Belief in Belief Part I: Nones or Nuns?

The preliminary numbers are in and the upcoming generation(s) are less religious. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.” This coincides with what the American Religious Identification Survey (A.R.I.S) told us was trending in their last report four years ago. Like with most social studies, I feel it’s hard to jump to any kind of conclusion based on just the numbers, but they do point in an interesting direction: that good old-fashioned American religion is perhaps becoming passe.

But atheists, humanists, and irreligionists shouldn’t celebrate just yet. What the numbers don’t really tell us is what is behind the new non-religious generation (well not so non-religious, 25% means there’s a long way to go). I would love to think that everyone has just found science, reason, and logic so gosh-darn fun and persuasive. It would be great if everyone is now just a skeptical critical thinker and that the SGU is going to be the weekly Sunday gathering focal point. But according to A.R.I.S., the overall population reported just 0.7% atheism and the recent Pew reported 1.6% atheism. Now, I don’t necessarily believe you have to land at atheism after becoming a critical thinker – aww, who am I kidding? Yes I do. But regardless, what this small number who land in the atheism camp tells me is that there is something else going on with the “nones” (not religiously affiliates) that might not exactly be an infusion of critical thinking.

Here’s my suspicion: that to Millenials and Generation X “organized religion” has become outmoded and often considered hokey (tent revivals), or dangerous (Catholic church), or out of touch with modern social values (evangelicals). I don’t believe an increase in nones negates the deep-rooted cultural background of belief in this country. In other words these “nones” aren’t all the secularists have them cracked up to be. I remember listening to the FFRF’s radio show podcast after ARIS came out, and I remember not quite sharing their enthusiasm for the new 15% nones part. That’s because I think the cultural trend is still firmly in the favor of belief and the “nones” are much more likely to be in Deepak Chopra’s corner than they are James Randi’s. Or worse, they simply revert back to organized religion when they get older.

It’s obvious to me that while people may be ditching organized religion, the culture of belief is strong as ever. I will explore this in my next installment Belief in Belief Part II: Jesus is an Accessory.


Posted on December 2, 2012, in Atheism, Popular Culture, Religion. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Nice summary. I’d like to think, however, the US experience will mirror that of Australia. We had the huge movement to “none’s” in the 80’s/90’s but by all indications there hasn’t been a late bungee shift back to the church. Church attendances are plummeting and the only thing that is keeping it all alive (by the numbers) is all private schools are are church affiliated. That’s to say, the numbers look far better than the actual on-the-ground reality. Hey, Australia has an atheist Prime Minister. Want to know how much fuss was made about this? Zero. It didn’t even come up in the elections. It’s a non-issue. For this i have high hopes for the US.

  2. I’d like to think so too John. I’ve always been curious about Australia as a potential model for the U.S. becoming less religious. Let me ask you: do you have any sense of Australia’s religiosity historically vs. the U.S.? Twenty, thirty years ago was Australia even remotely as religious as the U.S. has been. The U.S. religious roots run pretty wide and also deep.

  3. Thanks John. I really can’t wait to visit down under.

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