Over the last few decades, the proportion of the U.S. population that is white Christian has declined by nearly one-third. As recently as 1996, almost two-thirds of Americans (65%) identified as white and Christian. By 2006, that had declined to 54%, and by 2017 it was down to 43%. The proportion of white Christians hit a low point in 2018, at 42%, and rebounded slightly in 2019 and 2020, to 44%.
Since 2007, white mainline (non-evangelical) Protestants have declined from 19% of the population to a low of 13% in 2016, but the last three years have seen small but steady increases, up to 16% in 2020. White Catholics have also declined from a high point of 16% of Americans in 2008 to their low point of 11% which occurred in 2018.
Since 2006, white evangelical Protestants have experienced the most precipitous drop in affiliation, shrinking from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020. That proportion has generally held steady since 2017 (15% in 2017, 2018, and 2019).
Disaffiliating white Christians have fueled the growth of the religiously unaffiliated during this period. Only 16% of Americans reported being religiously unaffiliated in 2007; this proportion rose to 19% by 2012, and then gained roughly a percentage point each year from 2012 to 2017.
But the proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans hit a high point of 26% in 2018 but has since declined to 23% in 2020. I expect the proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans will continue to drop in this decade as young people will seek religious meaning in this time of chaos.
While the Hebrew nation descendant from Prophets Abraham, Isaac and Jacob produced dozens of prophets and messengers, and welcomed whoever wanted to join the Jewish People (see Biblical Book of Ruth), Jews did not engage in very active proselytizing activities to spread monotheism. Only starting in the time Prophet Jesus, a descendant of Abraham’s son Isaac, and in the time of Prophet Muhammad, a descendant of Abraham’s son Ishmael, were religions established with major proselytizing activities to spread monotheism.
In pre-historic time the world changed much more slowly. Small groups of hunter-gathers that lack an incest taboo will be plagued by the ills of inbreeding; therefore exogamy in mating will be selected for. As ancestor worship strengthens kinship ties over more and more generations, it also expands kinship ties over more nomadic bands creating extensive clans and tribes. These clans and tribes gather periodically at a special place to exchange future mates. They also started exchanging i.e. trading for desirable objects not found in their usual local. Seashells, obsidian, red ocher and other materials have been found in campsites and graves more than 100-200 miles away from their closest source.
The stronger the attraction of a special place, the greater the effort that distant clans will make to attend, so gathering spots that are turned into sacred sites of pilgrimage through special seasonal rites will enrich human communities. There are scholars who think that HS advanced trade networks helped them out compete Homo Neanderthals in Europe (recent studies of Neanderthal DNA have shown that they were a distinct species not ancestral to HS).
The need for all the clans to show up about the same time leads to fixed seasonal holy days and a religious calendar. The need to mark time for pilgrimage festivals led people to study the cycle of the moon and the movement of the constellations and thus move some of the spirit powers into the sky.
Pilgrimage festivals like the Muslim Hajj still have a major world wide spiritual impact and serve in most religions as great sources of religious experience and solidarity.
Most but not all, spiritual forces are viewed as personalities. In most cultures the spirits are personified and ties of kinship relate the various spirits to each other. And in most of these cultures all or almost all of the active current spirits are said to be descendants of an original Divine couple, or individual, or egg, or something else. This “creator” god is usually not central to the spiritual realm in later times just as a great-grandparent is understood as being a progenitor who is revered but no longer active or powerful.
Monotheism does not seem to arise naturally from these creator Gods and there is no tendency for the number of Gods to diminish until it arrives at one. This might sound reasonable to those of us who live in a monotheistic environment but history clearly shows that while there may be many prophets; there are very few long lasting monotheistic communities. Since all living beings come from other living beings i.e. begets or is begotten (Qur’an 112:3) it is very hard for people to conceive of a sole God (without a family) who is the first cause of all the observed diversity.
Although in historic times there have been individuals in every society who preach monotheism, they are almost always reviled and rejected by the great majority of their people. Prophets who reveal a book of sacred scripture, are very, very rare and are clearly not the product of natural evolution. This is the major difference between the small number of revealed monotheistic religions and the hundreds of natural polytheistic religions.
In small groups moral values can be based on utilitarian principles like do to others as you want them to do to you, or what goes around comes around. But in larger more complex societies with diverse classes and castes it may be more effective to root ethics in transcendent terms since there are not enough repeat interactions to validate utilitarian morality. As tribes became larger and villages grew, a judge who rewarded good people and punished evil people helped the community to instill its norms in its members.
With the exception of a sociopath, the intelligent minds of HS also have a conscious, self-evaluating, purpose driven aspect that needs to be satisfied because groups with a higher percentage of these kinds of minds were more stable and more effective. Guilt arises from many activities and needs to be atoned for. Self-discipline provides many advantages for an individual’s survival and success.
Most people, and all societies, need the structure of rules, community and divine discipline to maintain self-control. Sex is a good example that is never simply a natural act for HS. The mind is always involved. It is not just chance that the first thing HS becomes self-aware of in the Garden of Eden is the shame of being naked. (Qur’an 7:22 and 20:121) HS is the only living species that thinks it must clothe itself. Evidence of textiles from more than 20,000 years ago has been found in the cold climates of ice age Europe. However, the origins of clothing in Africa are the not the result of ice age climate but the result of concepts of modesty.
Self-aware intelligent minds became moral minds, which became modest minds. Recent DNA studies of body lice that must lay their eggs in clothing, show that these lice evolved from pubic lice that adapted to clothing that covered the pubic area. This genetic adaptation took place 42-72,000 years ago. Thus, HS have been clothing themselves for at least 42-72,000 years. Long before rules about property became important, rules of probity were important.
The age when sexual modesty became evident is important. The Bible states that the first thing humans became aware of after internalizing the knowledge of good and evil was their nakedness. If this occurred 50-70,000 years ago it fits right in with increasing evidence of more rapid spiritual and technological development. The tool kit of Homo Erectus, a species prior to HS, changed very slowly over the course of hundreds of thousands of years while early HS tools changed more quickly over the course of tens of thousands of years.
But about 50-70,000 years ago the pace of change increased substantially for HS both technologically and spiritually. Many paleoanthropologists think that a major improvement in linguistic ability occurred about that time. Physically the HS body has not changed much in the last 100,000 years. The HS body 20,000 years before this transition period (60-70,000 years ago) is not different from the HS body 20,000 years later. But a major change did occur in artistic and other cultural activities. Perhaps the imaginative faculties of HS grew substantially thus causing inspiration and creativity to become more frequent and more rapidly spread.
That something very important happened about 60-70.000 years ago is clear even if we do not yet have evidence of exactly what happened. And in the past 3-4,000 years written revelations introduced a tremendous force expanding the power of religion both in space and time. The impact of religions with written revelations on historic human culture is comparable to the impact of modern science and invention on 20th century life styles. Both revealed religions and experimental science together will make the 21st century a turning point in human destiny.
What role does the One God of the revealed religions play in all this? According to Genesis 4:26 humans only began to call upon the name of the Lord in the days of Enosh (Enosh is another name for Adam-Humankind). That could mean that prior to the days of Enosh all prehistoric religions evolved naturally. Only with the rise of scriptural revelations did the One God penetrate into human consciousness.
Or perhaps human consciousness had finally risen to the level of being able to receive Divine communication from the One God. It took almost 4,000 years for monotheism to spread world-wide even with scriptural revelations; so it is not surprising that without writing; it took over a 100,000 years to get to humans ready to receive and preserve written revelations.
Spirituality among Homo Sapiens has been evolving for at least 100-150,000 years. It is as deeply, if not more deeply rooted, in the HS brain as art or music. Recent studies, especially those on adult twins who were raised apart, suggest genes contribute about 40% of the variability in a person’s general religiousness.
The idea that reason, socialism or modern science would soon replace religion has turned out to be a wish fulfillment fantasy of people who bear a grudge against religion. Usually their children or grandchildren return to religion. Religious rituals and ideas are ubiquitous and continue to evolve as the creative intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens encounter changes in their environment. This will most likely continue as long as HS have creative intelligent minds.
Or as Albert Einstein put it: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”
FOR FURTHER READING
The God Part of the Brain Matthew Alper Sourcebooks Naperville Ill. 2006
The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures Nicolas Wade Penguin Press New York 2009