A new article and book by two political scientists, David Campbell and Robert Putnam, looks at the recent uptick in the number of Americans, especially young people, keeping their distance from traditional Christianity and remaining outside the church. And as Peter Berger points out in a review of their work, it appears that much of that growth is due to the actions of the Christian right.
At the core of the article is a phenomenon that has drawn considerable attention for a while—the sharp rise in the number of Americans who declare themselves in surveys as being without religious affiliation. People who study religious statistics, and who also have a sense of humor (the two qualities are not necessarily contradictory), call this demographic “the nones”. In the 1960s the “nones” comprised 5-7% of the population; by the mid-1990s they had grown to 12%; in 2011 the percentage was 19%. According to the invaluable data on religion ongoingly posted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the incidence of “nones” is highest in the age group 30-49. A possible explanation, of course, could be that younger people have always been less religious than their elders (the so-called “life cycle effect”). The authors reject this explanation: Today 33% of young people are religiously unaffiliated, as compared with 12% in the 1970s. In other words: Youth as such is not the only factor in making individuals flee the churches. What is more, this flight of the young is rapidly accelerating: In surveys conducted by the authors all “nones” grew by about 18% between 2006 and 2011, but young “nones” grew by about 90%–a truly remarkable difference.
Campbell and Putnam have a convincing political explanation of this development: The growth of the “nones”, and especially of their young constituent, is a reaction against the Religious Right. According to their data, between 2006 and 2011 Democrats and progressives were more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than Republicans and conservatives. These data are supported by those of the Pew Forum: “Nones” are 23% of those who say they are Republicans or leaning toward the Republican party, but 55% of Democrats and those leaning toward that party. There is an even higher discrepancy among younger “nones”. They associate Republicanism with intolerance and homophobia. And they don’t like this. We know from many other sources that the young are much more liberal on issues of gender and sexuality. On empirical grounds, one may conclude that, whatever else has happened in America in recent decades, the sexual revolution has achieved victory on most fronts. If one wants to use this hackneyed phrase, those who take a stand against this development find themselves on “the wrong side of history”.
It’s important to note that “nones” are not synonymous with atheists. In fact, the Pew study found only 22% of the nones say they don’t believe in a god, with 60% saying they do. But they don’t really live as though they do. They tend to reason and act without looking at the Bible or to Christian doctrine. Here’s where Berger goes completely off the tracks:
There is very likely a number (in America a relatively small one) of “nones” who are really without religion—agnostics or (even fewer) outright atheists. The latter have been encouraged by the advocates of the so-called “new atheism”—which is not new at all, but rather a reiteration of a tired 19th-century rationalism, pushed by a handful of writers who have been misrepresented as an important cultural movement.
He doesn’t bother making any sort of argument for why he thinks rationalism is “tired” or, as he implies, outdated, as though it had been disproven somewhere along the way. It’s just a sniff, a sneer, with no substantive argument offered to back it up. And if he thinks this is not an important culture movement, I think he should have been at the Reason Rally.