Many atheists have probably been encouraged by the recent poll results on religion released by the Pew Research Center (see cnn.com article), showing that the percentage of American adults calling themselves "Christian" has declined rapidly over the last several years, while the percentage unaffiliated with any religion has grown to outnumber both "mainline Protestants" and Roman Catholics.
I'm not encouraged by it. I find something actually a little scary in it. And not for the same reason the cnn.com article suggests. ("While Pew's study will likely cheer the hearts of atheists, the rapid rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans hasn't necessarily spawned a generation of infidels." That is a reference to the finding that among the adults claiming to have "no religion," most still apparently believe in God.)
It's not that I don't trust Pew's results. The poll involved a survey of 35,000 U.S. adults, which is a huge sample, considering presidential preference polls are usually based on a few thousand (or sometimes just a few hundred) respondents. But I'm reading into the numbers, and there is something that worries me.
To summarize the basic results: In 2007, 42% of the American adult population was either mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic; in 2014 that was down to 35.5%. During that time, the percentage "unaffiliated with any religion" grew from about 16% to nearly 23%. Only about one-third of the "unaffiliated" declare themselves to be atheist or agnostic, though those groups are growing too: atheism actually doubling, from 1.5% up to 3%, while agnosticism went from 2.4% to 4%, so that altogether 7% of American adults now either believe there is no God or don't feel sure one way or the other. Presumably 16%, then, don't feel attached to any religion but still believe in God.
What worries me, in terms of the direction this is all heading, was the one other significantly-sized group in the poll: Evangelical Protestants declined only very slightly as a percentage of the adult population, from 26.3% to 25.4%. Not only is the 0.9 percentage point change very likely within the margin of error for the poll (the article didn't say what the margin was), but when you take into account that the U.S. population grew from 300 million to 320 million during those years from 2007 to 2014, the poll is revealing that the total number of Evangelicals actually went slightly up.
That, by itself, still isn't what worries me. It's combining those figures for Evangelicals with the ones for the other religions.
What seems to be happening is that the Christian faith is losing its moderating influences and is being left, to a growing extent, with its most strident voices. The Christians among the Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations, who might be expected to say, "Let's all calm down. We don't need to fight. God doesn't want us all to be angered by our differences from each other" are now exiting the church altogether, and Christianity is becoming increasingly dominated by denominations whose members are far more aggressive in trying to force their religion on everyone around them. Those moderating influences are people who haven't changed how they feel, but having left the church they are no longer able to work from within it and determine its direction. They're outside it now.
We can all expect more shrill pronouncements from the so-called "Christian right," who feel threatened by what they perceive as an erosion of Christian authority in America (despite Christians still representing more than 70% of all adults in the country) -- for example, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's recent tirade about the impending "criminalization of Christianity" that will result from the movement towards legalization of same-sex marriage. Evangelical Christians are increasingly feeling that their backs are against the wall, and that they are already being persecuted for "practicing their religion" (a practice which they perceive to include treating people badly for not sharing their religion).
That is what I see as the worrying feature of the Pew poll: that the Evangelical wing of the Christian faith has grown, and will continue to grow, as a force within Christianity, due to its steadily increasing percentage among Christians, and this more vocal and less tolerant brand of Christianity will exercise its greater weight within America's still-dominant religion. Religion in America, like the nation's politics, is growing increasingly polarized, with a growing conservative faction in religion battling a growing "enemy," the religiously unaffiliated. That trend will probably continue.
I am not looking forward to that.