Last week I had the privilege of having my Op-Ed, “The Rise of the ‘Nones,'” published in the Providence Journal. The piece can be found at the paper’s opinions website, or read here in its entirety.
The Rise of the ‘Nones’
The claim that 23 percent of Americans identify as “nones” in a survey on religion might raise eyebrows. “I knew there were a lot of Catholics,” I can imagine the reply, “but still: that seems like an awful lot of nuns.”
Last week, the Pew Research Center released its findings that more Americans than ever before claim no religious affiliation — the so-called nones. As importantly, the data suggest that fewer Americans call themselves Christians. Only 70.6 percent self-report as Christians, down from 78.4 percent in 2007.
The focus has so far been upon the “rise of the nones” — and understandably so. Between 2007 and 2014, the percent of Americans self-identifying as atheists nearly doubled (from 1.6 percent to 3.1 percent), as did those calling themselves agnostic (2.4 percent to 4 percent). Those describing their religion as “nothing in particular” grew from 12.1 percent to 15.8 percent.
Surely these demographic shifts are important, indicating a less conventionally religious America. For several reasons, however, we need to carefully disentangle the cultural ramifications from other, more significant lessons.
First, as Pew correctly highlights, religious categories are dynamic. Americans move between faith groups all the time. Called “switching,” this phenomenon is especially important when discussing nones. The study doesn’t track these frequent movements, just the final difference as of 2014.
For that reason, its conclusion that nones have gained the most from religious switching (four gains for every one loss) is factually accurate but must be taken with a grain of salt. As striking as it seems, trends are not one-way streets: periods of diminished religiosity preceded the Great Awakenings of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Second, the increase in atheists and agnostics requires qualification as well. While it certainly speaks to the increasing acceptability of nonbelief, it doesn’t necessarily indicate an increase in those populations. As long as there have been Americans there have been American atheists and agnostics. Remember: Pew is only measuring self-reported belief. It is impossible to tell from this study whether some Americans adopted nonbelief between 2007 and 2014, or if they simply felt more comfortable disclosing it (or, as with younger millennials, were simply too young to have participated in the 2007 survey).
My final point is the most important of the three. What are the actual consequences of the rise of the nones?
In one sense, not a whole lot. It’s like politics. Countless polls tell us that 40 percent of Americans are political independents. Yet actual political behavior remains predictably partisan. The difference is between “avowed” and “functional” independents. An examination of voting records indicates that only 10 percent of us are truly politically independent. We care about this 40 percent not because they necessarily sway elections, but because they indicate general reluctance to identify with a major party.
We should adopt a similar mindset when thinking about the nones. Nones — many of whom believe in God, pray occasionally, and think of themselves as spiritual — represent more of a pushback against religious labeling than against religion itself. Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, connects them to the second aftershock of the cultural revolution. The first aftershock, in the 1970s and 1980s, sent many Americans to the religious right; the second, in response to the growing alliance between the religious and political rights, sent others to the secular left.
What Americans believe is, and ought to be, entirely their own business. As ever, the problem is perception. The danger is that political hands — both left and right — will try to capitalize on these alleged differences to gain an edge: that they will treat us as more different than we are. After all, this is election season.
But that is exactly the wrong message. If anything, Pew’s report underscores what brings us together: how America remains a nation aspiring to embrace pluralism. We are a nation of belief, nonbelief and everything in between.
G.K. Chesterton said that America was a nation with the soul of a church. Just because that soul is different doesn’t mean it’s gone. Americans are simply changing how they relate to it.