Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Americans Losing Faith

The factors driving the growth of religious ‘nones’ in the U.S. | Pew Research Center

In another attempt to understand the recent rapid growth in the 'nones' - those who don't self-identify with any religion - the Pew Research Centre took another look at the data to identify the factors driving this rejection of organised religion:

The share of Americans who do not identify with a religious group is surely growing: While nationwide surveys in the 1970s and ’80s found that fewer than one-in-ten U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, fully 23% now describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”

But there are differing ideas about the factors driving this trend – and its implications for society. While it appears the U.S. is becoming less religious, some contend that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, they say, the growth of the “nones” may simply indicate that people who are not religious are becoming more forthright and willing to say they have no religious affiliation, perhaps because being a “none” has become more socially acceptable.

Clearly this topic is exercising the minds of a lot of worried people. Although this study is a relatively superficial treatment of the phenomenon, analysing only a few factors such as age, former religion and strength of former religious commitment rather than any underlying cause of change in opinion, it shows a number of interesting and related trends. An earlier Pew Centre FactTank report had shown some of the reasons people give for rejecting religion, including a better understanding of science, but it would have been good to see some analysis of lifestyle changes such as ready access to information and exposure to the behaviour, ignorance and downright stupidity underpinning religious fundamentalism.

As would probably be expected, those least committed to religion in the first place are the most likely to move to non-religious. In the seven years to 2014, 9% of the overall total of Christians with a low level of commitment moved to non-religion while only 2% of highly-committed Christians turned their backs on faith. Also to be expected given the group affiliation associated with religion, those in the mainstream faiths in the USA are more likely to become non-religious than those from the minority religions amongst whom there was only a 1% change. In no group was there a shift towards established religion.

Part of the explanation for this change is probably that a higher proportion of people are now prepared to admit to not having any religion but there are two further trends which are encouraging to the secular Humanist movement:

  1. The proportion of Americans with a low level of religious commitment is increasing as religion plays a less important part in everyday life for a growing number of people.
  2. The number of young people who have never had an religious affiliation is increasing as the children of 'nones' become adults. This shows that the established churches are not replacing from the younger generations those they lose.

This is encouraging because it shows that social stigma attached to 'godlessness' is decreasing, lessening the inhibition in publically self-identifying as Atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular', especially amongst the 'Millennials'. Nearly 80% of 'Millennials' with a low level of commitment now describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or 'nothing in particular' whereas only 54% of the 'Silent & Greatest' group with a low level of commitment identify as non-affiliated.

There is a similar gap between 'Millennials' and other age groups in the medium committment group. At the same time, gains for 'nones' are being retained and so are increasing as a proportion of the population as the younger generations age. There is no significant movement back to religion.

At the same time, the proportion of Americans with a low level of religious commitment is increasing, from just 14% in 2007 to 19% in 2014. These numbers are still low compared to Western Europe and much of the industrialised world, but they are moving strongly in the same direction. There are certainly no crumbs of comfort in these figures for the established religions in the USA. The concluding words of the report should have put an end to that hope:

Whether Millennials will become more religious as they age remains to be seen, but there is nothing in our data to suggest that Millennials or members of Generation X have become any more religious in recent years. If anything, they have so far become less religious as they have aged.

Although the Boomer in America may have disappointed in that they never moved away from religion quite so markedly as they did in Europe, despite the promise of the 1960s, their children and grandchildren certainly are and are doing so just as strongly as the Boomers did in Europe.

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