Nothing divides the United States from Europe like religion. America has its public piety and its multitude of thriving sects, Europe has its official secularism and its empty, museum-piece churches. Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God, while only about 60 percent of Britons, French, and Germans say the same. American politics is riven by faith-based disputes that barely exist across the Atlantic, while European debates take place under a canopy of unbelief that’s unimaginable in the United States, where polls show that a Muslim or a homosexual has a better chance of being elected president than an acknowledged atheist.
The aftermath of 9/11 has thrown this contrast into sharp relief and seemingly pushed Europe and America into permanent, Venus-and-Mars opposition. But paradoxically, our era may be remembered as the moment when the religious gulf between the continents began to slowly close. In the United States, the Bush era has summoned up—arguably for the first time in this country’s history—a mass secularism that looks to Europe and sees a model for America to follow. In Europe, meanwhile, a rising Islam and a more assertive Christian remnant are touching off American-style culture wars on a continent that had prided itself on being past those messy controversies.
America’s secular turn actually began in the 1990s, though it wasn’t until 2002 that two Berkeley sociologists first noticed it. In a paper in the American Sociological Review, Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer announced the startling fact that the percentage of Americans who said they had “no religious preference” had doubled in less than 10 years, rising from 7 percent to 14 percent of the population. This unexpected spike wasn’t the result of growing atheism, Hout and Fischer argued; rather, more Americans were distancing themselves from organized religion as “a symbolic statement” against the religious right. If the association of religiosity with political conservatism continued to gain strength, the sociologists suggested, “then liberals’ alienation from organized religion [might] become, as it has in many other nations, institutionalized.”
Five years later, that institutionalization seems to be proceeding. It’s showing up in an increasingly secularized younger generation: A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 20 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds reported no religious affiliation, up from just 11 percent in the late 1980s. It’s visible on the best-seller lists, where books such as Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy make their pitches to liberal readers, and in the public comments of scientists who now seem eager to attack religion as a threat rather than dismiss it as a nuisance. And it’s found a home in the expanding world of the liberal blogosphere, which has provided a virtual parish for Americans united by their disdain for “godbags” and “fundies.” (A Pew study of Howard Dean activists, one of the first mass constituencies mobilized by “netroots” activism, found that 38 percent described themselves as “secular.”)
It’s even making a difference at the ballot box. Liberals have spent much of the past six years straining to cut into the GOP’s advantage among religious voters. But when the Democrats finally shattered the Republican majority in the 2006 midterms, it was their consolidation of the secular vote that helped put them over the top. Despite all their efforts to close the God gap, the Democrats managed barely any gains among frequent churchgoers last November—but their share of the vote among Americans who never attend church at all leaped to 67 percent, from 55 percent in 2002.
This isn’t the first secular moment in American history; indeed, the modern religious right emerged, in part, as a reaction to what was perceived as the growing Godlessness of America’s political institutions, from the Supreme Court’s decision banning school prayer to the disproportionate influence of secular voters in the Democratic Party of the 1970s. But that earlier secularism tended to be an elite phenomenon: Even Time magazine’s famous 1966 cover story, “Is God Dead?,” confined its analysis to the world of intellectuals, and noted that in America, “public faith in God seems to be as secure as it was in medieval France.” The secularism that has come of age in the Bush era, by contrast, seems to have a greater mass appeal. What’s more, where the earlier secularism tended to cultivate a self-conscious neutrality toward religion, the new secularism is defined by an unabashed hostility toward traditional faith—or at least toward any attempt to mix such faith with politics. The more-extreme secular voices regard religion as a virus or a poison; more-nuanced polemicists merely argue that their religious opponents are un-American, and that faith-based politics is a stalking horse for theocracy.