America not as religious as you think

This week’s instalment of bad news for the Republican Party comes in the form of a post by Peter Foster, the Telegraph’s man in Washington. He’s been looking at religion in the US, and reached some interesting conclusions.

Foster says he was prompted to look more closely at the data following a trip to Virginia that he reported on two weeks ago, in which he found a surprisingly large number of atheists or agnostics starting to very carefully poke their noses out of the closet. Now he’s also spoken to Mark Chaves, an expert in the field and author of the 2011 studyAmerican Religion: Contemporary Trends.

What Chaves finds is that the increase in the number of Americans who report no religious affiliation is not just coming from the long-term decline of mainstream Protestant churches, but is now starting to come at the expense of evangelicals as well. Some 22% of white evangelicals born in the 1980s say they now have no religious affiliation: “the secularisation trends are clearly converging.”

As Foster says, “This tallies with the anecdotal evidence that we picked up in Virginia that suggested that non-belief was rising among the young Christian community much faster than headline polls suggested.”

It’s still not remarked upon much in public, but the data has unambiguously shown a decline in religion in the US for some years now. This Pew Research report from 2012 is probably the most comprehensive study. It found a steady fall in religious affiliation that was only partly explained by generational replacement; there was also a strong trend of those with little obvious attachment to religion (for example, rarely or never attending church) to start describing themselves as having no affiliation.

The political implications are clear; as Pew pointed out,

the religiously unaffiliated … voted [in 2008] as heavily for Barack Obama as white evangelical Protestants did for John McCain. More than six-in-ten religiously unaffiliated registered voters are Democrats (39%) or lean toward the Democratic Party (24%). They are about twice as likely to describe themselves as political liberals than as conservatives …

Pew found that many of those with no religious affiliation still describe themselves as having some sort of religious belief. But that’s not much comfort for the churches. British sociologist David Voas, as quoted by Foster, reports that such “fuzzy fidelity”, as he calls it, is typically a “staging post on the road from religious to secular hegemony.”

No doubt the decline in religious sentiment is one of the forces behind the recent liberalisation of social attitudes in the US, particularly in relation to marijuana prohibition and same-sex marriage. The latter case, in which social acceptance seems to have arrived with remarkable speed, offers a particularly tempting precedent: could religious belief also reach a “tipping point”, in which atheism suddenly moves from fringe status to mainstream acceptance in a short space of time?

Intuitively, one thinks that people’s religious beliefs are attached to them more firmly than their social or political opinions. But the data suggests that the change is not mostly about change in belief, but in people coming to admit to the actual state of their beliefs.

If non-belief is not seen as a socially acceptable option, then people will continue to tell pollsters and one another that they “belong” to a particular religion, although they may have no practical commitment to it and no belief in its tenets. (Indeed, many will continue to claim that they go to church even when they don’t.) But once the range of what is socially acceptable is seen to have changed, that superficial attachment may disappear very quickly.

Foster sums up neatly:

This might not be so much a revolution, as a collective acceptance that – as seems to have happened with gay marriage – people can be honest about who they are, without fearing repercussions from friends, and family or indeed, the moral collapse of society.



4 thoughts on “America not as religious as you think

  1. Another interesting article, Mr. Richardson. As a dual citizen, I’ve always been intrigued by the differences in the way church – state separation has evolved in the U.S. and Australia (as interpreted from the two constitutions by the highest courts of the countries). Despite similarities of language in the non-establishment and free exercise of religion provisions in both constitutions, I have always been puzzled over why the “measurably” more religious society (US) has stricter church and state separation, e.g. no funding for religious schools, no organized prayer in public schools, no religious instructions (Chaplaincy) in public schools, etc., compared to the situation in Australia.

    The new Pew survey results suggest I might have been wrong about “measurably more religious.” Is this a fair comment?


  2. Ian – indeed. The Pew study I linked to has one table (it’s about half way thru) breaking down the religiously unaffiliated demographically. It shows them most prevalent in the west, about average in the north and mid-west and least in the south; also more likely to be men than women and more likely to be white than black or Hispanic. Very little variation by education or income level. But it would be nice to get more detail on that.

    JKUU – Thanks, that’s a really interesting question. I think the US is certainly still more religious than Australia, and indeed more so than pretty much any other western democracy, but the difference is perhaps less pronounced than it was 20 years ago. On one view, that’s why we’ve had less enforcement of our constitutional separation of church and state: because the Americans took their religions more seriously, it was more important for them to maintain official neutrality between them so as to avoid conflict. Having the government play favorites was a more threatening prospect there than in Australia. But there are probably also more general factors at work – we’ve just developed a different tradition of constitutional interpretation, where more latitude is given to lawmakers. In terms of that particular section, I have to say I think the US supreme court has got it right and our high court has got it wrong.


  3. On the separation of religion and state you said “I think the US supreme court has got it right and our high court has got it wrong.” I agree completely, and I recommend a short essay by Prof. Denise Meyerson (Law, Macquarie University) on “RELIGION-STATE RELATIONS IN AUSTRALIA.” Her compelling arguments for state neutrality toward religion include John Rawls’ views on “reasonable people” agreeing to disagree on the status of religion in a liberal democratic society. She compares the US and Australian positions on church – state separation (as interpreted from constitutional provisions by both countries’ top courts) and concludes, as you do, that “there are strong reasons for thinking that the US approach to the separation of church and state is preferable to the Australian approach …”

    I would recommend you review Meyerson’s essay with your readers, it’s very illuminating.


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