The Weakening Pull of Orthodoxy

The researchers behind the ARIS, which is the gold standard for American religious demographics, have released a new study that builds on their 2008 results with an in-depth look at one group that’s near and dear to our hearts: “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population“. (HT: Friendly Atheist)

As always, there’s plenty of interesting data here to contemplate. Although “nones” show a decided gender imbalance – 60% of them are male, while the general population is 51% female – their racial breakdown in terms of black, white and Hispanic is virtually identical to that of the wider population. This data is a useful calibration to my recent post on atheism, race and gender. I admit I was surprised by this result. It’s contrary to my own experience, which is that female atheists are numerous, but atheists who are people of color are not nearly as common.

A particularly welcome point in this study is the fact that members of younger generations are more likely to be nones. This demographic trend leads the ARIS researchers to forecast that they could account for 25% of the American population within 20 years. This spells bad news for the religious right and the Republican party, since nones, for obvious reasons, are also much more likely to be Democrats than Republicans (although even more of them are independents).

However, the ARIS researchers strongly emphasize that not all nones are atheists. About half are deists (which the authors define as people who believe in a higher power, but not a personal god) or theists (believe in a personal god, though not members of any organized religion). The authors classify the rest of the nones as either agnostic or atheist, and argue that atheists make up only a “small minority” of this group. It’s not clear how they reconcile all this with their earlier findings that about 12% of Americans are atheists and another 12% are deists, based on their stated beliefs. Wouldn’t that put us nearly at the 25% mark already?

P.Z. Myers argues that these results tell us only that “the long-running campaign in American culture to stigmatize atheism has been highly successful”, and that many people who are functional atheists are nevertheless afraid to claim that term to describe themselves. I think there’s a fair amount of truth to that. The ARIS itself provides evidence for this: as previously mentioned, one thing it found is that the number of people who call themselves atheists is relatively small, but the number of people who are atheists, based on their stated beliefs, is much higher.

That said, the number of self-identified atheists is growing, more rapidly than the growth of the nones in general, which in turn is faster than the growth of any other religious group in the U.S. As I’ve said before, this is all the more reason for atheists to speak out, forcefully and passionately, and continue our campaign to publicly advocate atheism. We need to make “atheist” a label that people are comfortable, or better yet, proud to claim for themselves!

Even if a substantial fraction of nones hold some form of belief in God, that doesn’t mean atheism is losing ground. Rather, the conversions are coming from the other direction (also a point supported by the study) – religious people are falling away and becoming nones. They may not entirely discard the beliefs they held before, but they’ve dropped their formal allegiance to a church.

The lesson to draw from this, I think, is that the pull of orthodoxy is weakening in America. It used to be that a relatively small number of churches had control of the religious landscape, and they exerted enormous pressure on everyone to define themselves in terms of one denomination or another. But their role as cultural arbiters is fading, and people are becoming more comfortable seeking their own religious identities, defining themselves in their own terms rather than through strict adherence to ancient creeds. The rise of the atheist movement is one part of this diversification, and by spreading the message that people aren’t required to be theist, we can accelerate the trend and ensure the continued weakening of religious orthodoxy.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Bri

    (Long-time lurker here.)

    I’m wondering, though, how many of these nones are afflicted with various sorts of nonreligious but illogical bullshit… I have known quite a few woo-lovers who don’t do the god/church thing. Anecdotal, yes, but I doubt my experience is unique. It’d be nice to see some solid data on more specific beliefs – has this been done?

  • Alex, FCD

    It’s not clear how they reconcile all this with their earlier findings that about 12% of Americans are atheists and another 12% are deists, based on their stated beliefs. Wouldn’t that put us nearly at the 25% mark already?

    I assume that a large portion of the 12% atheists and the 12% deists describe themselves as members of some religion (they go to church, &c.), but fit ALIS’s definition of those categories based on their stated beliefs. Interesting.

    Although “nones” show a decided gender imbalance – 60% of them are male, while the general population is 51% female[...]

    Amanda Marcotte hypothesized in a recent Pandagon article that women (American women?) are more likely to affiliate themselves with social groups in general, rather than just religions. (American?) women are also more likely to call themselves members of a political party, for example. It would be interesting to know how much of the disparity in the ‘nones’ category that accounts for.

  • keddaw

    It is good that people are becoming less religious, but is it all good news?

    I refer to the shocking numbers of Americans who don’t believe in evolution, or the number who think the earth is thousands rather than thousands of millions of years old.

    If people are moving away from religion purely as a result of disrespect for authority or an apathetic reaction to ‘higher’ matters then we have not really moved very far at all. We remove the dangerous side of religion from people but if they do not embrace science, scepticism and reason then they are still in danger of following some other cultish figures. I refer you to the huge growth in spiritualism, mediums, accupuncture, homeopathy, crystal healing, feng shui and the always popular horoscopes. This is before going on to mention charismatic leaders spouting all kinds of superficially-intelligent nonsense that unquestioning people follow: from Fox News to gang leaders, from self-help gurus to political talking heads.

    I think we should keep the Champagne on ice and keep pushing for a geniune rational worldview, from our elected representatives at least if not from the populous.

  • http://panicon4july.blogspot.com/ Will E.

    Keddaw is right — simply being a “religious none” is no guarantee that a person will have a rational, scientific understanding of the world. My extended family includes people who are not religious in any sense, but still speak of and believe in 2012 (whatever that is), the moon landing hoax, evolution denial, etc. I have friends who even say they’re atheists or unbelievers but still go in for New Age woo, as leftists sometimes tend to. Or what about that old sawhorse, “Spiritual but not religious”? But I suppose the only way out is through.

  • Valhar2000

    The disparity between the percentage of people who identify as atheists and the percentage of people who are atheists reminds me of a line form Julia Sweeney’s “Letting go of God”, when her mother finds out she is an atheist and screams “Not beleiving in God is one thing, but an theist!”. Every time I hear that I wonder what in the world she thought an atheist was.

    I’ve seen people come up with very tortured arguments and bizarre definitions to account for their refusal to call themselves atheists even though their lack of belief places them squarely in that cathegory, and I find the phenomenon puzzling, to say the least.

  • Karen

    I’m with you on being surprised about the findings on people of color. Perhaps what’s happening is that the organized atheist/skeptic movement is largely white, and so that’s what we notice in groups of non-believers, yet it is not reflective of non-believers as a whole?

    If that’s the case, it seems clear that non-theist organizations must do a better job of reaching those racial/ethnic minorities who do not believe in god or are at least unaffiliated with a religion.

    It may be also that there’s a greater stigma of “coming out” as an unbeliever in some racial groups and that keeps people of color away from the official gatherings of non-believers. Food for thought.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    If people are moving away from religion purely as a result of disrespect for authority or an apathetic reaction to ‘higher’ matters then we have not really moved very far at all. We remove the dangerous side of religion from people but if they do not embrace science, scepticism and reason then they are still in danger of following some other cultish figures. I refer you to the huge growth in spiritualism, mediums, accupuncture, homeopathy, crystal healing, feng shui and the always popular horoscopes.

    This is true, keddaw, but while the growth of woo isn’t much of an achievement in a rational sense, it could be a big one in a political sense. The more factions and sects there are, the more divided and disorganized religious groups are, the less any one group will have the political muscle to impose its will on all the rest of us. That’s worth celebrating, for that reason at least, so I think any move toward a more diverse religious landscape is a good thing.

    Every time I hear that I wonder what in the world she thought an atheist was.

    Maybe she thought “atheist” was a generic synonym for “bad person”. She certainly wouldn’t be the first theist to think that way.

  • Archimedez

    The percentage of non-religious people in the U.S. population is growing. As the non-religious population grows, the capacity for the hard-line religious segment of the population to continue to impose the old religiously-justified prejudices, restrictions, punishments, and taboos on everyone else weakens. On moral, legal, and civil rights issues, this is good news.

    It is also good news for those in the U.S. who do not want to see science education compromised by religious activists who want to substitute creation mythology for empirical science.

    One caveat I’m keeping in mind about this study is that 27% of the Nones indicated that they had a belief in a personal God (i.e., they are theists). I’m not sure the comparisons with the general population would come out the same way if this subgroup of theists were to be removed from the None category. For example, the belief in horoscopes comparison might show more of a difference if these theists were removed from the None category.

    There might also be different reasons why the general population and Nones show about the same distribution in degree of belief/disbelief in horoscopes. For example, most Nones would probably reject horoscopes on the grounds that horoscopes are unscientific, whereas there would be religious people in the general population who reject horoscopes as representing competing (and therefore false!) claims about the supernatural.

    The comparison between Nones and the general population (which includes Nones) also probably weakens the power of the comparison. I believe the comparison that ought to have been made in this study is between the religious and the non-religious. One wonders why the researchers chose to compare Nones versus baseline instead of Nones versus Religious. Based on other research, I believe that a direct comparison between religious and non-religious groups would show results that are unflattering for the religious (e.g., in Western societies, the non-religious generally have higher levels of education than do the religious).

    The agnostic group (including strong and weak versions) presents a problem of interpretation. In the U.S. context, I suspect that a lot of non-believers claim to be agnostic to avoid being labeled as atheists, though technically agnostics are atheists anyway in the minimal sense that they lack a belief in God/gods. I would like to see these agnostics also asked on the questionnaire “Are you agnostic with regards to Zeus?” “Are you agnostic with regards to Allah?” And so on. I suspect that many of these “agnostics” are being non-committal about their belief in the mainstream deity in the U.S. (the Christian God).

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Wow, that is surprising! (That “nones” as racially similarly represented as in the community at large.)

    I have to agree with Ebonmuse that disagreement in the public sphere is a good thing. The more people disagree on this or that subject, the less that subject can be used to rally some people against others. So what we have here is a double-dose of awesome, as the bloc of Fanatical Wrong voters dissolves to fuel the rather (racially) well-distributed increase in “nones.” Sure, “others” may be increasing as well (note to self: look that up!), but I can be happy with the population splintered on the matter of whether supernatural nonsense is supernatural nonsense or Tru Fax. What I don’t like to see is… well… a bloc of Fanatical Wrong voters united in thinking that their particular branch of mumbo-jumbo is Tru Fax, their leaders cynically using that shared belief as a buzzword to rally for a bunch of awful causes (Prop 8, “Academic Freedom,” UN Resolution 62-154, etc.). The less susceptible we are to this kind of buzzword rallying, the more rational discourse can prevail.

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