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Religious “nones” and the future of American religion

posted by Jessica Polebaum and Charles Gelman

A number of recent studies have attempted to analyze the emergent and fast-growing segment of American society that declines any specific religious identification—a demographic that Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, the authors of one such report, call the religious “Nones”:

None is not a movement, but a label for a diverse group of people who do not identify with any of the myriad of [sic.] religious options in the American religious marketplace – the irreligious, the unreligious, the anti-religious, and the anti-clerical. Some believe in God; some do not. Some may participate occasionally in religious Rituals; other never will.

The “None” category would thus appear to be capable of housing diverse configurations of belief no less than unbelief. Yet, Kosmin and Keysar explicitly reject the designation of religious “Nones” as “unaffiliated” or “unchurched” believers, the formulations employed by Michael Hout and Claude S. Fishcer, sociologists who have likewise devoted considerable attention to the growing “no religion” population. Hout and Fischer’s terminology suggests, according to Kosmin and Keysar, that the “Nones” are “mainly theists and religious searchers who are temporarily between congregations,” whereas, the latter claim, “they are more likely to be rational skeptics.” Indeed, central to Hout and Fischer’s most recent research is the finding that the vast majority of Americans, and even a significant majority of the “unaffiliated” population, retain traditional theistic or deistic beliefs. They report, moreover, that only a small minority of the unreligious identify as atheists—a figure replicated in the study conducted by Kosmin and Keysar, despite the difference in interpretive emphasis.

Kosmin and Keysar’s report has elicited much speculation about the possible repercussions of the growth of the “no religion” population on American politics, religion, and culture; as well as questions regarding the distinct identities of those classed as religious “Nones.”

Dan Gilgoff, at God & Country, examines four ways in which the American political landscape may change as a result of the growth of the “no religion” population, including fundamental shifts in the identities of both major national parties, as well as the increasing polarization of the American citizenry:

As more Americans leave religion, the ones left in the pews are those most committed to their faith. In a nation where church attendance is one of the best predictors of voting behavior—the more often you attend, the more likely you are to vote Republican—this polarization of religious life will spill over into the political arena, setting off more culture-war battles.

On the other hand, James Joyner at Ouside the Beltway is skeptical that any major changes to American culture will result from the increasing numbers of religious “Nones.”  Specifically, he does not envision a drastic increase in the proportion of Americans who self-identify as “atheists.”  He attributes this to the cultural stigma against atheism, as well as to the cooptation of the atheist label by anti-religious dogmatists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Ultimately, the boundaries between religion and culture are porous in America today, and religious “Nones” are not necessarily any less attached to certain religious traditions than those who identify as “religious.” Joyner emphasizes the persistence of religion as a pillar of community, despite the stripping away of many of its traditional bearings:

A sizable number of America’s self-described “religious,” even those who attend church with some regularity, aren’t religious in the sense that their 16th Century forebears were.  They pick and choose from the teachings of their chosen faith at will, occasionally even choosing a new faith altogether for reasons of “comfort” and convenience.  It’s a communal experience from which many draw inspiration and comfort.

At The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan contends that the increase in the number of religious “Nones” is proof that conservative Christianity has driven many from the church in general.  That so few of the religious “Nones” denominate themselves as atheists leads Sullivan to believe that this growing population represents an opportunity for a more heterodox Christianity to grow and flourish:

This is the fertile ground on which a new Christianity will at some point grow. In the end, the intellectual bankruptcy of the theocon right and Christianist movement counts. Very few people with brains are listening to these people any more. They have discredited Christianity as much as they have tarnished conservatism.

PZ Meyers of Pharyngula, however, argues that the low number of avowedly atheistic “Nones” is the result of the stigmatization of atheism in American discourse, rather than the perseverance of traditional religious beliefs:

All the low frequency of self-reported atheists in the survey tells you is that the long-running campaign in American culture to stigmatize atheism has been highly successful—and it’s an attitude that we still see expressed in reports like this. The most important news they try to transmit is not the increase in unbelievers, it’s “Thank God they aren’t atheists! They’re just rational skeptics, instead!”

Finally, AllahPundit at Hot Air sees the sole political significance of the swelling number of “Nones” in its potential implications for the evolution versus intelligent design debate:

As fascinating and portentous as all this is, the only issue I can think of where religious affiliation might strongly drive the partisan reaction is teaching evolution in schools.

[…]

[There is] a staggering divide, with a majority among all U.S. adults saying evolution probably or definitely didn’t happen versus a huge majority among nones saying that it probably or definitely did.

Whether or not Kosmin and Keysar’s tentative prediction, “that in two decades the Nones could account for around one -quarter of the American population,” comes to fruition, the debate over the identity and significance of the growing “no religion” population is highly revealing of the variety of attitudes Americans maintain towards  the role of religion in politics and public life.

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