American unbelief comes out of the closet

Just a couple of weeks after we looked at atheism in the Muslim world, there’s widespread media interest in the state of religion in the United States, prompted by a new report from the Pew Research Centre on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”.

The headline numbers are striking: the proportion of self-identified Christians in the US has fallen by almost eight percentage points in just seven years (from 78.4% to 70.6%), while the proportion with no religious affiliation has risen by almost as much, from 16.1% to 22.8%. The decline is much the same for Protestants as for Catholics, although among Protestants it is much less noticeable among evangelicals and those belonging to the “historically black Protestant tradition”.

But if you want to form a view about how significant this shift is, there’s really no substitute for reading the whole report. Then you can join the debate about whether it marks a sea change in American belief or a storm in a teacup.

I set out some thoughts about this last year, partly based on an earlier Pew survey that found a growing number of religiously unaffiliated. As I explained at the time, the “steady fall in religious affiliation … 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.”

And I think that’s what’s happening in the latest study as well. As being non-religious becomes more socially acceptable – helped of course by reports like this and the publicity that they get – people feel less need to profess an affiliation that doesn’t accord with their actual beliefs. It’s not a collapse in religious belief, but a collapse in the status of religion as a social norm, for which loss of belief is perhaps a necessary but certainly not a sufficient condition.

The most important thing to understand about the report is that it deals with religious identity, not religious belief. As Pew points out on page ten, “Catholics, for instance, are defined as all respondents who say they are Catholic, regardless of their specific beliefs and whether or not they attend Mass regularly.”

In other words, although Pew chooses not to be quite this explicit, the figures for “Catholic” and (perhaps to a lesser degree) other denominations include an indeterminate number of people who are in fact atheists, but simply choose not to describe themselves that way. Some idea of the size of this group can be gleaned from the comment on page 24 of the report that 38% of those categorised as Protestants “offered a vague denominational identity” – that is, were unable to name the church that they claimed to belong to.

Pew is only incidentally telling us anything about the number of nonbelievers; what it’s really telling us is about how much nonbelief people will explicitly admit to. Which makes most of the commentary on the loss of belief (whether the commentators admit it’s happening or not, or think it’s a good thing or not) seem somewhat beside the point.

To pick just one example, Kevin Vallier at Bleeding Heart Libertarians worries about the decline of “mainstream” religion, which he links – perhaps a bit simplistically, but not unreasonably – with moderation in politics:

The great good mainline Protestantism provided this country for centuries was the good of having political and social “moderates” in general. … The more moderates we lose, the harder it is for those of us at different ends of the political and religious spectra to understand and respect one another.

There’s a legitimate worry there. The US has become politically more polarised in the last couple of decades, and it’s quite plausible that the rising share of fundamentalist Protestantism among the religious is part of that story (although beware of confusing cause with effect). But it’s an uneasy sort of moderation that depends on people professing beliefs that they don’t actually hold.

And the evidence for evangelicals enjoying any growth is pretty thin; at best they’re simply holding their own. Of course it’s in the interest of fundamentalist leaders to argue that the decline in religious affiliation comes exclusively out of the mainstream churches, which from their point of view were never really “religious” in the first place. Other experts have reached the opposite conclusion, that trends in secularisation among evangelicals and among mainstreamers are converging.

The truth could well be somewhere in between. Perhaps the next Pew study will give us enough data to decide.

One thought on “American unbelief comes out of the closet

  1. I think the 2007 survey probably skewed older, being landline only so probably over-estimated the level of people of religion. 2014 was landline and mobile phone, so more accurate in obtaining a representative sample, but a big change.

    The 2014 survey is more accurate as a snap shot, but I don’t believe you can put too much emphasis on the trend due to the difference in methodology between the two surveys. The researchers gloss over it, but such a change in methodology will impact the results quite dramatically.

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