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the rise of unbelief in the USA

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I’m always interested in statistics about religious belief and its decline in most western countries, and I like to keep up with the latest findings, so I want to post fairly regularly about this. This time I want to focus on that toughest nut to crack, the USA.

This is, of course another area where ideology influences or even creates facts – for example, the fanatical Christian theist William Lane Craig has trotted out claims that atheists represent 5% or sometimes 3% of the US population, and thus can be dismissed with impunity. He qualifies this by saying that the rising population of the non-religiously affiliated are not necessarily atheists, etc etc. It’s a tediously trivial point. Many individuals who clearly don’t believe in supernatural entities are uncomfortable with the term ‘atheist’ – Sam Harris among them – and I can identify with that discomfort. Some prefer to identify as secularists, sceptics, humanists or whatever, and their identification with atheism can vary with the time of day – as mine sometimes does. This has little bearing on the fact that this non-believing, uncomfortable-with-labels sector of US society is increasing in number and in proportion of the total. As to Craig, as I’ve written before, he will always be in as much denial of the truth as the flat-earthers of a previous century, and I guarantee that he will be saying on his death-bed, after as long a lifetime of fanaticism as I could possibly wish for him, that the number of atheists in the USA is down to 2% or possibly less, with most of them being drooling mental defectives. He is truly the Don Quixote of evangelical Christianity.

So let me start with this point of inquiry podcast from 7 years ago. It described a 2001 study, the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), by a group based at the City University of New York. According to Tom Flynn, reporting on the study, the number of ‘Nones’ (people who answered the question ‘what is your religious affiliation?’ with ‘none’) increased from just under 9% in the early nineties (in fact the ARIS website puts Nones at 8.2% in 1990) to just over 14.1% in 2001. The podcast explores the implications of this shift as well as the more detailed findings of the study, which I’ll explore shortly, but first let me provide an update to this finding, because another ARIS study was carried out in 2008, which put the proportion of Nones at 15%, a considerable slowdown in growth. My own reflection on this is that possibly this reduction in the speed of growth may be partially accounted for by the incumbency of the republican party during the period. I suspect that the next survey, presumably around 2016-2017, will show an increase in growth during the Obama presidency.

Much time is spent in the podcast on why this ‘rise of the Nones’ is occurring – and I should say that other independent surveys have also reported this trend. One reason for non-affiliation with traditional religious denominations (while not necessarily disavowing ‘spirituality’) is the loosening of old authoritarian ties, begun back in the sixties and seventies and still continuing, backed by an education system that encourages the questioning and challenging of establishment thinking. In keeping with this, it’s the more liberal protestant religions that, as in Australia, have been the biggest losers over the last fifteen years or so. In the USA, though, there has been a burgeoning pentecostal movement, essentially conservative in nature, which has gained much ground at the expense of the traditional churches. They appear to constitute a backlash against the many societal changes of recent decades, adding to the well-recognised polarisation of US society.

The University of Akron in Ohio also does regular surveys on religious trends in the USA. They did one in the run-up to the 2004 election, which recorded 16% of the nationwide sample as being not religiously affiliated – essentially Nones. Different questions were asked of course – and I suppose this raises the issue of how you might write a question or a series of questions which will provide you with the biggest percentage of Nones possible, without actually resorting to threats and intimidation. That was a joke. And yet… In any case, the Akron study asked further questions of this 16% group and found that more than two thirds of them were ‘non-spiritual’, that’s to say, definitely atheist, agnostic and/or humanist. That’s to say, more than 10% of the US adult population, if this study is to be trusted are explicitly non-religious, and in fact that mark was passed a decade ago. Ten percent is a bit of a magical number for minorities in the US, as Tom Flynn explains.

So what about the most recent data? There’s not much that’s really recent that I can find. The Pew Forum on religion and public life did a survey in 2007 that found 16.1% were Nones, but they broke that percentage down differently, and it gave the explicitly non-religious less of a share than the Akron survey.  As I’ve mentioned, the 2008 ARIS survey had the Nones at 15%. However, a biannual poll called the General Social Survey, probably the one discussed at Evolutionblog recently, and treated in more detail here, had the Nones up at 20% – up from 8% in 1990. There are obvious doubts about how exactly such percentages are arrived at, but there’s surely no doubt about the direction of the trend. This survey as with others, shows that liberals are more likely to be Nones than conservatives (by a long way), the youngest adults are more likely than the oldest (also by a long way) and men are more likely than women (by a small but substantial margin). May this overall trend continue, and may I long continue to observe and report on it.

Written by stewart henderson

July 14, 2013 at 10:22 am

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