Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Survey: 1 in 4 Americans Could Claim 'No Religion' in 20 Years

Yesterday, Trinity College released its American Religious Identification Survey plus a new report: American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population.

Dan Gilgoff at U.S. News describes some of the key findings....

Americans who identify with no religious tradition currently comprise 15 percent of the country, representing the fastest growing segment of the national religious landscape.

If current trends continue, a quarter of Americans are likely to claim "no religion" in 20 years.

While the numbers portend a dramatic change for the American religious scene—"religious nones" accounted for just 8 percent of the population in 1990—the United States is not poised adopt the anti-religious posture of much of secularized Europe. That's because American religious nones tend to be religious skeptics as opposed to outright atheists. Fewer than ten percent of those identifying with no religious tradition call themselves atheists or hold atheistic beliefs, according to the new study.

"American nones are kind of agnostic and deistic, so it's a very American kind of skepticism," says Barry Kosmin, director of Trinity's Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. "It's a kind of religious indifference that's not hostile to religion the way they are in France. Franklin and Jefferson would have recognized these people."

The new study found that, in addition to seeing relatively strong retention numbers, American nones are quickly gaining new members.

"Twenty-two percent of the youngest cohort of adults self-identify as nones and they will become tomorrow's parents," according to the report. "If current trends continue and cohorts of non-religious young people replace older religious people, the likely outcome is that in two decades the nones could account for around one-quarter of the American population."

What is responsible for the growth of the "Nones?" Andrew Sullivan speculates...

The intellectual collapse of Christianity under the leadership of Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic theocons is surely relevant. The well-deserved inability of literalists to win many converts among educated people is also surely salient. The emergence of the politicized Christianist right - and its assault on Christianity as a freely chosen spiritual process - will surely lead to a continued and accelerating flight from organized religion.

In 1990, the Nones were mainly Independents but were equally spread among Democrats and Republicans. Today, the proportion of Independents who are Nones has leaped from 12 percent to 21 percent; and the percentage of Democratic Nones has doubled from 6 percent to 16 percent. In stark contrast, the GOP share has fallen from 8 percent to 6 percent. I'd say that's a function of the GOP becoming an essentially Christianist fundamentalist party; and the Democrats having lots of Irish, Jewish and Asian supporters, who are the strongest groups in the None cohort.

The Nones are not wealthier than average, but they are more male. Almost 20 percent of American men are Nones, compared with 12 percent of women.

61 percent of Nones find evolution convincing, compared with 38 percent of all Americans. And yet they do not dismiss the possibility of a God they do not understand; and refuse to call themselves atheists. 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.

A few other points worth mentioning...

*In a previous essay, I speculated that there was a quiet "Sexual Revolution" during the 1990s. According to this report, there was also a quiet "Spiritual Revolution" during the same decade. To quote the report: "The 1990s was the decade when the "secular boom" occurred - each year 1.3 million more adult Americans joined the ranks of the Nones.

*According to the report, while "in terms of Belonging (self-identification) 1 in 6 Americans is presently of No Religion... in terms of Belief and Behavior the ratio is higher - around 1 in 4.

*The gender ratio among Nones is 60 males for every 40 females.

*Most Nones are 1st generation - only 32% of "current" Nones report they were None at age 12.

*24% of current Nones (and 35% of 1st generation or "new" Nones) are former Catholics.

*Class is not a distinguishing characteristic: Nones are not different from the general population by education or income.

*The specific beliefs of the "Nones" in contrast to "U.S. adults" as a whole can be broken down as follows:

"Regarding the existence of God, do you think...? "There is no such thing" (Atheist)

Nones 7%
All 2%

"There is no way to know" (Hard Agnostic)

Nones 19%
All 4%

"I’m not sure" (Soft Agnostic)

Nones 16%
All 6%

"There is a higher power but no personal God" (Deist)

Nones 24%
All 12%

"There is definitely a personal God" (Theist)

Nones 27%
All 70%

"Don't Know/Refused"

Nones 7%
All 6%

Personally, I would put myself in the "Theist" category (although I'd prefer to say, "There is almost certainly" [not "definitely"] a personal God. That position is also shared 70% of all Americans. Interesting, only 7% of Nones are "Atheists." That's amazing. And 51% feel comfortable stating that there IS a "higher power" (whether it's personal or not). An additional 35% are real agnostics.

*One final point: The survey results about evolution (cited by Sullivan) are misleading. The poll question was, "Do you think that human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals?" As I've discussed before, the idea of "common descent" is not equal to "Darwinian evolution." In fact, many critics of Darwinism (such as Dr. Michael Behe) support the idea of "common descent." Thus, while its likely that the "Nones" are more favorable toward Darwinism than the American population as a whole, I wouldn't conclude that "61% of the Nones support Darwinism."

I've written about the "Nones" a few times, including here and here.

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