As Americans gather to celebrate Christmas, fewer and fewer actually believe they are celebrating the birth of a divine being who subsequently died and then rose from the dead. But if you look around during the holiday season, that doesn't seem to matter much.
Atheism continues to grow in America. That’s the clear message from a Harris poll released last week, which shows that God-belief is declining sharply. While 74 percent still say they believe in God, that figure is down from 82 percent in three previous polls in 2009, 2007, and 2005. The remaining 26 percent said they did not believe in God (12 percent) or were not sure (14 percent).
Almost all the numbers in the poll indicate that America is gravitating away from supernatural beliefs. Belief in miracles is down (76 percent in 2009, 72 percent in 2013), as is belief that Jesus was God or the son of God (73/68), or in the resurrection (70/65), survival of a soul after death (71/64), and several other supernatural religious concepts.
Belief in only a few supernatural phenomena actually saw increases when compared to previous polling. Belief in astrology was at 29 percent this year, up from 26 percent in 2009, and belief in reincarnation was at 24 percent, up from 20 percent.
The polling also confirmed previous data showing that secularity is most prevalent among younger generations. God-belief is lowest in those under age 36 (at just 64 percent) and climbs with each older age category.
In Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, I discuss the growth of secularity and its causes. While there is room for debate about this subject, one factor that is hard to ignore is the Internet and social media, which have fueled religious skepticism in numerous ways. National secular groups such as the Secular Coalition for American, the American Humanist Association, the Secular Student Alliance, American Atheists, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation gain exposure through such media that was previously impossible. The American Humanist Association, for example, has over 330,000 followers on Facebook who stay connected to the secular movement through a steady stream of information, whereas a decade ago its entire constituency was only about 5000. These secular groups and others are active on Twitter and other platforms as well.
This visibility creates camaraderie among seculars that never existed before. Being nonreligious once simply meant being a quiet nonconformist in a society that seemed to be almost unanimously religious. With secularity increasingly visible, nonbelievers are realizing that there are many more like-minded skeptics out there. Many find this comforting, and it creates a solidarity that leads them to be more willing – or even eager – to openly identify as personally secular. Some go one step further and join local secular groups, which are springing up everywhere thanks to tools such as meetup.com.
Of course, even without the existence of national and local secular groups, the Internet is a useful tool for finding information and answers. This also can work to the advantage of secularity and disadvantage of supernatural belief systems. Anyone with religious questions years ago would have had relatively few places to find answers, but today extensive information is just a few clicks away. And the rapid growth of secularity in recent years suggests that this wider availability of facts is unlikely to lead more people to believe that the answers to life’s important questions can be found in the writings of ancient men.
Throughout all of this rising secularity, there is no sign that the Christmas season is threatened in any way. There may be more seculars roaming about, but most of those seculars have enjoyed the holiday season all their lives, and they aren't about to let their disbelief get in the way. As I said in Nonbeliever Nation, dismissing the existence of God was really no big deal, but rejecting Santa Claus would be another matter entirely. Merry Christmas.