“No religion” segment of U.S. population profiled
At the “Values Voter Summit” of conservative Christian activists I attended last week in Washington, more than one participant lamented the “secularization” of America.
That will come as a surprise perhaps to more than one foreign reader of this blog, given America’s famously high rates of religiosity which set it apart from much of the rest of the developed world. And the evangelical tradition which much of the U.S. “religious right” comes from has been fast growing in recent decades.
But Americans who claim no religion are fast growing and Trinity College in Hartford offers a detailed portrait of this group in a new report released this week called “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population.”
“The 1990s was the decade of the “secular boom.” Regarding the percentage of adult Americans who claim no religious affiliation, the researchers found that it had grown from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 14.2 percent in 2001 and to 15 percent in 2008. The growth of the Nones is a national phenomenon. They are the only group that increased in every state and region of the country during the past 18 years,” the report says.
“Who exactly are the 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 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; others never will. Nones are easily misunderstood. On the one hand, only a small minority are atheists. On the other hand, it is also not correct to describe them as “unchurched” or “unaffiliated” on the assumption that they are mainly theists and religious searchers who are temporarily between congregations. Yet another incorrect assumption is that large proportions of Nones are anti-rationalist proponents of New Age and supernatural ideas,” it says.
The report will no doubt be held up by conservative Christians — a key base for the Republican Party — as further evidence of the country’s cultural slide since the permissive 1960s and the end of school prayer. The neo-atheist movement on the other hand will probably say it attests to their growing popularity (even if outright atheists are only a minority of Nones).
The report is drawn from the massive American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), which questioned 54,461 adults in either English or Spanish between February and November 2008. Its main findings were released in March.
Here are some highlights of this report:
* The “None” numbers — 34 million American adults — far exceed the combined total of all the non-Christian religious groups in the United States.
* Whereas Nones are presently 15 percent of the total adult U.S. population, 22 percent of Americans aged 18-29 years self-identify as Nones.
* Regarding belief in the divine, most Nones are neither atheists nor theists but rather agnostics and deists (59 percent) and perhaps best described as skeptics.
* The most significant difference between the religious and non-religious populations is a gender gap: Whereas 19 percent of American men are Nones only 12 percent of American women are Nones. The gender ratio among Nones is 60 males for every 40 females.
It is also interesting to note the political affiliation of Nones. Some observers of the U.S. political scene would no doubt regard “secular humanists” — many of whom would be classified as Nones — as a key base for the Democratic Party. Certainly many among the conservative Christian crowd I rubbed shoulders with last week would hold that point of view. But perhaps unsurprisingly the report says when it comes to partisan politics they tend to have an independent cast of mind: “Politically, 21 percent of the nation’s independents are Nones, as are 16 percent of Democrats and eight percent of Republicans. In 1990, 12 percent of independents were Nones, as were 6 percent of Democrats and 6 percent of Republicans.”
(PHOTO: The spire of Memorial Church rises above Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts September 21, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES)