One of the more pointless aspects of the continuing war of words between believers and non-believers in America is the scope and ferocity of the debate over the latest high profile defection from one side or the other.
Over the last few years, no defection (if one can even call it that) was more famous than that of the British philosopher, Antony Flew, who declared his conversion from atheism to deism, if not theism, in the last few years of his life.
More recently, a far less prominent atheist–someone I have never heard of–called Patrick Greene, claims to have become a Christian thanks to some local Christians who helped him in his hour of need. (Another blog now claims to have received an email from him that puts his conversion in doubt, but frankly, I don’t think it matters much either way.)
Going the other way, Theresa MacBain, a Methodist minister was lauded when she came out as an atheist at this year’s American Atheists Conference.
But while there is no doubt that these individual conversions spark a lot of debate, and can be a great fillip to those on the side gaining the new convert, I tend to believe that in the grand scheme of things, they don’t mean a great deal.
Well, looking at the number of believers and non-believers in America over the last few decades, there is one very striking feature that stands out. The number of non-religious people within each generation barely moves as people get older.
Here is a chart from the Pew Research Group of the number of people unaffiliated with a religion over the last 40 years, as broken down by age group:
As you can plainly see, the percentage of Americans who claim to have “no religion” within each generation hardly shifts at all over the decades–little more than the margin of error, if that. What’s clear from the chart is that going all the way back to the 1940s (when the Greatest Generation came of age), the vast majority of Americans who are religious as they enter adulthood remain so for the rest of their lives. The same goes for those unaffiliated with any religion. Therefore, almost the entire trend away from religious affiliation in America over the last half-century can be attributed to the fact that each successive generation is growing up less religious than the last.
Of course, that doesn’t mean nobody changes sides. I didn’t become an atheist until my mid-thirties and I’m sure most people know someone who has become a Christian or a non-believer in middle age, but the statistics clearly show that they are the exception, not the rule. Contrary to frequent claims on both sides, winning a high profile convert to your side means very little in terms of getting other people to follow suit.
In fact, where the battle will be won or lost is over the hearts and minds of the young. Churches and religious groups have long understood this to be the case, and pour endless time and money into teaching–some say brainwashing–their children to follow in their parent’s footsteps. But remarkably, without much of an organized or concerted effort on behalf of the atheists, the religious community has been losing ground steadily for the last 40 years.
If the long term trend continues unabated, almost half of the children born in America today may grow up to be unaffiliated with any religion. Not that many of them will be atheists, but most will go about their daily lives without paying much attention to religion matters. This is precisely what has happened in other countries like the UK over the last few decades, and it seems quite likely that it will happen in America too, the odd high-profile conversion notwithstanding.