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3 Reasons Why America Is Starting to Lose God

The rise of self, negative attitudes, and a decline in awe may be responsible.

God may not be dead, but God does appear to be starting to fade, at least in the United States. And, it’s not just religiousness; for the first time, there is evidence that spirituality also may be starting to decline.

The latest report was released this week by Jean Twenge and colleagues. These scholars scrutinized data from the General Social Survey (GSS), a nationally representative sampling of over 58,000 American adults that can be used to examine social trends going back to 1974.

Consistent with other recent analyses, results showed that, by 2014, American adults were less likely to be religiously affiliated and to believe in God than they were previously. This study also breaks new ground in showing that Americans were less likely to attend religious services, pray, and report being spiritual. Millennials (aged 18-29) were especially likely to display these trends, with one out of every five reporting that they are “not spiritual at all.” The only exception to recent trends was an increased belief in the afterlife.

What explains this overall pattern of decline?

1. The rise of self

Twenge and colleagues connect these results to a rise in individualism in the United States. This cultural orientation generally seems to discourage involvement in groups and concerns beyond the self. In fact, Twenge et al. explain the increased belief in the afterlife as potentially being due to a kind of self-entitlement mentality that expects rewards without effort.

In a seminal article, Aaron Kay and colleagues similarly tie religious belief to the centrality of self. These authors argue that individuals typically affirm self-control to help them to cope with feelings of disorder, randomness, and uncertainty. This becomes difficult to sustain, however, when perception of self-control is threatened. During these times, control often is sought from external sources of control, such as God.

In one study, for instance, Kay and colleagues randomly assigned research participants to either write about a recent positive event in which (1) they possessed self-control or (2) did not possess self-control. Participants then were asked about the extent to which they believed in God. God was presented half of the time as controlling and half of the time as non-controlling (i.e., creating). Remarkably, individuals who were primed to think about their self-control were significantly less likely to believe in a controlling God (but not a creating God), compared with those who were primed to think about their lack of self-control. These results are consistent with Twenge et al.’s perspective that the centrality of the self plays a key role in determining religious belief.

2. Negative attitudes

An increase in negative attitudes about religiousness and spirituality may be another factor. There are many possible sources to these negative attitudes. For example, when religion is featured in the news – or publically discussed, in general – the tenor often is negative. Reports on the connection between Islam and extreme violence is one example, but it is not the only one.

As reported in the book, UnChristian, the Barna group has conducted nationally representative surveys asking 16-29 year-olds in the United States which adjectives they most associate with Christians and Christianity. Attitudes are strikingly negative, even among those respondents who are Christians themselves. In particular, the most common adjectives people use in these surveys to describe Christians and Christianity include “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “too political,” and “antihomosexual.”

When individuals internalize these kinds of negative associations, they are less likely to be motivated to embrace religious or spiritual beliefs and behaviors.

3. The decline of awe

A third reason why religiousness and spirituality may be starting to diminish in the United States concerns a potential decline in awe.

In a particularly provocative study, Piercarlo Valdesolo and Jesse Graham explored the connection between awe and belief. They recruited 120 research participants and randomly assigned them to view a 5-minute video that featured (1) awe (from the BBC’s Planet Earth series), (2) amusement (from the BBC’s Walk on the Wild Side series), or (3) a control experience (a 1959 news interview conducted by Mike Wallace). After watching one of these three videos, individuals were surveyed about their belief in supernatural control and their belief in God. Remarkably, those assigned to view the awe video reported greater belief in supernatural control and in God, compared with those in the amusement and control conditions. Reports of awe accounted for these effects.

In other recent posts, I have discussed the possibility that there is a loss of awe and replacement of awe occurring in the modern world. For example, Richard Louv discusses the loss of mindful time in nature, particularly among children, in his groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods. In his book on the transcendent, venerated psychologist Abraham Maslow also discussed a pattern in which religions – over time – tend to lose connection with the experiences that inspired them in the first place. Individuals who once reported being religious or spiritual can lose this connection as well. If awe declines, so also might religiousness and spirituality.

Concluding thoughts

Some might ask: “Who cares if religion and spirituality are in decline? Good riddance!” Some research shows that religion, in particular, can come with downsides, such as the potential for us-them thinking that contributes to prejudice and violence.

On the other hand, individuals often rely on religion and spirituality as important resources for working through difficult times and finding meaning and purpose in life. Consistent with this, decades of research show that intrinsic forms of religiousness, in particular, have small but reliable associations with better mental health.

As Phyllis Tickle suggests in her book, The Great Emergence, some religious and spiritual groups may be undergoing a renaissance. This may be necessary – given cultural trends – if they are to going to stay vibrant, relevant, and nurturing in the future.

Andy Tix, Ph.D., also often blogs at his site The Quest for a Good Life. You can sign up to receive e-mail notifications of new posts at this site.

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