It was Voltaire who said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. Well, according to a new Gallup poll, that need may arise sooner rather than later. Belief in God among Americans has fallen to its lowest level ever. It is still a robust 81 percent, but the number has fallen six points since just 2017. So is a more atheist nation inevitable? American history suggests not.
Our nation’s past is marked with Great Awakenings, or religious revivals, the first in the mid 18th century, the latest lasting roughly from 1960-1980. While we tend to think of large church gatherings and powerful leaders when looking at the history of these periods, what they did more than anything else was put a spotlight on religion and God in the public square.
By the mid 1980s America had spent decades removing religious symbolism and imagery from public life. This came in a state form with bans on prayer in school, or the Ten Commandments in the courtroom; it also came in corporate form as brands veered away from explicit religious ideas in their ads. They became all Easter Bunny, no Jesus.
So maybe it is no surprise that the youngest Americans, those born after 1990, have the lowest belief rate at 68 percent and also suffered the most severe recent drop of 10 percent. Even a person just 10 years older was exposed to much more public religion as a child, nativity scenes outside of state houses and invocations before sports tournaments were the norm, not the exception.
But a case the Supreme Court is set to decide on may swing the door back open to more public displays of religion and faith. A high school football coach in Washington sued for being placed on leave when he prayed on the field before games. The court sounded sympathetic in oral arguments and should he win, it will be a new day for prayer in public schools. And God will operate a bit more openly.
Another reason for optimism that God may not be on his way out, is just how impressive it is that 4 out of 5 Americans still do have a belief in Him. In some European countries that number is in the low 50s. With the exception of liberals and young adults, the numbers are well over 70 percent for every other demographic group in our country. Even after all of the scandals of the past decades and the declining church attendance, the number is pretty stubborn and suggests an America willing to stick with faith.
Voltaire’s prediction about inventing God came true, of course, as Marxism erased the Almighty, and Communism replaced Him with the state, to tragic results. But ours is not an authoritarian state; in our context, it might be better to say that if God does not exist man would need to become him.
Without God we are free to decide what a man or a woman is, even if the result of our effort is a spreadsheet of 47 sets of ever shifting pronouns. Without God we determine what is most moral, saving the climate or bringing people out of poverty with fossil fuels. Without God, a minute's long ride down a birth canal determines if we can decide whether to kill a baby or not.
But don’t underestimate God. He’s been here before, seen His people wander and stray for thousands of years. Sometimes, rationally, it seems inevitable that atheism must prevail, that science or AI will finally put the nail in the coffin of Divine Providence. But there are questions only God can answer – about our souls, about death, about our meaning. Americans are still asking those questions, and I suspect they will be for a long, long time.