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.

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About Adam Lee

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