Losing Our Religion
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.