atheists and agnostics working in the White House and on Capitol Hill. At the moment the Democrats have absorbed most of the non-believers, but secularisation will come to the Republicans, too: don't expect the Religious Right to determine the outcome of future elections.
In many ways, the erosion of this Christian identity is desperately sad: we're having to let go of the idea that the unregulated vibrancy of US Christianity would enable it to pull off the unique trick of preserving religious observance in a globalised marketplace. But the truth is that the stereotype of the churchgoing American has been out of date for years, and now we have the statistics to prove it.