James Haught

Tom Shipka

In a new book entitled Fading Faith – The Rise of the Secular Age, (1)James A. Haught proposes that there is a significant decline in religion in the developed nations. (2) In France, for instance, less than 7% of adults attend church regularly. In Denmark and Sweden the figure drops to 5%. Across Europe only 15% of adults attend church. In England, the percentage of children attending Sunday School dropped from 50% in 1900 to 4% in 2000. In a recent poll in England which asked people to identify the most inspirational figures in history, only 1% named Jesus; 65% named Nelson Mandela. In Ireland, the Archdiocese of Dublin ordained only one priest in 2004 and none in 2005. The pattern is much the same in Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Israel. (3)

At first glance it would seem that the United States is an exception to this trend. After all, faith-based programs continue in the White House. Few seculars win elections. (4) Mega-churches proliferate. Religion-driven referenda, such as prohibitions against gay marriage, pass by huge margins. Religious schools get thumbs up from the U.S. Supreme Court on vouchers and tax credits. Contributions to religious groups continue to increase. (5) Sectarian prayers begin the meetings of countless public bodies and we have a National Day of Prayer. Faith-healers who deny traditional medical care to their sick children are immune from prosecution by law in dozens of states. Finally, 45% of Americans reject evolution in favor of divine creation. (6)

According to Haught, however, America is not an exception to the secular trend. He cites the following:

  • NONES, those who have no religious affiliation, have grown to 45 million and are the second largest segment of the adult population in America after Catholics;
  • NONES make up 30% to 40% of young Americans;
  • Since 1990, 20 million Catholics left the church. Today, 10% of American adults are lapsed Catholics;
  • In the past fifty years in the United States, 20,000 Catholic priests left the priesthood and the number of Catholic seminarians dropped from 10,000 in 1965 to 3,400 in 2002;
  • One out of four Americans say that "religion has no place in their lives" and one-half report that they seldom or never attend church (7);
  • In the past fifty years the seven main Protestant sects in America lost 10 million members. The Methodist Church, in fact, lost an average of 1,000 members per week for nearly fifty years; and
  • The percentage of Christians in the U.S. population has declined by 10% since 1990. (8)

Is Haught right about rising secularism in America? In my judgment, he is. Although the decline in religion in America is less severe than in Europe, the trend is clear. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that it will continue. In 1965 Harvard theologian Harvey Cox predicted the demise of traditional religion in America in a book entitled The Secular City. Soon after its release, there was a dramatic religious resurgence. Perhaps another one is around the corner.


  1. Gustav Broukal Press, 2010. Haught is editor of The Charleston Gazette, West Virginia's largest newspaper. Fading Faith is his ninth book. He has won twenty national journalism awards.
  2. Haught acknowledges that religion remains strong in the Third World, in Muslim nations, and in immigrant communities in Europe and North America.
  3. Haught, pp. 11-16. In Canada from 1990 to 2000, the Anglican Church lost half its members, the United Church of Christ lost 39%, and the Presbyterian Church lost 35%.
  4. Some secular candidates camouflage their views lest they incite opposition from believers. One Ohio legislator that I knew, an agnostic, gave the invocation at the legislative prayer breakfasts.
  5. In 2004 Americans contributed some $88 billion to religious groups.
  6. One can add to this list. For instance, the Ten Commandments grace many public buildings, including City Hall in Youngstown, Ohio, crosses and Christmas nativity scenes are found on public property in many communities, and creationist literature is sold in some national parks.
  7. This is from a 2009 survey by Parade magazine. See Haught, p. 25.
  8. Yet it remains high. Around 76% self-identify as Christian, even though many of these have no official connection to a Christian sect or attend church regularly. Haught draws most of the points reported here mainly from reports by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and Trinity College's American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), two highly respected sources.

© 2012 Tom Shipka