Okay, some of that might not be true.
But via Thought Criminal I get this link, and this fascinating chart. It seems that, as of 1906, 41% of the population (per the Census Bureau) considered themselves members of a religious organization (I'll presume this is self-reported, rather than derived from an analysis of church records). 92 years later, that percentage was 70%.
And I'm supposed to believe, in 17 years, that number has plummeted to a record low? Or at least low enough to indicate we are all atheists now, or will be by the time my grandchildren are around?
Yeah, right. So, what were we in 1906?
I've said before that the massive increase in church attendance after World War II was an historical aberration, and that, if anything, we are slowly returning to a normal level in the population. Per the information at that link, we are returning very slowly, indeed. You can see in the charts there that the percentage of the population claiming religious membership leaps forward in 1940, a climb that is unabated until about 1970, and begins to rise again in 1980. It's probably true, as Alternet says, that fundamentalism is loosening the death grip on American society it seemed to have in the last decade or so (although neo-atheists still insist it is being rammed down our throats somewhere, somehow), but that's hardly the same thing as saying we are all "nones" now.
Let me just point out the Salon/Alternet article makes much of the fact that "unaffiliated" is the second largest category of the population in some states. In 1906, it was the largest category in the nation, and stayed that way until sometime in the 1950's. What Baby Boomers have grown up with is the aberration, not the norm. But that norm hadn't shifted much by the end of the century:
At the end of the century, eight of every ten Americans were Christian, one adhered to another religion, and one had no religious preference. The non- Christians included Jews, Buddhists, and a rapidly growing number of Muslims
10% had "no religious preference," which is not the same thing as no religious belief. If that has changed dramatically in only 14 years, where are all the empty churches and synagogues and mosques? A mere addition of 1% would be over 3 million people. Surely that would impact the number of people attending worship, even if the percentage of those attending worship didn't change.
Speaking of which, in 1939, 43% reported attending worship regularly; by 1988, that number was at 40%. It climbed to around 50% in the late 50's, but pretty much stayed around the 40% mark for half a century. The shifts over that time are barely statistically significant. That seems to be a fairly culturally set number. I see no reason to expect it has plummeted since 1998.
There have been changes in American attitudes toward religion:
As recently as the 1920s, church membership was routinely inherited and implied obedience to a set of behavioral rules. Over the years, church membership became elective and behav ioral rules lost their importance.But those changes reflect changes in culture, not the authority of religion. Many of the strictures that were less enforceable in 1999 have become even less enforceable 15 years later, especially with the rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage. But shifts in church or culture, if anything, have still changed worship attendance (decline in attendance to Catholic Mass is attributed to the changes wrought by Vatican II) only slightly. The fact that the attendance number is so steady indicates the role of religion in individual lives hasn't changed much in, well, my lifetime, at least. Same as it ever was, in other words.
American religion lost much of its authoritative character. The mainline Protestant churches no longer applied their traditional sanctions against fornication, illegitimacy, divorce, homosexuality, suicide, and blasphemy. The majority of Catholics favored and practiced birth control, contrary to church doctrine.
The growth of evangelical denominations committed to biblical literalism can be interpreted as a reaction against this general trend, as the 1999 figures in the two charts suggest (see page 108). But even in that conservative sector of the religious spectrum, some old prohibitions—including those against fornication, illegitimacy, drinking, dancing, gambling, homosexuality, abortion, and illegal drug use—often appeared less enforceable by the end of the century.
These statistics, to me, reflect social approval and opprobrium, set in a culture accepting of religious belief. The shifts over time reflect shifts in the society, not shifts guiding the society. The chapter I've been quoting starts off noting:
More than 150 years ago, in his Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “America is still the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls.” That might still be said at the close of the twentieth century. Tocqueville attributed this phenomenon to the multiplicity of independent sects in the United States, unmatched anywhere else in the world, and to the equally unusual separation of organized religion from the state.
I think Tocqueville is right. This year marks the 180th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of his most famous work. I don't think there has been any change in American culture to fundamentally change his observation in all that time. However it seems there has been a fundamental change in religious sentiment, one that began during the Baby Boom, and while that change may be ebbing, it is not rapidly receding.
It hasn't really receded since the rise began, and that rise now constitutes about 1/3rd of the time that has passed since Tocqueville's observations. In the succeeding 10% or so of that total span of time, which constitutes the new century, there is no reason to think there has been another fundamental change, or even that one is about to occur. Unless the change is to a rapid disinterest in theism, or even a fervid embrace of atheism, the only possible change is a return to the status quo at the beginning of the 20th century.
But it's far too early to decide whether even that is happening.