By Daniel C. Houston
The head editor of the Real Clear Religion website visited Baylor Monday and argued the decline of religion in America over the last 60 years has been greatly exaggerated.
Jeremy Lott, editor for Real Clear Religion, a website that consolidates content from various Internet sources, spoke at Armstong Browning Library at the invitation of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
Lott cited a series of surveys administered by the Gallup Organization going back to 1948 that indicate a gradual decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as belonging to an organized religion, saying that the numbers themselves are not all that drastic.
“Is the era of big religion over?” Lott asked the audience of mostly Baylor faculty members. “I don’t think so. America is a very, very devout country compared to most European nations.”
“There is some fall-off in religious affiliation and attendance, but it’s not as severe as you’d think. I basically came to the conclusion that religion in America is robust but confusing,” Lott said.
Lott said he thinks the reason why so many Americans, in contrast to many Europeans, still hold deep religious beliefs is rooted in the founding of the United States political institutions.
“I have a bit of speculation [as to why], and it’s real simple,” Lott said. “It’s that the founding idea of America is a theological state. ‘We are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ And I think that a lot of Americans at some level say, ‘OK, so our rights derive from God. What happens when you take God out of the equation?’”
Although Lott said the decline of religion in America may be exaggerated, he pointed to two factors that may have influenced the gradual rise of secularism: that atheism is a more widely accepted worldview than it was 50 years ago, and that lower-income individuals are less likely to marry, which he said is correlated with lower church attendance.
Dr. Byron Johnson, director of ISR, said his organization has analyzed the phenomenon and found that many of the people who answer surveys saying they don’t identify with a religion may just be rejecting the options available on the survey itself, not religion as a whole.
“What we’ve found [at ISR] is that when people mark, ‘no religion,’ we literally ask them questions about their religion later on and find out a lot of them actually can name a denomination and a church or house of worship they attend; they just don’t like this column that has a list,” Johnson said.
Dr. Thomas Kidd, associate professor of history and senior fellow for ISR, said Lott was able to provide a unique perspective on American religion because of his “prolific” writing frequency and his exposure to so much material on religious issues.
“One of our priorities is connecting Baylor scholarship and friends of Baylor scholarship with the news media and broader public discussion of what’s happening with religion in American public life and on the global scene, as well,” Kidd said.
Lott said his background — that he was raised Protestant, went to an Evangelical college and then converted to Catholicism — exposed him to religious viewpoints that enable him to seek a wide variety of content for Real Clear Religion.
“I was interested in what these traditions had to teach me, and that has definitely helped in terms of being able to steer people toward the best [content] out there,” Lott said.