A Harris poll taken shortly before Christmas chronicled declining belief in God over the last eight years in the United States: From 82% in 2009 to 74% in 2013.

Similar declines were posted for belief in miracles (79% to 72%), heaven (75% to 68%), Jesus as God (72% to 68%), angels (74% to 68%), Jesus’ resurrection (70% to 65%), life after death (69% to 64%), hell (62% to 58%), the devil (62% to 58%), and the Virgin Birth (60% to 57%).

In all these areas, seniors (68+) are much more likely to believe than young people (18–36): God (83% to 64%), miracles (78% to 65%), heaven (73% to 62%), Jesus as God (75% to 58%), angels (68% to 59%), Jesus’ resurrection (74% to 55%), life after death (67% to 59%), hell (63% to 54%), the devil (60% to 53%) and the Virgin Birth (67% to 48%).

Do these poll results merely capture the fact that people grow more pious with age and experience? Well, consider this: The Harris poll correlates well with the most recent Pew Research Center survey of America’s religious attitudes, taken in 2012. It found that

just 19 percent of Americans identified themselves as white evangelical Protestants—five years earlier, 21 percent of Americans did so. Slightly more (19.6 percent) self-identified as unaffiliated with any religion at all, the first time that group has surpassed evangelicals.

Yes, a major shift is occurring, but not the one many people assume. Advancing naturalism (the belief that nature is all there is) produces both expected and unexpected effects. The Harris poll found that belief in Darwin’s theory of evolution increased to 47 percent, up from 42 percent in 2005. Younger folk believe in it at 49% to seniors’ 43%. (Creationism dropped overall from 39% to 36% in eight years and 37% to 33% over the generations.)

That’s no surprise. Darwin’s theory of evolution is explicitly naturalist. It accounts for the history of life, including human life, without design or purpose. Indeed, it even explains religious belief as an adaptation for survival in the food chain—not as the result of any revelation. And 78% of evolutionary biologists (almost all of whom strongly support Darwin’s theory rather than others) are pure naturalist atheists, by multiples higher than the population at large.

As a result, some will crow that “Science is winning over superstition!” But it isn’t. Between 2005 and 2013, belief increased in

  • ghosts from 41% to 42%
  • UFOs from 35% to 36%
  • astrology stayed the same at 29%
  • witches decreased significantly from 31% to 26%
  • reincarnation increased from 21% to 24%

While the noted increases are small, we should expect declines nearly across the board instead, if the “science wins” thesis were correct. (The one exception is UFOs; as a “sciencey” belief, they correlate with naturalism despite lack of evidence.) Further, we would expect young people (18–36) to reject  ghosts and reincarnation more strongly than older people (68+) do.

And they don’t. On the contrary, younger folk believe in ghosts at 44% to seniors’ 24%. In UFOs at 36% to 30%. In astrology at 33% to 23%. In witches at 27% to 18%. And in reincarnation at 27% to 13%. They are clearly not the vanguard of a scientific revolution!

In fact, a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll showed that nearly three out of five Americans trust information from scientists “only a little or not at all.” And the young people surveyed? Forty-five percent of respondents 18–29 trusted what scientists report compared to 28% of people 65+. But that’s less than half of young people surveyed, and the number who trust drops to 36% in the 30–44 age group. (That HuffPost/YouGov drop matters here because Harris surveyed an overlap of these age groups, 18–36.)

One explanation may be found in a detailed survey undertaken by Baylor University (2007–8), which reported that traditional Christianity sharply decreases credulity about dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead and astrology. If so, the Harris poll captures the changes occurring as traditional Christianity declines among the young.

One thing the Harris poll illustrates is that naturalism is as bad for science as it is for religion. At the top, today’s cosmology is hostile to the well-demonstrated Big Bang and the fine-tuning of our universe for life. It claims, without evidence, that our universe is one of an infinity of universes instead, and it need not make sense. Why should we accidentally evolved apes expect to live in a universe that makes sense to us anyway? Our beliefs merely adapt us to survival—ghosts, reincarnation, astrology, and Darwinian evolution (we are just animals after all!) by turns, according to need.

For example, a study by the astronomy department at the University of Arizona reported (2011) on a survey of nearly 10,000 undergraduates over two decades, and found that “a large majority of students (78%) considered astrology ‘very’ or ‘sort of’ scientific. Only 52% of science majors said that astrology is ‘not at all’ scientific.” The conclusion the researchers drew was ominous: “belief in astrology is likely not a valid indicator of scientific illiteracy.” We would probably find that they believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution too, and in the multiverse.

In short, naturalism offers liberation, not from the bonds of superstition but from the burden of rationality. And we must address the fact that increasing numbers of young people are embracing that liberation.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...