Losing Our Religion

starbucks-jesusDan Gilgoff passes on word of a new survey projecting that a quarter of Americans will be atheists or non-believers twenty years from now.

If current trends continue, a quarter of Americans are likely to claim “no religion” in 20 years, according to a survey out today by Trinity College. Americans who identify with no religious tradition currently comprise 15 percent of the country, representing the fastest growing segment of the national religious landscape.

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.”

Not surprisingly, Andrew Sullivan attributes the rise of the nones partly to “the intellectual collapse of Christianity under the leadership of Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic theocons.” He adds, “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.”

While I know many highly educated believers, they do indeed seem to be less than literal in their theology.  But Andrew believes this could lead to a renaissance of faith: “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.”

Color me skeptical.  Religion without wild leaps of faith strikes me as almost pointless.  And I’m not sure the reluctance to jump from “none” to “atheist” is a pining for a more intellectual theology so much as wanting to avoid the cultural stigma that comes with the latter.

This is the view of PZ Myers who, naturally, is “disappointed” and contemptuous.  “I will not be content until the number is 100%. (OK, 95%. It’s not fair to demand rationality from people who are brain damaged or locked up in asylums.)”

Every article I see on this subject makes this desperate rush to reassure their readers that this growing cohort of Americans aren’t really those goddamned atheists — they’re nice people, unlike those cold-hearted, soulless beasts called atheists, and they aren’t planning to storm your churches and rape the choir boys and boil babies in the baptismal fonts, unlike the scary atheistic monsters. They’re special. And most of all, they aren’t French.

[…]

Oh, please. 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!”

I suspect part of the reason that people are reluctant to call themselves “atheists” is a fear of being lumped in with the likes of Myers, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins.  Not satisfied to use their considerable brainpower to argue for scientific explanations over supernatural ones, they instead show utter disdain for the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens who were brought up in a religious tradition and cling to parts of it.  “Atheism” in this sense isn’t a mere belief that there is no supernatural overlord controlling our universe but a quasi-religion of its own, with many of the worst traits of organized religion.

Similarly, AllahPundit likes the trend but is baffled by the non-believers who have a “personal god” or otherwise quasi-religious beliefs.   But that strikes me as a cultural phenomenon rather than a purely religious one.  America is steeped in religious traditions that are followed even by non-believers.  Pretty much everyone celebrates Christmas, for example, and even Easter — a more purely religious occasion that doesn’t even result in an extra day off work — has a huge secular buy-in, what with Easter bunnies and the various fun traditions for kids.  Not only does Big Business glom onto these occasions but they’re also massive public rituals, as well.  The President lights the national Christmas tree.  He hosts an Easter egg roll.   We reflexively say “Bless you” when people sneeze and take the Lord’s name in vain when we’re angry, regardless whether we believe in said Lord’s existence.

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.

Image: SoulPancake

FILED UNDER: Public Opinion Polls, Religion, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mr. Prosser says:

    Well put. In Israel and elsewhere Secular Jews are a recognized group. I would not be surprised to see some term come into vogue here that would take the place of atheist or agnostic although Secular Christian would probably be a stretch.

  2. DC Loser says:

    I guess I’m in that boat. I’ve never been a part of any organized religion, and I find almost all religions on one level or another not a fit for my beliefs and morality. That’s just me. I don’t have a problem with the concept of a “Personal God” as why do you need a middleman (the church) between the Almighty and you? I’m no atheist as that would be to deny the existance of a higher being, which I don’t. I’m not so much an unbeliever as someone who don’t buy what established religions tell them is the truth.

  3. G.A.Phillips says:

    Even that im an idiot and incapable of being nice to some of the people I debate with, or shall we say shoot the poop with, it is wrong what I do, I lose my temper with the same nonsense, over and over again, and the endless denial, GOD, from many of those who have never come honest, And I do realize that a lot of the time I appear to them as the boy who cried Donkey, but man you wanna know why the high priests of man worship are so angry?

    It’s what happens when the truth puts your butt into denial. I suggest a 30 day program, tell them your drunk on yourself by way of evolution, get into a meeting, and get some help…

    http://www.nwcreation.net/debates.html

  4. Brett says:

    Not satisfied to use their considerable brainpower to argue for scientific explanations over supernatural ones, they instead show utter disdain for the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens who were brought up in a religious tradition and cling to parts of it.

    If by “disdain” you mean “openly expressing an atheistic viewpoint and questioning prevailing religious beliefs and doctrines.” Seeing as how that religious majority heavily stereotypes atheists, it’s only fair for us to use whatever tools we have at our disposal to fight back.

  5. Paul Barnes says:

    Most of the “New Atheists” are, quite frankly, assholes and deserve disdain. Furthermore, their understanding of either the theological or philosophical arguments for religious beliefs are laughable. I mean, when the best of them devotes perhaps 10 pages in their book in refuting Thomas Aquinas (who they misinterpret anyways because of their ignorance of classical philosophical terms) it does not look favourably on them.

    While I am not an atheist, I am not much of a believer either. Yet, if Myers, Hitchens, Dawkins, etc. are the best contemporary atheism can muster, I lament the level of discourse that faith and atheism has in our society.

  6. Furhead says:

    If by “disdain” you mean “openly expressing an atheistic viewpoint and questioning prevailing religious beliefs and doctrines.”

    Well those guys do seem a bit angry and/or contemptuous at times. And this is coming from someone who tends to agree with their basic positions, or at least has a healthy level of skepticism for religion.

    Yet, if Myers, Hitchens, Dawkins, etc. are the best contemporary atheism can muster, I lament the level of discourse that faith and atheism has in our society.

    Well this is just the squeaky wheel getting the most attention. This is like assigning Glenn Beck as being “the best that contemporary conservatism can muster.”

  7. LaurenceB says:

    I was raised Mormon, but am not currently a religious person. I guess I’m a “None”.

    I don’t call myself as an atheist, but when I see religious programming on TV, it makes me think I probably should.

    Now that I think of it, there’s quite a parallel here – I don’t call myself a Democrat either, but when I listen to talk radio or watch TV pundits, I feel like I should.

  8. cleek says:

    I suspect part of the reason that people are reluctant to call themselves “atheists” is a fear of being lumped in with the likes of Myers, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins.

    i suspect that you’re wildly over-estimating the public’s familiarity with these people.

  9. James Joyner says:

    i suspect that you’re wildly over-estimating the public’s familiarity with these people.

    Heh. Well, not with them specifically but with their “likes.” The term “atheist” has come to mean “hater of religion” as much as “non-believer.” And, of course, the Communist association left over from the Cold War doesn’t help, either.

  10. Tom Wood says:

    Pretty much everyone celebrates Christmas, for example, and even Easter — a more purely religious occasion that doesn’t even result in an extra day off work — has a huge secular buy-in, what with Easter bunnies and the various fun traditions for kids.

    The timing of these holidays celebrate the winter solstice and spring equinox. Most religions co-opt them and call them something relevant to that religion. Bunnies, eggs, and spring fertility have nothing to do with religion.

  11. G.A.Phillips says:

    Well this is just the squeaky wheel getting the most attention. This is like assigning Glenn Beck as being “the best that contemporary conservatism can muster.”

    lol, but he is one damn fine investigative reporter!!!….

  12. Tano says:

    ““Atheism” in this sense isn’t a mere belief that there is no supernatural overlord controlling our universe but a quasi-religion of its own, with many of the worst traits of organized religion.”

    Oh gimme a break – it is nothing of the kind. All you are pointing to are some people who are rather rude when expressing their point of view. Their rudeness and disdain does not make their beliefs comparable to a religion.

    Maybe they are just being rational. For example, has their ever been a massive change in public awareness and understanding of a very important issue without having the cultural debate marked by cutting and slashing critiques? Its probably the only way to get and sustain the attention that is needed to establish some rhetorical beachheads. Especially when outnumbered to such an extent.

  13. Jim Battle says:

    I find it amusing when believers use the word “religion” pejoratively to describe atheism.

    “Atheism” in this sense isn’t a mere belief that there is no supernatural overlord controlling our universe but a quasi-religion of its own, with many of the worst traits of organized religion.

    A quasi-religion? What does that mean? Please, show me the atheist cannon. Lead me to the multi-billion dollar hierarchical organization with hundreds of thousands in its employ. You can’t, because it doesn’t exist.

    Speaking only for Christianity, for that is what I’m familiar with, faith is at the center, and by definition faith requires belief in the absence of proof, in fact even in the face of counter evidence.

    Atheists have no similar constraint. Ask Dawkins, ask Myers, ask Harris, ask Hitchens: they simply claim they don’t see evidence for God’s presence, and none claim 100% they know God can’t exist. If God stopped playing hide and go seek, and made himself manifestly known, all of these atheists would become believers in a flash.

    Finally, these “new atheists” certainly are strident when compared to the properly ashamed atheist, but certainly not as strident and not nearly as numerous as the loudest of the faithful are. We are simply inured to the bleating of the Pat Robertsons of the world.

  14. Lymis says:

    A part of the underlying question is that the survey appears to have asked about religious affiliation, and then analysts are lumping everyone together.

    There is a distinct difference between having religious or spiritual beliefs but not choosing to be affiliated with a specific organized religion, and having no religious beliefs.

    The two should have been distinct categories in any meaningful survey.

    All the other observations above, though, are valid. Most especially the observation that a lot of functionally atheist people are not going to self-identify that way. Of course, a lot of functional non-believers who attend church for social or other reasons aren’t going to self-report as atheist either.

  15. James Joyner says:

    I find it amusing when believers use the word “religion” pejoratively to describe atheism.

    I’m an atheist. An anti-theist, even. But there’s a large contingent who go beyond not believing to actively proselytizing against religion and rather obnoxious behavior towards the vast majority who hold some religious faith.

    Atheists have no similar constraint. Ask Dawkins, ask Myers, ask Harris, ask Hitchens: they simply claim they don’t see evidence for God’s presence, and none claim 100% they know God can’t exist.

    Go read “God is Not Great” and tell me that they’re merely strong agnostics.

  16. G.A.Phillips says:

    A quasi-religion? What does that mean? Please, show me the atheist cannon. Lead me to the multi-billion dollar hierarchical organization with hundreds of thousands in its employ. You can’t, because it doesn’t exist.

    Most collages, most government funded secular collage professors preach it…..They teach the lies of it’s doctrine as if they were fact, big bang,evolution, etc,etc,etc as if it were the new Gospel, and use rule 5 to stifle anyone who disagrees, or they flunk you.
    And God help you if your a professor who preaches something else as an alternative.

    Speaking only for Christianity, for that is what I’m familiar with, faith is at the center, and by definition faith requires belief in the absence of proof, in fact even in the face of counter evidence.

    ya you sound like one of them, this is a very dumb statement.

    I’m sorry but saying their is no proof for Christianity is almost as dumb as saying that there is any proof at all in the six sects of the religion of evolution and not just blind faith.

  17. G.A.Phillips says:
  18. David Poirier says:

    Two important points. First, atheism is a lack of belief. It is not a belief system or a quasi-religion as religionists love to portray it. They don’t hold pancake breakfasts nor do they take collections from congregants to enrich a hierarchy; they don’t proselytize door-to-door nor do they hijack jumbo jets and crash them into buildings; they do not enjoy tax-exempt status for their non-existent places of worship and centers of indoctrination, execute holy wars, jihads, inquisitions or burn heretics at the stake. Most importantly and fundamentally, they don’t claim that they know without doubt where we come from and where we are going. Nor do they claim that there is no god; merely that there is very little, or no evidence to support the supposition that there is one and therefore its existence is highly unlikely. This is in marked contrast to religionists, quasi- or otherwise, who claim to know the answers to questions without suffering the indignity of research, reading, fact-finding or ordering their thoughts in a rational scientific manner, who know these truths despite all evidence to the contrary no matter how compelling or convincing that evidence is or might be. An atheist would change his mind in a moment if faced with supportable evidence of the existence of a god, whereas a religionist would not change his belief system for the world – even when faced with any amount of evidence contrary to that belief, or the lack of any evidence supporting it. Indeed, that is the realm of the religious; to revel in belief entirely unsupported. Now one might refer to rational thought as a kind of religion, but if it is, then every single person who has ever lived has been at some point (even the devout) an adherent to this religion. To address rationalism as a religion is to make the word “religion” meaningless. There is a major divide between the religionist and the atheist; atheism is never a quasi-religion. Secondly, in this country (the US), religious belief and its adherents are treated with the solicitousness usually reserved for small children or the mentally ill. A wide undeservedly respectful path is forged around religion in our culture because religious belief is bereft of reason and those who truly believe, particularly the fundamentalists, hold a tenuous grasp of reality at best. In this environment where religion is so ridiculously PUT UP WITH, it is no wonder that an honest outspoken atheist is often looked upon as strident, rude or obnoxious. To treat religious belief with the same skepticism, employing the same language, facts and arguments one might use to refute, say, a political belief, is considered outrageous. That is why the pious, whose beliefs are laughable, are widely revered while atheists are often judged as ill-mannered and disagreeable.

  19. Don L says:

    No one bothers coming anymore to a resturant that waters down the chowder.

    When bishops are honoring the first infanticide president and filtering millions to get this pro-abortion poster child elected, then people get fed up and foolishly leave God’s Church -looking elsewhere.

    There is a remnant, however, that will be faithful no matter what, remembering that Christ handpicked the apostle that later sold him for thirty pieces of silver -and that evil brought salvation to the world -relax: God’s in charge!

    Those who persevere will win in the end.

  20. Don L says:

    “First, atheism is a lack of belief. It is not a belief system or a quasi-religion as religionists love to portray it,”

    Call it any way you want David, but far too many atheists spend their entire lives fighting the God they arrogantly claim, doesn’t exist. God tells us we are either with Him or against Him. You’re argument that atheists can be neutral is disputed by no less than God – the Person who made us all. Nice try, keep trying, you may find Him yet!

  21. G.A.Phillips says:

    Two important points. First, atheism is a lack of belief. It is not a belief system or a quasi-religion as religionists love to portray it. They don’t hold pancake breakfasts nor do they take collections from congregants to enrich a hierarchy; they don’t proselytize door-to-door nor do they hijack jumbo jets and crash them into buildings; they do not enjoy tax-exempt status for their non-existent places of worship and centers of indoctrination, execute holy wars, jihads, inquisitions or burn heretics at the stake

    ******Dude Have you ever heard of communism?Or Abortion? lol, and why must people who have no concept of history of religions lump every religion into Christianity or Christianity’s God?

    Most importantly and fundamentally, they don’t claim that they know without doubt where we come from and where we are going. Nor do they claim that there is no god; merely that there is very little, or no evidence to support the supposition that there is one and therefore its existence is highly unlikely. This is in marked contrast to religionists, quasi- or otherwise, who claim to know the answers to questions without suffering the indignity of research, reading, fact-finding or ordering their thoughts in a rational scientific manner, who know these truths despite all evidence to the contrary no matter how compelling or convincing that evidence is or might be.

    Good God man, you truly can’t be serious< all of the Atheists I have ever met are afraid of God, hate him, or have been indoctrinated to fear saying anything about the subject that contradicts their evolutionary religious beliefs.

    An atheist would change his mind in a moment if faced with supportable evidence of the existence of a god, whereas a religionist would not change his belief system for the world – even when faced with any amount of evidence contrary to that belief, or the lack of any evidence supporting it.

    Well Ive seen your so called evidence and it point to creation, so know what do I do?

    Indeed, that is the realm of the religious; to revel in belief entirely unsupported. Now one might refer to rational thought as a kind of religion, but if it is, then every single person who has ever lived has been at some point (even the devout) an adherent to this religion.

    So I was rational and had some form of religion when I was an unknowing indoctrinated little child of an evolutionist but now that I have found faith and the truth I don’t really?

    To address rationalism as a religion is to make the word “religion” meaningless.

    Hardly, knowing the truth and having faith in the rest is not religion, having faith in the rest and not knowing the truth is religion.

    There is a major divide between the religionist and the atheist; atheism is never a quasi-religion. Secondly, in this country (the US), religious belief and its adherents are treated with the solicitousness usually reserved for small children or the mentally ill.

    ?

    A wide undeservedly respectful path is forged around religion in our culture because religious belief is bereft of reason and those who truly believe, particularly the fundamentalists, hold a tenuous grasp of reality at best.

    your religion in a nuts shell.

    In this environment where religion is so ridiculously PUT UP WITH, it is no wonder that an honest outspoken atheist is often looked upon as strident, rude or obnoxious. To treat religious belief with the same skepticism, employing the same language, facts and arguments one might use to refute, say, a political belief, is considered outrageous. That is why the pious, whose beliefs are laughable, are widely revered while atheists are often judged as ill-mannered and disagreeable.

    Good God, don’t you collage professes have any classes to teach…..