In 2008, roughly 15 percent of Americans told telephone surveyors with the American Religious Identification Survey that they had no religious preference, were atheist, agnostic, secular, or humanist….Whether or not we want to feed these findings back into a very long-running debate about sociology’s secularization thesis, many of us will feel compelled to ask what this trend means for American public life. We are trained to ask the question because we are so used to thinking in Tocquevillian terms about religion’s relation to democracy. For that reason alone, it is worth taking a little time to clarify what the oft-quoted French traveler, diarist and social thinker Alexis de Tocqueville actually did say about American religion and its public consequences, so we can better decide what, if anything, in the Tocquevillian heritage helps us grapple with these findings.
The politics of spirituality
In his 2008 documentary (some might prefer to call it a mockumentary) Religulous, comedian and satirist Bill Maher wonders aloud why religiously unaffiliated Americans are not politically mobilized. Indeed, he issues something of a call to arms to this sector of the American population: “Anti-religionists must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves.” Although neither Religulous nor Maher’s views on religion in general necessarily reflect mainstream American attitudes, the question the film raises about why the religiously unaffiliated are not politically mobilized is well worth exploring.
Today, contemporary voluntary religion entails a “common-sense” epistemology that in some ways is strangely unaware of its own limits. Today’s widespread deference to a liberal voluntarism is so radically “open,” for example, that it can lead to intransigence, and to an inability to imagine that “others” see things differently from the way you do. A parallel development over at least the past three decades is the power of explicitly and unabashedly faith-centered political factions to bring their views to bear in the public square, to exclaim against imminent moral decay in American life, and to rail against rising unbelief.
More and more Americans say they have no formal religious affiliation. National surveys, scholarly findings, and media coverage make that clear. Those identifying with “no religion”—often termed “nones,” “no religionists,” or the “unchurched”—jumped from 8.2 percent of the public in 1990 to just over 15 percent in 2008.
This trend causes some observers to cry out in alarm and others to rejoice. But the transition is far more complicated than a mere movement from faith to non-belief implies.
In 2002 we reported that the fraction of American adults with no religious preference doubled from 7 to 14 percent during the 1990s. Data from this decade show that the trend away from organized religion continues, albeit at a slower pace. Our analysis of the entire time series, presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in 2009, led us to the conclusion that the trend probably started earlier than we had thought—probably around 1985, 1986, or 1987—and that our previous estimate of the rate of change was, consequently, too high.