Phil Zuckerman isn’t religious, but as he said Wednesday, irreligion is becoming strikingly more common.
Speaking from the Hall of Philosophy, Zuckerman delivered his lecture, “Irreligion Rising: Why More Americans Are Becoming Secular.” While he did give some more mundane reasons as to why religion is fading worldwide, he also threw in some curveballs, which included more women entering the labor force, the recent success of the religious right, and the aftershocks of 9/11.
“We’ve never seen this before,” Zuckerman said of the global trend toward irreligion. “This is historically unprecedented.”
Before delving into why, Zuckerman shared some statistics covering religion’s low tide. His data spanned country to country, showing an increased disinterest in religion everywhere. According to his figures, less than 1 in 10 British people today go to church any given Sunday, as opposed to three in five 100 years ago.
Likewise, 60 years ago, 70 percent of Japanese people identified with a religion, but that number is down to 20 percent today. In Uruguay, more than 40 percent of the country does not identify with any religion. Even in America, between 23 and 31 percent of Americans identify as secular, as opposed to 8 percent in 1990.
Moving on to the reasoning behind this trend, Zuckerman said there are two categories of thinking: general human needs and culture-specific rationale.
Of the former, Zuckerman said humanity is in a better state today than it ever has been, and for this reason, fewer people feel compelled toward religion. Because of things like increased education and literacy, new technology, urbanization and religious pluralism, humans are no longer as dependent on religion, he said.
“When people’s lives are more secure, stable; when people have food, shelter, medicine, democracy; when life is less precarious, the need for religion tends to go down,” Zuckerman said.
Once Zuckerman cast a spotlight on emerging irreligion in the U.S. specifically, the conversation intensified.
As one example, Zuckerman said, with the political power of the religious right since the 1980s, a lot of Christians find themselves alienated by the movement’s staunch conservatism.
“[The religious right] seems to have alienated a lot of Americans from their Christianity,” Zuckerman said. “Those who were moderately political or left-leaning felt, ‘Whoa, I don’t want to be affiliated with that.’ ”
Another unexpected example came in Zuckerman’s assertion that the sharp rise in women entering the paid labor force has contributed directly to the reduction of religion in America.
“It used to be women’s role to keep religion alive in the home, but now that they have jobs, no one does it,” Zuckerman said.
He said that Scandinavia, which has some of the highest rates of irreligion in the world, also has some of the highest rates of employed women.
Another reason behind the trend, according to Zuckerman, is in reaction to the Catholic Church’s pedophile-priest scandal. With the thousands of priests implicated in the abuse of thousands of victims, the incident scared and disillusioned a lot of former practitioners away, he said.
“The data is clear,” Zuckerman said. “A lot of Catholics have become ex-Catholics.”
He elaborated that, between 2000 and 2010, the Catholic Church lost 30 percent of its New Hampshire membership, 33 percent of its Maine membership and closed 70 percent of its parishes in the greater Boston area.
He also mentioned the widespread support of gay rights, a general distrust in religion after 9/11, unfavorable depictions of religion in the media and internet as reasons behind emerging irreligion.
In the subsequent Q-and-A, Zuckerman said he didn’t how to stop or reverse the trend, but if his figures are accurate, their implications will be alarming to religious members and leaders alike.