Paul Harris:

The US is increasingly portrayed as a hotbed of religious fervour. Yet in the homeland of ostentatiously religious politicians such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, agnostics and atheists are actually part of one of the fastest-growing demographics in the US: the godless. Far from being in thrall to its religious leaders, the US is in fact becoming a more secular country, some experts say. “It has never been better to be a free-thinker or an agnostic in America,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF.

The exact number of faithless is unclear. One study by the Pew Research Centre puts them at about 12% of the population, but another by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford puts that figure at around 20%.

Most experts agree that the number of secular Americans has probably doubled in the past three decades – growing especially fast among the young. It is thought to be the fastest-growing major “religious” demographic in the country.

Professor Barry Kosmin of Trinity College, who conducts the national Religious Identification Survey, believes up to a quarter of young people in the US now have no specific faith, and scoffs at the idea, prevalent in so much US media and culture, that the country is highly religious or becoming more so. “The trending in American history is towards secularisation,” Kosmin said.

Anything that reduces the power and visibility of the religious right is fine with me, but I find it impossible to get excited about anything linear and teleological; I’m a cyclical sort of fellow. Orwell called it “a major mental disease” to always predict “a continuation of the thing that is happening.” Stern words indeed, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see these same godless youths engineer another Great Awakening when they get to middle age. If there’s one thing I think you can confidently say about Americans of all ages, it’s that they are congenitally incapable of staying put for long. Belief may be in a process of nebulizing right now, but boredom, hyperactivity, and a ceaseless search for novelty will probably lead to it solidifying again at some point.