NEW YORK (RNS) “Do you believe in God?”

This was the initial question asked by a team of British researchers in the late 1960s. “Yes,” one woman replied. Then to clarify what that meant, the researchers, according to the sociologist Grace Davie, asked a follow-up question: “Do you believe in a god who can change the course of events on earth?”

“No,” the woman answered, “just the ordinary one.”

This response, more than any pronouncement by “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, indicates why religion was in trouble then and is in even more trouble today.

God is not, to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s image from 1882, dead. And neither is religion approaching extinction, despite what its staunchest opponents may have wished. The number of people in the world who have rejected religion has been rising rapidly; nonetheless, as of 2012 only 13 percent of the world’s population would describe themselves as convinced atheists, according to a global survey by WIN-Gallup International. Here in the United States, only 5 percent would accept that designation.

However, religion has been growing much less important. God once was seen as commanding the entire universe and supervising all of its inhabitants — inflicting tragedies, bestowing triumphs, enforcing morality. But now, outside of some lingering loud pockets of orthodoxy, we have witnessed the arrival of a less mighty, increasingly inconsequential version of God.

God is becoming, in that woman’s sense, ordinary.

To begin with, religions explain much less than they used to. Isaac Newton and his predecessors and successors have relieved humankind’s various deities of most of their responsibility for the workings of the heavens. And while survivors of tragedies may still reflexively thank God, the days have passed when even thinkers like Voltaire would credit God with earthquakes or other natural disasters.

Many individuals, particularly athletes or those caught in difficult situations, may still say little prayers, but God is also being given less credit for the outcomes of our struggles. The course of human events — wars, finances, love affairs, basketball games — is more and more seen as determined by humans, not by an increasingly ordinary God.

The worship of this diminished God is also less demanding. Of course, there remain plenty of exceptions — Islam in particular, perhaps — but religions, in general, tend to impose fewer restrictions on behaviors. In 1951, a survey of young American evangelicals found that almost all of them believed drinking and social dancing to be sinful, the sociologist Steve Bruce reports. In a similar survey of evangelical young people a few decades later, he notes, few if any judged these behaviors to be sinful.

Or perhaps many people are simply less likely to go along with the demands that religions make of them. While adherents regularly attend church, synagogue or mosque (even though respondents notoriously exaggerate their worship attendance in surveys), the portion of the U.S. population that claims to attend religious services weekly is down to 37 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Regular worship, in other words, is now a minority activity — even in the religious United States.

According to a survey last year by Pew’s Religion and Public Life project, only 22 percent of American Jews keep kosher, and only 13 percent avoid handling money on the Sabbath. Similarly, while abortion, divorce and contraception are forbidden by Catholic doctrine, according to a 2012 Pew survey of American Catholics, only 55 percent believe having an abortion is morally wrong, only 19 percent believe getting a divorce is morally wrong and only 15 percent believe using contraception is morally wrong.

And for people of many faiths in the U.S. and around the world, sex outside of marriage — high on lists of sins just a couple of generations ago — is now accepted. A Gallup survey last year found that 63 percent of U.S. adults believe “sex between an unmarried man and woman” to be “morally acceptable.” That’s up from 53 percent in 2001.RNS STEPHENS COLUMN

Most today also hold their religious beliefs more lightly than did their ancestors. And we seem less sure of the beliefs we do have: According to a 2007 Pew survey, only about a quarter of Americans are convinced that their “religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.”

In 1820, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, himself a committed atheist, predicted that religion would not be “o’erthrown” but simply become “unregarded.” Despite all the noise and news made in recent decades by beleaguered adherents of one or another supernaturally inspired orthodoxy, that is the direction in which we are headed.

Religion’s supporters can take comfort in the fact that, so far, most minds still find room for some sort of God. But as religion recedes and we contend less and less with the strictures of ancient holy texts, it is an increasingly distant, indistinct, uninvolved, ordinary God.

(Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University, is the author of the new book: “Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World.”)



  1. Such beautiful, wonderful, awesome news.

    Thanks for the uplifting story. May the trend continue unabated.
    There are still so many danger signs in America with Creationist nonsense in schools, shunning atheists in the Bible belt and repression of women’s rights.
    I can’t wait to see it all fade away even more.
    The cruelty and bullying must end. Can’t happen soon enough.

  2. If you haven’t looked at the global survey (author provides link) you are definitely missing something. I found the layout of the charts somewhat concerning, with the religious on the top of the pages, characterized by a yellow, angel winged, golden haloed, blue eyed icon, with large eyes seemingly looking up for their god, and a great big smile. However the less religious were characterized by a yellow, dimly haloed, white eyed icon, with half closed droopy eyes and a “sort of” smile.

    A few other things I took note of were that the method most often used to ask questions were face to face. I’m not a sociologist, but it seems that people can be under social pressure when in a face to face situation, to give an answer that is in line with what the majority believes, so that my influences their answer.

    Also, what is a “committed atheist”? I’m an atheist, and am only committed to the fact that their is not enough evidence to prove to me their is a god. However, if one would show up, and prove it by evidence, I’m honest enough to say I would change my opinion, but would have a whole bunch of questions.;-)

    Finally, if people believed in a “natural” god, one that has no interaction with humans, but is responsible for the creation of life, which I think would be more in line with what the founding fathers believed, it would probably not be accompanied by the dogma religions have, and so therefore would not seek to control everyone. Not a perfect situation for sure, much better than today, because.

    Religion is poison!!

  3. Since the dawn of science, the null “intercessory God hypothesis” has been extensively tested and in every instance it has failed to be rejected. The accumulation of these results is inversely proportional to belief in an intercessory God. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people do not understand the fundamentals of science, which could account for the disproportionate persistence of belief.

  4. In other words, atheism is winning, America is losing. Thanks for the heads-up.

    Let’s just hope and pray America survives the decade. Given our nation’s spiritual altimeter readings (the needle is spinning counterclockwise very fast), I’m not putting any money on the proposition. But let’s hope for it anyway.

    • Doc, Why are you so afraid of atheists? Has an atheist hurt you some way? If so, this atheist would never condone it. Atheists still constitute a vast minority of people. Do you really think that such a small group is responsible for all of the changes in society that you think are bad, many of which, we may well agree on? Do you think we could possibly have *any* shared ideals?

      • What “afraid”, sir? I’ve been dialoging, debating, and discombulating with atheists since I was a teenager (and THAT was a very long time ago. Everybody needs a hobby.

        But having said that, atheism (and legalized gay marriage) is a good way to kill a nation, and we honestly can’t be having any dead America’s around here. So, no-good atheism gotta go!

        By the way, to answer your last question, there’s generally three items:

        1–freedom of speech
        2–freedom of religion
        3–natural curiosity about science matters

        So there is never a shortage of conversation!

        • Doc,
          You said “atheism is a good way to kill a country.” Nonsense.

          Holland is an Atheist country. Is it dead?
          Iran is a Religious country. Is it better?

          Which country would you rather live in?
          Be serious.

          • We don’t live in either Holland or Iran. We live in America. A far different country with a far different history.

            ” In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.- Our prayers, Sir, were heard, & they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor.”

            “And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance?”

            –Benjamin Franklin

            It’s not about singling out atheists or any other people-group, but it IS about taking a strong stand against movements that take us down the wrong roads, roads that great men like Ben Franklin and Abe Lincoln warned us to stay away from. Atheism and “Atheism-Lite movements are among those roads.

          • Where is the Evidence that says abandoning God beleifs is bad for a country?

            All of the evidence shows the opposite. Abandoning belief in Jesus Christ didn’t seem to hurt anyone.

            “I have found Christianity unintelligible. Early in life, I absenteed myself from Christian assemblies.”- Benjamin Franklin

            Where would you rather live? Atheist Holland where crime is almost zero and everyone lives in peace?
            or Religious Iran which hasn’t known peace in centuries?

        • Doc, “Afraid” was definitely a poor choice of words on my part and I meant no disrespect. It seems you provided at least a few examples of the “concerns” I was really looking for. I am happy we have at least those three ideals in common, because they are surely important to both of us.

    • Sensitive atheist

      Fear of atheism is unfounded. Atheism is just the natural state of a person. We don’t need any priests or coercion or gatherings to convince us that god does not probably exist. We just are.
      And you are surrounded by them every day – you just don’t know it.
      Many are in church. I was one of those once.

  5. There is nothing ordinary about God or his son, Jesus Christ. That the world is going to hell in a hand basket is not more proof of God’s demise than the Jews enslavement by Egypt, which started out in a rather positive light. We know that things will get a lot worse. It is not only inevitable: it is necessary. It is written.

    • That you would invoke the name of a scientist is progress of a kind.
      Isaac Newton was famously a believer in the supernatural, stupidly so.

      “…religion punishes questioning and rewards gullibility. Faith is not a function of stupidity but a frequent cause of it.”
      – Wendy Kaminer

      “Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.” – Robert Green Ingersoll

  6. I believe an objectified god – the talisman of cultural warriors and the tool of pragmatic, seeker-sensitive, self-help moralistic/therapeutic deists – is a far greater cause of the irrelevance of religion. The god of your cause, your team, or your patriotism quickly becomes an idol and a mere defender of what we truly worship.

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