There is a study reported in the BBC which finds that, if current trends continue, religion will be "extinct" in a number of Western countries. I suppose one could take all kinds of issue with the methodology of the study and its conclusions, but it remains true that religious affiliation (as opposed to religious belief) is very much on the decline in the West, including in the USA.
I think the hegemony of evangelical Christianity in American public life accelerated that decline in religious affiliation here in the USA. The hard right turn of the Roman Catholic Church, plus ongoing scandals together with the Church's poor handling of them are causing people to vote with their feet, even in historic strongholds of Catholicism like Spain and Ireland. The now conventional identification of the Christian religion with right wing politics, with the spiritual enforcement wing of supremacist political movements, adds to that decline.
The conservative churches themselves are feeling the decline. There are now about as many ex-Catholics as there are Catholics in the USA. All of the fundamentalist churches are having serious problems retaining members, especially among the young. It is more common than not for the children of fundamentalist parents to leave the faith that they were born into.
I'm not sure religious belief is really declining so much as changing. Conservatives always mock the idea of a "religious buffet," and it is easy to ascribe a kind of consumerist mentality to the growing population of religious "seekers." But so much has changed since the day when Martin Luther thundered "Here I stand! I can do no other!" For one thing, followers of faiths that Luther never heard of today live right next door to Luther's followers. Members of religions that Luther believed that it was Christian duty to fight against and destroy now live and work in Wittenberg just yards from the old Castle Church. Religious tolerance and the collapsing of historic distances have drastically changed the religious landscape, and people's experience of religion. Religions that long tried to kill each other now talk to each other. It's hard to imagine how such conversations could not change all participants.
There are two other enormous issues that are driving these religious changes, the ongoing scientific revolution (together with science's close sister, technology), and the experience of the Holocaust.
"Why should we fear Jupiter's thunderbolt when we have a lightning rod!" said Karl Marx. Indeed, why should we? We now have the old Mysterium Tremendum right at our finger tips with the press of a button. Today we can summon up all of those terrors described in Scripture as belonging to a wrathful Jehovah, and deploy them from planes and submarines. We can watch them on the teevee almost every night. Since the days of Isaac Newton, we've long known that the universe does not run by magic or miracle. Angels do not push the planets, gravity does. The picture that science presents of nature these days is not even the old clockwork cosmos of the Deists, but a much more fluid, dynamic, and uncertain model. If the cosmos looks like anything, then it's more like a great organism that grows and changes than like a clock. Our place in that cosmos looks more and more incidental with every new discovery. Not only is a belief in the transcendent becoming harder and harder to sustain, but even humanism becomes more of a leap of faith.
My friend David Kaplan complains about orthodox Jews clinging to the idea of an always just and providential God even in the face of the Holocaust. I think that historical event plays a much larger role in shaping modern attitudes toward faith and religious belief than most Christians realize. The idea of an all powerful God who protects and rescues the faithful described in so many of the Psalms died in the Holocaust. The concept of misfortune being the reward of sinners perished with the masses of people slaughtered like cattle by murderers who couldn't have cared less about the virtues and vices of their victims. David Kaplan points out that the Jewish orthodox idea that all the victims of the Holocaust were martyrs for their faith would come as a big surprise to the legions of secular Jews who perished in places like Majdanek and Belzec. It is hard to find a meaning in the Holocaust where God does not come off as either a nebish or a monster.
I resist utilitarian justifications for religious belief, but David Kaplan has a point when he says that religion is the only real defense left against the nihilism of the international market. That is an argument that certainly speaks to my inner Baptist preacher. Karl Marx reminds us that it is the nature of capitalism to reduce all values to values of use and exchange. It is important to remember that when Marx said that, he was not complaining. He was celebrating that transformation. Industrial capitalism strips us all of our ancient prejudices forcing us all to see clearly the reality of our situation, he said. Perhaps it is significant that a number of ideological capitalists now embrace that very same idea. Marx believed that this loss of "illusion" was a necessary step toward revolution. Ideological capitalists see that loss as a necessary stage in the creation of better producers and consumers. Maybe the banker and the cadre were always brothers under the skin.
I see that loss as loss. All the world is ultimately trash where nothing has any inherent meaning or value. All things exist for profit and pleasure, and when they no longer fulfill either, then all things are trash, including people. Why not cut down the last tree on Easter Island or keep a harem of child sex slaves or make dog food out of people? Why not loot the national economy for fun and profit and make suckers out of the nation's citizens? If the world and everything in it has no value apart from what's written on a price tag, then what does it matter? The line between crime and business becomes ever fuzzier all the time with cops and robbers trading places as profit margins go up. As John Updike once wrote, "Even three in the morning is lit up with the glow of money going rotten." That is the world that is being created for all of us to live in whether we want it or not. The people who own and run the world want this despite whatever we might think.
How do people stand against this? Taking a stand against this coming dystopia certainly does not require religious faith. Plenty of secular minded people are horrified by this prospect and will do all they can to resist it. At the moment, so many churches, by allying themselves with right wing supremacist political ideologies, are becoming the enablers of international capitalism rather than the resistance. So many priests these days are eager to play the role of the landlord's best friend that Marx once assigned them. Far from getting rid of religion, ideological capitalism sees it as an ideal enforcement agency, policing the desires and inner lives of people to keep them useful and productive.
And yet, religion could be a powerful force for resisting this aggressive nihilism, this dehumanization of the world's population. Like labor unions in progressive politics, religion comes with the institutional force that individuals or ad hoc groups simply don't have. I'm not convinced that this is a reason to become religious, but it is a reason to feel alarmed rather than to celebrate the demise of religious life.
I think the wisest and most prophetic thinker on the role of religion in the modern and post-modern world was that very secular thinker Hannah Arendt, who pointed out that while the traditional language and institutions of religion may well perish in the encounter with modern history, the religious impulse will probably survive, finding new languages to articulate that experience, and new forms of institutional expression. We may be witnessing that process now.