In a report released earlier this year from the American Enterprise Institute, Lyman Stone tracked the history of religious belief, behavior, and association in the United States since the Founding. It’s a magisterial work, and I encourage readers to download the report here and peruse it for themselves.
Stone’s research helps us to understand the decline of religious faith in America over the past 60 years. Secularization is, to be sure, a hugely overdetermined development in American history, and just about everyone has a theory about how it’s happened and why. Religious conservatives would probably cite the loosening of the country’s morals that began in the ’60s and ’70s.
Secular progressives might mutter something about the onward march of “Science” and “Reason” over time. But the data seem to show that the main driver of secularization in the United States has been the acceleration of government spending on education and government control over the curricular content taught in schools.
Here our secular progressive might raise his head again, perhaps feeling a bit smug about this finding. “See!”, he says. “Children used to be deprived of education and the life of the mind!
They were stuck in the doldrums of ignorance and squalor before the benevolent hand of the state reached down and lifted them up into the world of literacy and critical thought. All that was needed was a little education to free them from hokey superstitions.”
It’s a simple theory, befitting the minds of those who have historically espoused it. But it’s falsified by the data. Stone cites the seminal work of Raphael Franck and Laurence Iannaccone on this point, who meticulously tracked religious behavior over time in their own work. According to Franck and Iannaccone, “higher educational attainment did not predict lower religiosity: More and less educated people are similarly religious.” Nor did they “find that industrialized, urban life reduces religiosity: A more urban and industrialized population was associated with greater religiosity.”
The link between intellectual progression/modernization and secularization is non-existent. As Stone summarizes: Theories that religion has declined because urbanization is hostile to religiosity — or because modern, educated people are inherently skeptical of religion — get no support in the actual historic record.
It turns out that religiosity is usually determined very early in life. All the data suggest that, by and large, kids brought up in religious households stay religious and kids who aren’t, don’t. Consequently, childhood religiosity has been, and remains, the most important indicator of America’s religious trajectory.
The story of religious decline in America is not the story of adults consciously rejecting the faith of their forefathers: It’s the story of each generation receiving a more secular upbringing than the generation preceding it. What accounts for this secularization of childhood over time? Taxpayer dollars.