We're reaching the end of the alphabet-and the end of a religious statistical oddity in the United States. Generation Z, more so than the preceding Generation Y (the millennial), and even more so than Generation X, is demonstrating a telling and permanent downtrend in religious identity. This is reminiscent of changes that began decades ago in other wealthy nations of the world but that didn't happen here at the same time.
Western Europeans in particular, under the influence of a long cultural memory of religious wars and in the immediate wake of World War II and its horrors, began a voluntary exodus from the churches. This was aided by a gradual increase in economic and other forms of security (which are known to reduce dependence on the hopeful magical thinking of faith), made possible through Europe's adoption of social democratic forms of government dedicated to advancing social rights (such as the right to medical care) along with individual liberties. Beyond this, European governments engaged in the practice of funding state churches, which managed to satisfy these churches politically as well as sap their proselytizing zeal. Meanwhile Eastern Europeans were brought under the influence of Soviet communism, which acted to ensure that whole generations of children would be reared in a secular environment that discouraged religious faith. Between these two developments, secularism eventually became the norm across most of Europe. And the influence of this revolution spread to Europe's English-speaking former colonies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
The United States, however, was different. Here was a nation established partially by religious minorities and refugees, yet one that was also founded on the idea that government should neither fund nor interfere with religion. These factors, combined with a commitment to free enterprise, led to religious diversity and religious enterprise. The churches competed against each other, not with warfare but as independent businesses vying for market share. Such competition gave religion in this country a vitality and variety unparalleled elsewhere. Moreover, because of a constitutional focus on individual liberties without an equal commitment to social rights, citizens had more opportunity to succeed--or fail. And this fostered a level of insecurity that further drove the population toward faith. As a result, the United States became the exception to the rule that industrialization, prosperity, and modernity inevitably lead to a reduction in religious belief.
Still, it was only a matter of time before even the United States would gradually lose its religiosity. Religions founded on Bronze Age and medieval understandings of the world are limited in how many belief-upending scientific discoveries they can adjust to before adherents find the constant conflict exhausting. Moreover, the technologies that spin off of science don't just make for new conveniences, they disrupt religion's dictated lifestyles. Consider the social transformations spawned by the birth control pill and the information revolution, to name only two.
To understand how the groundwork was laid for changes in...