The claim of a war on religion has been commonplace ever since Socrates proclaimed the supremacy of logic and reasoning over the blind faith of the ancient Athenians. Many feared that the gods would destroy the city for his irreverence, and if not the gods, then those influenced by Socrates surely would. Thus, he was executed. However, these fears of increasing impiety in the next generation have continued into the modern day.
In last year's presidential election, several candidates, including Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and even Mitt Romney, filled the headlines denouncing "Obama's war on religion." The Affordable Care Act inflamed those tensions by obligating employers to supply health services, including contraception, to their employees. Hannah Smith of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in response to the legislation, declared, "This is really about government coercion of religious individuals and institutions."
On Friday, however, Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury from 2002-2012, called for cooler heads to prevail, saying that Christians who say they are persecuted should "grow up." So which side is right? Is religion really on the defensive in the U.S.? Are the rights of believers being infringed upon?
The first response should be to check the statistics. Many reading this article might be surprised to hear that in 2012, Gallup recorded that 81% of Americans see religion as a very important or fairly important part of their lives, and of those, 58% said that religion was a very important part of their life — numbers that have been more or less static since 1992 . A whole 76% said that prayer played an important role in their lives, while only 14% of responders identified as atheists.
With these statistics in mind, it's hard to imagine that the influence of religion is waning in the United States. Nevertheless, 72% of Americans believe that religion is losing its influence. Is there an explanation of this phenomenon?
It should be mentioned that most claims of an organized attack on religion come from Christians, not Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. Specifically, the calls originate among conservative Christians. While members of other faiths might talk about diminishing attendance at services, evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics add a political flavor to it.
Many assume that these statistics reflect a generational divide — millennials, it seems, are less religious than their ancestors. The case is mixed for this argument. Although a full 25% of millennials report being unaffiliated with any religion, which is a higher rate than previous generations were at the same age, personal religious beliefs remain an important part of their lives. The percentage of millennials who claim they pray everyday is similar to the percentage for previous generations. Although millennials might not attend services often, many do still believe in similar principles. Ninety percent responded that they believe in "God or a universal spirit," only four percentage points less than was recorded in 1976 when the question as first asked.
Perhaps what this says is that religion has become more of a private part of our lives, a moral philosophy, and that young people are rejecting the public communal style of religious belief that previous generations favored.