The Upside Of Secularization

I have long been interested in what you might call the “sociology” of religion–the effects of various forms of religiosity on the body politic, especially when that body politic is diverse. That interest led to the publication of my first sabbatical project–God and Country: America in Red and Blue, back in 2007. (I think Baylor University Press still publishes it.)

The conundrum, of course, is that certain aspects of religious devotion can be very positive–especially the support offered by religious communities. Those studies showing that religious folks were healthier or happier or whatever weren’t wrong, but the value was the existence of that supportive network, not a direct line to deity.

Other aspects of religiosity are negative–especially fundamentalist belief systems. Our current culture wars come courtesy of people who act on their belief that their God wants everyone to behave in a certain way, and those who pander to them. (“Live and let live” is simply inconceivable to folks who talk to God….)

Scholars tell us that the growing secularization of America has been accompanied by a loss of community and an epidemic of loneliness, which is certainly troubling, so I was very interested in this article focusing on the positives of secularization.

It began with the facts:

Last week, Gallup released new data showing that standard Christian beliefs are at all-time lows. Back in 2001, 90% of Americans believed in God; that figure is now down to 74%. Belief in heaven has gone from 83% down to 67%; belief in hell from 71% down to 59%; belief in angels from 79% down to 69%; belief in the devil from 68% down to 58%.

These declines in personal belief are tracking with church attendance, which is at an all-time low (even when accounting for the pandemic’s social distancing). Religious wedding ceremonies are similarly at an all-time low, as the percentage of Americans claiming to have no religion has hit an all-time high.

The author acknowledged that weakening of religion meant the loss of strong congregational communities and the “comfort of spiritual solace and the power of religiously inspired charitable works.” Nevertheless, he insisted that it is good news for democracy.

When secularization occurs naturally within free societies and people simply stop being religious of their own volition, such a change comes with many positive correlates — not least healthier democratic values and institutions…

Democracy requires citizen participation.

On that front, atheists and agnostics stand out. When it comes to attending political meetings, protests and marches, putting up political lawn signs, donating to candidates, working for candidates or contacting elected officials, the godless are among the most active and engaged. Americans who are affirmatively secular in their orientation — atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers — are more likely to vote in elections than their religious peers.

Another crucial pillar of democracy is tolerance, the acceptance of people who are different from us, or behave and believe differently. In a diverse and pluralistic nation such as ours, civic tolerance of difference is essential. In study after study, nonreligious people are found to be much more tolerant than religious people.

Ironically, atheists are far more accepting and tolerant of religious people than religious people are of them.

What about information? Democratic self-government requires an informed citizenry–and these days, that means citizens who are able to separate the wheat of reality from the chaff of misinformation.

Research shows that secular people are on average more analytically adept than religious people. Religiosity, especially strong religiosity, is significantly correlated with greater acceptance of fake news.

The very first sentence of the U.S. Constitution’s very First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This fundamental principle of our democracy, which bars the government from either promoting or persecuting religion, is essential in a society that contains millions of people with multiple religious faiths, and no religious faith at all. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has shown a willingness to bulldoze this safeguard, threatening one of the founding premises of our nation.

The best hope for our democracy may be the growing number of secular Americans, who are by far the most supportive of repairing this principle.

Secular Americans, and the many Americans who belong to less dogmatic, more inclusive religious denominations, need to attend to the loss of community, the loss of the comfort that comes from being a valued part of something larger than family or clan. It’s notable that some atheist/humanist groups have regular Sunday meetings, to supply that very human need for companionship and fellowship.

Meanwhile, we should celebrate the waning belief that your God is the only “right” God, and He (always a He) wants you to impose “his” will on everyone else.


  1. So are you saying the Hunter laptop story was believable? Are you saying the DHS like Wray is an outsranding Christian? I see exactly the opposite shaping in this country from what this article states. Yesterday I went to a drive up and ordered two sandwiches, without fries, and tea only and was charged and got the full meal deal, while the guy repeated exactly what I said to confuse me.

    The national debt is larger than ever and prople to stay in power lie to each other. On one hand we are all upset at Trump and his antics, but what standard do we hold him true during sex scandal, business issues? Pretty much the ten commandments fall smack in the middle of all this.
    Who is the “Big Guy”, lie and deny! He is supposed to be areligious catholic, no wonder atheists tolerate him so much, ha. He does everything that isnt within his belief system.
    The secularization of our society? Is that what you call the acceptance

  2. I have a confession to make. Before I became an atheist, I remembered I said to a guy at work that I couldn’t believe he didn’t believe in God. He didn’t respond. About 3 years ago, I saw his name mentioned on Facebook so I sent him a message. I apologized profusely for not understanding his personal views and told him I was an atheist now and I completely understand his views. He appreciated my apology. It was the least I could do because it had bothered me for a decade that I had the gall to judge him.

    I’m so happy to see this trending.

  3. There are myriad ways to supply “that very human need for companionship and fellowship” that do not rely on belief in the supernatural. Even what we call spiritual solace is available without belief in a supernatural spirit. I know this from personal experience.
    It’s no surprise that nonreligious people are more tolerant than religious people. Consider what we mean when we say someone believes something “religiously.” That means they will not change their mind for any reason. They are proud to substitute faith for reason.

  4. I believe there is a “higher power” but don’t know what form he/she/it takes but believe it is is based in the all encompassing term “science”. Like the name God, science is a cover-all term and to borrow a quote from “Jurassic Park”, “Life finds a way.” Life finds a way to renew itself and often to evolve in a stronger form of life. There is no more non-religious leader in America than Donald Trump but his followers espouse “evangelical” beliefs and pass laws to gather in their followers (and their money) and control the secular population. The “mind-over-matter” foundation of “faith” that guides the religious believers will have no control of the end of science and evolution of life finding a way to renew itself. This can be proven by remembering the different “ages” this world has evolved through and the earth remains; even though humans appear to be determined to destroy it with their need for comfort and instant gratification to have all of life fit their specifications.

    “Secular Americans, and the many Americans who belong to less dogmatic, more inclusive religious denominations, need to attend to the loss of community, the loss of the comfort that comes from being a valued part of something larger than family or clan.”

    With or without religion it will be humans who will save or destroy this earth; the global “loss of community” is growing stronger; this was the basis of Chris Christie’s interview on “Morning Joe” this morning. And I am appalled that I found myself agreeing with Chris Christie but he spoke facts about global conditions and this nation’s part in all of the growing separation which can only lead to death and destruction. We don’t seem to recognize “…the loss of the comfort that comes from being a valued part of something larger than family or clan.”

  5. I agree with Sheila that secularization can be a positive force for democracy. We need to create secular communities that provide people with the same sense of belonging and support that religious communities can offer. We also need to find ways to encourage secular people to give back to their communities through charitable work.

    Secularization is not a monolithic phenomenon and can have positive and negative consequences for democracy. It is important to be aware of secularization’s potential benefits and risks to make informed decisions about shaping our future.

    In addition to the points made in the article, I would also add that secularization can lead to a more open and “progressive society.” When people are not bound by religious dogma, they are free to think for themselves and to challenge the status quo. This can lead to new ideas and innovations that can benefit society as a whole.

    However, this is not ideal for the oligarchs running things – it’s not a coincidence that the more extreme billionaires manipulate our fundamentalists and strictly faith-inclined citizens. Evangelists do as they’re told.

    As you move along the secular screen and drop religion altogether, how important is it to find another place to gather a sense of purpose or belonging?

    Does social media fit the mold?

  6. Each of us is a part of the human species, in which everyone is related to everyone else. Each is us is part of the biosphere, in which every life form is related to every other life form. Each of us is part of the earth, in which every substance is related to every other substance. Each of us is part of the universe, in which every thing and force is related to every other thing and force. There is no need to imagine a supernatural being in order to feel a part of something bigger and longer lasting than ourselves. We need only become aware of reality to achieve that comfort.

  7. I’m an Episcopalian, which is like being a Catholic, but without the guilt. Some religions are just better at living in a diverse society. We’re not all judgemental. We’re not all convinced that everyone else is going to Hell. After being raised Catholic and getting into trouble with the good sisters who taught at St. Catherine and Sacred Heart for my insistence that God would accept into Heaven anyone who tried to do good, I understand why so many people don’t want to be associated with religion. But it is after all, a system of beliefs, as is atheism or agnosticism, isn’t it?

  8. “She” is not always “He” in my ELCA church. Other than that statement, I am in agreement with Prof. Kennedy’s newsletter. As a very active member of my congregation it saddens me to agree with it. We are a very liberal congregation and actively participate in political movements. If this sounds defensive, I don’t mean it to be, but it angers me that so-called Christian evangelicals, whose fiery speeches prove they have never read the Gospels, have hijacked Christianity and those of is who try to follow the teachings of Christ.

  9. I heard that yesterday on Morning Joe an evangelical minister had giving a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount. He faced blowback from a church member because most of what Christ said was woke. Things like love your neighbor as yourself were too much for this member who wouldn’t accept Christ’s liberal talking points.

  10. Throwing the shackles of oppression off and becoming fully human is transcendence. The pre-science religion stories grappled with some deeper truths that are not to be taken literally. I didn’t appreciate being told what I had to believe and making real life seem Un special by touting miracles (resurrections, virgin births and ascending into heaven etc.) as what blessed/special people experience. Down grading real natural life is harmful; it’s amazing how so much works in harmony and real science explains a lot. To me the truth is miraculous and our consciousness to perceive and work with it is a loving transcendent effort. This is why I find government officials lying for political advantage so appalling. Like Jamie Raskin says, “democracy is based on the truth” and I might add there is no real progress without facing and building on facts/truth. Conserve the truth and progress from there!.

  11. “Research shows that secular people are on average more analytically adept than religious people. Religiosity, especially strong religiosity, is significantly correlated with greater acceptance of fake news.”

    I would bet real money on “secular people” being richer and having more education than those with “religiosity”. So…let’s not fact pick on what causes what….

  12. I personally find the trend towards secularism quite comforting and likely to continue. The logic and reasoning of free thought is certainly not new. Thomas Paine voiced his opinions on it at the outset of our nation’s journey. Particularly powerful are Robert G. Ingersoll’s oratory and lectures of the late 19th Century and are as relevant now as they were then. Those who have questions about the tenets of their religiosity may want to Google him. His remarkable grasp of history and clarity should not be overlooked.

  13. The rules of nature and science are prevalent light years away from Earth. The same laws among Earth apply millions of miles away from Earth. A God doesn’t need to create a Virgin birth for a son. That is nothing more than man creating a fictionalized account based upon his own bias. Jesus was a fraudulent salesman. Mary cheated on her husband and a gullible village bought into her lie. Joseph was an impotent husband. So.e of the tenets espoused are indeed admirable. But it’s BS.

    In America we are replacing religiosity by dividing ourselves via political parties. The RNC and the DNC are our new religions. Both stoked by ignorance,arrogance and an upper echelon that needs the support of its followers.

  14. Ian writes, “The RNC and the DNC are our new religions.”

    For those who chose those as their identity. It’s still an amazing 40-60% of the populace arguing whether their version of Christianity is more accurate. We must know that if it’s on television, it’s nothing but propaganda.

  15. Musings > Philosophically and historically speaking, one could argue that democracy has become the new religion of our secularizing polity, and that our insistence on following the principles of that regime is no less compromising and rigid than those employed by Trump’s cult, but that the urgency of whether we are to survive both political and environmental demise requires us to ignore such nuances in debate in favor of solution rather than sowing the seeds of chaos, the libertine Trump’s means of political control of the religious who have been conditioned to worship authoritarianism.

    Historically, we can trace our democratic values back to Plato, Aristotle, the agoras of Athens, the Florentine Enlightenment, the pope-approved (but hardly democratic Holy Roman Empire with its illiterate Charlemagne) and other outrages to the human spirit practiced by the pre-Luther popes, but having done so, how do we translate the lessons of such history into the politics of the 21st century when we have what amounts to a political pope that religious zealots have embraced?

    Walking around dad to day with the foregoing and other such environmental and political horrors in mind, especially with the looming destruction of our environment front and center, I need no additional burden such as religion to ponder.

  16. No need for a mea culpa, Gerald. Back when I was teaching middle schoolers I had to send frequent emails to the parents of a problematic student. Unfortunately, when I entered his name the auto-complete function was always changing my entry from “Devin” to “Devil.” (Certainly not the way to create a positive parent-teacher relationship,) Are we really ready to turn everything over to artificial intelligence?

  17. The idea that Mary had to be a virgin is just so misogynistic it makes me angry. To deny her humanity and one of the truly meaningful ways of satisfying the needs of that humanity, all decided by males who felt no restraint when satisfying their own needs, physical or otherwise, shows us females how subversive our needs for human contact and its potential satisfactions are. It is and was and continues to be all about power and control. What a load of crap!

  18. I’m no longer totally comfortable identifying as a Christian and why? Because I’m afraid that term now means narrow-minded, condemning people who think access to abortion and acknowledging the equality of women, people of color, and the LGTBQ+ crowd are our nation’s biggest threats. Our nation’s biggest threat is a willing denial of truth, and since Jesus Christ equated himself with truth…. I think this surge away from organized religion is a good that Christ will use to introduce himself to open minds looking for love, beauty, acceptance, and truth. They can’t not find Him.

  19. If growing secularization is good for democracy, then how did this democracy ever elect Donald Trump and so many others whose authoritarianism is banning books, exalting racism and sexism, encouraging and rewarding unethical means and even violence to win elections, banning water for immigrants and workers in life-threatening heat, attacking the science and medical vaccines that save lives, and more?

    There are many good people who are not religious and many religious people who are not good. Sadly some church leadership and doctrines and some secular as well as religious politicians preach and encourage intolerance. Within the church community, denominations are splitting over acceptance of LGBTQ people. Many religious entities still do not permit women clergy. This intolerance undermines faith as well as church membership.

    Jesus was a radical – a revolutionary – who opposed and even died due to the intolerance within his own religion. He made a public point of accepting and serving everyone – especially those who were all variety of outcasts. It’s so sad that His divine example is still not followed by so many within church establishments and everywhere else.

    The basis of democracy follows His example in the sense that all have equal rights under the law. Sadly, too many of our secular government leaders and voters would have us believe they are religious, but they can’t seem to follow either Jesus’ teachings or the principles of our founding fathers. They give both religion and democracy a bad name and are jeopardizing both in their efforts to divide us into constantly polarized, warring camps where even violence is an accepted and potentially pardoned solution to one’s political grievances.

    We’ve lived through demagogues and authoritarians before, but they didn’t have a 24-hour cable news network and worldwide web access to promote their demagoguery and intolerance before. I SO hope we’re able to move beyond the current religious and secular demagogues who threaten both religion and democracy. That’ll require a lot of good people getting involved.

  20. Religion is basically an Ideology. Think about it. Of the more than a few dozen (that’s a guess on my part) religions, most of which have little resemblance to the others, an observer might wonder how people can be so sure that their religion is the only true one. They don’t seem to wonder why they were fortunate enough to be born into the only true one. They just think that they were fortunate. They don’t wonder why the weekly services they attend are more meaningful than the practices of the Mbuti pygmies in the Congo, who worship the components of the forest. When you consider how different the various religions are, you should end up realizing that, like political beliefs, no particular one has any more substance than the others – to be precise, none.

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