The Decline of Religion in the United States and Its Negative Effects

Published: 10th May 2011
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Religion has been an integral part of every culture since the dawn of human civilization; but in the United States today, the fastest growing religious faith is no religion at all. Various religions have come and gone over time, and some have ballooned up to massive followings that encompassed a significant portion of the entire world. Our morality, laws, culture and identity have come from a sense of oneness with our faith as a nation; but what happens to our society when we abandon religion altogether? Drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, serious mental disorders and depression have all been steadily increasing over the same time period that faith has been fading away. The decline of religion and its practice in the United States over the last few decades has had a detrimental impact on American society as a whole.

For many years, studies have been performed to find out if religion can make a person live longer. What they have found, is that religious people live an average of 8 years longer than the population that has no faith ties (5). There are many reasons attributed to this effect, including stress levels and being part of a community; but the results are the same regardless of the perceived causes. It also doesn't matter what the faith being practiced is; Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, Buddhist, even the newer religions like Scientology all yield the same results leading one to question what these people possess that Agnostics and Atheists don't. People who do practice a faith will tell you that 'God' is sustaining them, but how can this be if they all worship a different higher power?

Stress levels are an accepted contributing factor that most people can agree on, because a faithful person has a higher sense of peace with the world around them. When a person believes that a higher power is in charge of the universe, life doesn't seem quite so chaotic and left to chance. Tragedies become more a part of natural order, and they are more likely to enjoy the good times in their life because they see them as a gift. The 'sense of order' to the things around them makes life less stressful, and it gives them a place to turn when they have problems in their own life. People without a religious faith usually see life as a series of tragedies with intermittent periods of boredom and stagnation.

Religious people tend to be a part of much larger community, with many friends they see at church on a weekly basis. This large support system can also be considered a contributing factor to religious people living longer. There are lots of social clubs and other events that Agnostics and Atheists can belong to, but nothing quite carries the same weight as a church group that meets regularly through a person's entire life. There are several variables that could explain the longevity of the religious faithful, but many of those variables can't be substituted with other activities and they don't provide the sense of peace that having faith does.

All these things add up to a healthier lifestyle for those who practice a faith, and this also has effects outside the longevity issue. The occurrence of social problems like drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and depression go down with the introduction of faith in a person's life (7). Again; the causes have a lot to do with a sense of peace, community and a place to turn when they experience problems in their life. Health and longevity are two things that improve with a strong faith, so what happens to society when religion declines throughout the population?

The Decline of Religion

During the 1960s and 1970s, there were many social changes that took root in the United States. Evolution began being taught in public schools, and the youth of American began to question the religious values they had been raised with. The movements in the 60s and 70s weren't specifically religious in nature, but they did cause the younger generation to rebel against their parents in almost every conceivable way. As this generation grew up they still had faith in a higher power, but they stopped going to church regularly and that led to the problems with our generation. Conflicts between emerging science and religion, along with religious values being removed from government and school have led to a serious decline in religious practice.

The American Religious Identification Survey (2) is conducted every few years and it shows the trends of religious practice in the United States. Over the last 20 years, almost every religion that is practiced in the U.S. has steadily declined in percentage of the population. I say 'almost' every religion, because Agnostics and Atheists have been growing in leaps and bounds; and these are the two groups that don't practice a religious faith. Christians, being by far the largest percentage of the population, have experienced the largest declines; while other religions have only suffered small losses due to their small size to begin with. According to Adherents (1), this is not a trend happening everywhere in the world; it is centered in highly industrialized nations like the United States.

Many current Christian faiths in the U.S. claim to be on the rise, and there are pockets of growing faiths that have seen increases. Non Denominational Christians have in fact grown as the mainstream Christian faiths have begun to dwindle, but the percentage of the population they represent doesn't come close to covering the losses from the other faiths. Mormonism believes itself to be the fastest growing religion in the country; however the numbers they pick up closely match the numbers they lose through attrition, leading to a steady population representation that is still falling. The small portion of the population that practices the eastern religions like Judaism and Muslim, have had some increases and some losses leading to a net loss for the whole group.

The number of people who now practice no faith at all has quadrupled in percentage of the population over the last 20 years. This number is troubling for those that believe faith is an essential part of a healthy life, and it doesn't appear to be a trend that will reverse itself in the near future. One out of every five people in this country no longer believes in God and doesn't attend any type of religious institution. An additional two out of every five people still believes in a higher power, but don't attend a church; they also no longer place an emphasis on teaching religious values to their children, so the next generation will be even less religious.

The Rise of Social Problems

During the same 20 year time period that religion has been declining, a number of social afflictions have been steadily increasing. No one is claiming that the lack of religious faith is the cause of these problems, but it is making them worse. Without a faith to turn to in times of crisis many people turn to drugs or alcohol and in extreme cases, suicide. Church goers have a community of supporters to lean on with a collective set of problem solving skills that include a belief that a higher power is watching out for them. They also rely on a sense of order that things are going the way they are supposed to, even if it doesn't seem like it at the time.

Drug and alcohol abuse are problems that have plagued society for hundreds of years, and the instances of these problems waxes and wanes with many different factors. Some people have a genetic predisposition to addiction that they struggle with their entire lives, but others just abuse these substances when they need an escape from the troubles of everyday life. Over the last two decades drug and alcohol abuse have steadily increased per capita of the population, according to the Department of Justice (3); while the occurrence of these problems has remained low in the religious portion of the population. This makes the evidence that the two are linked; quite compelling. Substance abuse will always be a part of society, no matter what we do to quell it; but the decline of religious values is exaggerating the problem.

Suicide is the ultimate end game for many people that just cannot deal with the problems in life any longer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide has also been increasing over the last two decades (4); but the link between religion and suicide is even more compelling. Social problems of all kinds do exist in the religious population, but not to the same degree; and suicide rates among the religious is very low (6). Religion provides a sense of purpose for most people that goes beyond the short term day to day dilemmas that we all face, and this can help many people disregard suicide as an answer with a long term sense of order.

Severe mental disorders have exploded in the United States recently (8), and although it's difficult to say for sure how big religion's part is; the lack of religion certainly isn't helping. The field of mental diagnosis is relatively new and still expanding at a rapid rate. Twenty years ago, hardly anyone was diagnosed with a mental disorder and no one had even heard of bi-polar. Today, we have begun to believe that everything wrong with every person is some type of mental problem that can be fixed with a psychologist and some medication. Depression is a whole different animal, and it has been a known problem for far longer than most others. The occurrence of depression is also on the rise; and for obvious reasons, religious people struggle with it less than the rest of the population.

Other Problems Without Religion

Rehabilitation is also an issue with religion declining, especially since the government sees a moral dilemma in directing tax payer funds to a religious based institution. Programs designed to help people get off drugs and alcohol are far more likely to succeed if they include a belief in a higher power (7). Secular based rehabilitation just isn't nearly as successful; and as religion declines, the good rehabilitation programs will become fewer and further between. Prison rehab also suffers at the loss of religion, with prisoners being less likely to commit crimes after release with a religious backing. As churches decline, funding for these programs that comes from the parishioners will continue to dry up.

There are other solutions that we have tried to solve some of the social problems we are currently experiencing, but with limited success. In the case of depression, pharmaceuticals can be prescribed to help alleviate the symptoms; but they also present a whole slew of additional side effects with unpredictable results. Most people who take some kind of drug for depression have complaints that the drugs make them feel 'empty' and emotionless, while others say they have far worse consequences like suicidal tendencies. There is a dizzying array of prescriptions available for depression, and a psychiatrist may try several different ones to see how they affect the individuals body chemistry. Drugs, however, can only mask the symptoms of depression without actually addressing the underlying root causes of the problem.

Serious mental disorders can also have other possible solutions, but the biggest problem with most mental disorders today is misdiagnosis. The afflictions of the mind and their causes is still a developing science that will take many more years to work out. Right now though, the tendency is to diagnose everyone with some type of disorder; and most of them are treated with the same array of pharmaceuticals. Religion can help to keep a person grounded when they have almost any mental disorder, but like drugs it won't solve the problem. Mental disorders present a serious 'gray area' in the grand picture of social problems, and now everyone believes they have one.

Our identity as a nation is deeply rooted in Christian tradition; from the Founding Fathers onward. The last generation took it for granted that things like Christmas wouldn't become controversies, and the manger scene would always be a familiar sight on the Capitol steps. As religion has declined, there has been an increasing assault on everything that has to do with Christianity in the public arena. With these cultural symbols being removed from society, the stigma has become one of anti religion and it is speeding the process up. It's no longer weird to not be a church attendee; now even saying you are Christian in public leads people to a certain conclusion about your mental aptitude.

Another alternative to modern church attendance is the new 'mega church' movement that only requires people to sit in front of their televisions on Sunday mornings. It's unclear if this type of worship will affect a person's overall health, because it doesn't involve the same sense of community with other parishioners. Undoubtedly, there will be other forms of faith in the future; maybe even some that evolve through the internet.

The Connection and the Next Generation

Religion plays a fundamental part in a person's health and wellbeing, and that disconnect with the general population is growing at an alarming rate. Science and religion aren't enemies, as science explains the 'how' and religion explains the 'why'; but over the last few decades, science has greatly advanced leading people to believe they have to choose between the two. There is also a growing misconception that the two accomplish the same requirements in a person's health and wellbeing. Religion won't cure a major disease, and science can't cure everything with drugs; we need both to progress as a complete culture with balance.

Social problems in the United States are partially based on the religious values we hold, just as every other nation faces various problems based on their religious tendencies. Many other industrialized countries have declining faiths, and they also have an increasing rate in the social problems described above. The generations that come after ours will have a whole new set of problems to face; and if religion continues to decline, social problems will continue to rise. Between the loss of religious values, rising healthcare costs and socialized medicine on the horizon; the next generation may see the first drop in life expectancy in many years.

On the plus side, religion patterns rise and fall over long periods of time; so 30 or 40 years from now there may be a major religious resurgence. In the mean time, science will continue to advance with new medications and theories about the mind. Marriage and divorce rates also fluctuate along the same lines; as do political affiliations, and both of these factors also have a major impact on society as a whole. We have enjoyed an extending life span and improving health for a very long time, but that time may be coming to an end in the short term. The trends will reverse themselves eventually, but it will be the next generation that will have to shoulder the majority of the burden we leave behind.

Varying Views and Conclusions

During the course of my research, I interviewed several people from differing perspectives to gauge the views at opposite ends of the spectrum. Their opinions on this issue were very telling, and the way they see the future is even more so. Four individuals representing the various views have been selected and I asked all of them the same set of questions regarding the decline of religion and how it has affected society. Diane Norquist is a practicing Roman Catholic, Shirley Porter is a non practicing Protestant, Cory Weis is an Agnostic and Jason Pachello is a strong Atheist.

As a Roman Catholic, Diane believes that religion is the main driving force behind modern civilization; and it's decline would lead mankind to a very self destructive end. She surrounds herself with a community of other Catholics and believes that religious values are actually increasing in our society and that the Catholic church is growing in the United States. "I think many people are going back to church since 9-11, and the values from the 1950s are making a strong comeback"; she told me, "but there is a small group of non-believers who are fighting it".

Shirley Porter left the Lutheran church several years ago and began attending 'tele-church' on Sunday mornings by watching a mega church broadcast. She no longer has a community of fellow church goers that she knows personally. "Religious values are definitely declining, and you can already see the results through civil unrest"; she commented, "things will continue to get worse until the end". A very dark view of society, but she still claims to be at peace with herself.

Agnostics are defined as a group that 'doesn't know' about the existence of God, and they don't attend a religious institution. Cory Weis has been an Agnostic his entire life; never having attended a religious service and not being raised with any religious values. "People can believe whatever they want to believe"; he said, "I don't think it really has any impact on society". He also commented that religious values aren't increasing or decreasing, but remaining about the same. His circle of friends just doesn't talk about religion, so he thinks that it isn't really a hot topic with anyone.

Jason Pachello was raised Mormon, but completely rejected religious values many years ago; today he is a strong Atheist that firmly believes God does not exist. "Religion is a virus that just won't die because there will always be weak people who need to rely on it"; he told me very passionately, "society would be much better off if we would just abandon this archaic practice". Jason also believes that religion is growing out of control, despite science 'disproving' the bible and everything else religious.

People always tend to see the entire world through their own individual circumstances, and the four views here are no exception. The numbers don't lie though, religious practice is declining in the United States and it is having an impact on the social problems we are facing. It's impossible to say with any certainty what the future holds for the fate of religion or our society in the long term, but things will get worse before they get better. We used to believe that society would always improve with time as man evolved to a more harmonious state; but without religion that may be impossible.

Works Cited

1. n.p. n.d. Web. March 3, 2011

This is the premier database sight for all religions around the world; the statistical data concerning their membership and its change over time. The data is represented both in population numbers and as a percentage of total population for every country in the world. They have over 43,000 individual stat sheets about everything you could ever want to know about world religions. The amount of visitors this site receives makes them the second biggest religion based website on the internet.

2. Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. "American Religious Identification Survey." Trinity College (2009). Web. March 2, 2011

This is the most trusted religion based survey in the United States. It is conducted every couple of years and when it's published, it's used by the government and many other institutions around the country to gage the current trend in religion in the United States. This publication is extremely useful for seeing exactly how religion, and the view of it, has changed over the last 2 decades.

3. n.p. Bureau of Justice Statistics. U.S. Department of Justice. "Key Facts: Crime Type" n.d. Web. March 1, 2011

This site is created and maintained by the D.O.J. with current statistics concerning drug and alcohol abuse and the amount of arrest, prosecutions and jail time of the offenders. This data is useful to see how the decline of religion compares to the instances of drug and alcohol abuse over the same time period.

4. n.p. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Injury Prevention and Control: Data and Statistics." CDC n.d. Web. March 3, 2011

The Centers for Disease Control is a well known and trusted source of information concerning the rate of suicide per populace and how it has changed over the last 2 decades. This information is also useful to compare to religious decline over the same period of time.

5. ABC News Gigi Stone "Does Being Religious Help You Live Longer?" October 23, 2005 Web. March 3, 2011

An ABC News special report about the longevity data concerning people who actively practice a religion. This story points to several studies that show religious people live longer on average than those who don't practice a faith.

6. n.p. Religious Tolerance .org "Religious Faith and the Incidence of Suicide" n.d.

Web. March 3, 2011

This is a series of studies conducted over the last 30 years that show the statistical rate of suicide among those who attend church regularly. The rate of suicide is almost 4 times lower than the population that doesn't attend church on a regular basis.

7. n.p. eDrugRehab "Religion/Spirituality in Substance Abuse Prevention and Recovery" n.d. Web. March 3, 2011

This article shows the correlation between substance abuse and the practice of religion. Not only are religious people far less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, but rehabilitation success greatly increases with the introduction of religious values.

8. Healthday News. Peter Gerlach "U.S. Spending on Mental Health Care Soaring" August 6, 2009 Web. March 4, 2011

This is an article printed on a self help website that shows the numbers of Americans currently seeking treatment for mental disorders and depression. It also compares these numbers to the last 15 years of mental health statistics to show how much mental disorders have increased over time.

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