Ever since Karl Marx penned his denunciatory statement on religion in 1843 (that religion is the "opiate of the masses"), secularists, social progressives, and other opponents of religion have worked to convince us that religious faith is an outdated relic of the past whose inexplicable (in their view) existence remains only by means of a stubborn, unenlightened, and uneducated lower class.
Indeed, there appears to be an abundance of data supporting the claim that religious belief in America is—generally speaking — in a state of free fall. In 2009, ABC News, citing a recent study by the American Religious Identity Survey, reported, "In one of the most dramatic shifts, 15 percent of Americans now say they have no religion — a figure that's almost doubled in 18 years. Americans with no religious preference are now larger than all other major religious groups except Catholics and Baptists" (Dan Harris, "America Is Becoming Less Christian, Less Religious," March 9, 2009, ABC News).
Greg Paul, writing in the Washington Post last year, argued, "As the survey results come in, as the irreligious best-sellers sell, and as the scientific analysis gets published, it is increasingly clear that Western atheism has evolved into a forward-looking movement that has the wind at its back, is behind the success of the best run societies yet seen in human history, and is challenging religion as the better basis of morality" (Greg Paul, "Atheism on the upswing in America," Washington Post, 9/20/2011). Despite the staggering display of historical and cultural ignorance represented by the latter part of that statement, Mr. Paul summarizes what I think many would like us to believe: "To be religious is to be stupid!"
As for atheism, somewhere between 2 and 9 percent of Americans describe themselves as atheists (this broad range is due to the difficulty some have in defining the term). Apparently many self-described atheists don't quite understand atheism. According to a 2008 Pew Research poll, 21 percent of atheists said they "believed in God." Regardless, the number of those who claim to be atheists remains relatively static.
In reality, religion in America is not so much in decline as it is in a state of transition and change. New Age spirituality — as nebulous as it is — may be growing but so is the Catholic church. Increasing numbers of younger Christians — those most often considered to be the target of the modern seeker-sensitive church — are migrating instead to more traditional ecclesiastic forms such as that found within Presbyterian, Anglican, and Orthodox churches. Anecdotally, I have observed an increasing desire among young Christians in particular for more intellectual and theologically rigorous faith expressions.
There is no doubt that Christianity, as it has come to be understood in America, has been in decline. That may not be a bad thing. Frankly, I think the potential demise of culturalized, politicized, and Americanized forms of Christianity represents a hopeful trend! While Marx suggested that religion serves to dull and subdue attention to real life, I would say that false forms of religion do worse by offering a spiritual placebo, which only provides surface satisfaction with the "divine" rather than true reconciliation and intimacy with the Creator.
In the wake of this cultural upheaval, the Christian community that seems to be emerging (I mean nothing by that term!) may be smaller than, say, 50 years ago but it is arguably becoming more theologically astute and biblically faithful. Perhaps a remnant?
As for the growing category of "no religious preference," the evidence seems to suggest that more and more Americans are simply wandering through life oblivious to the larger questions, pleased to be ignorant and satisfied with the superficial.