The Religiously Unaffiliated Are All Over the Place

Every time we see the word “none” or “unaffiliated” in a religious survey, we always need to take it with a grain of salt. “None” is not the same thing as “atheist” and “unaffiliated” can mean just about anything. A new study released by the Pew Forum only confirms this.

First, the good news.

They asked the following question: “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?”

That dot at the top right is for those of us under 30 who are not affiliated with any particular faith — and that number has increased with each passing generation.

What about church attendance? We’re not doing that as much either:

Only 18% of us Millennials attend church on a regular basis.

So, this is all good news, right?

Not necessarily.

It turns out that people in the “unaffiliated” category have all sorts of supernatural beliefs, even though they aren’t linked to any specific denomination.

Let’s look at the difference between the heathen-leaning Millennials and non-Millennials (Spoiler: there’s very little difference…):

Well, shit.

We may not be going to church as much, but we’re buying into the same superstitions and mythologies. Hell, in some cases, we’re even worse than our elders!

Charles Blow summarizes this in the New York Times:

So, anyone laboring under the delusion that the generation weaned on MTV would move us closer to being weaned of an abnormally high level of religiosity — at least when compared with other industrialized countries — may have to keep waiting.

And the spiritual quests of the millennials may eventually have policy implications. According to the Pew report, “They are slightly more supportive than their elders of government efforts to protect morality, as well as somewhat more comfortable with involvement in politics by churches and other houses of worship.”

In other words, even though the size and number of churches are declining, Christianity (at least in theory) is not. We’ll be fighting the same battles in the future that we are today.

It’s not enough to get people to leave their church or no longer call themselves Christians.

We need to keep working to rid them of the Christian mindset altogether — the mindset that basks in the glory of a god that no one can see or hear outside their own mind and that prides itself on anecdotal stories rather than solid, reason-based evidence.

  • http://naturalpond.blogspot.com village1diot

    I would bet as the younger generation gets older those numbers will drop.

  • Ron in Houston

    I can handle a superstitious person. I loathe a dogmatic person. So, I still see a lot of good news in that study.

    It would be nice if we could stamp out all undesirable behavior. However, I guess there is nothing wrong with small incremental changes.

  • http://naturalpond.blogspot.com village1diot

    That is, the numbers for the belief in heaven, hell, and the afterlife will drop.

  • http://knowledgeisnotveryfar.blogspot.com/ Jake

    “We need to keep working to rid them of the Christian mindset altogether”

    That sounds fairly dogmatic.

  • muggle

    Not necessarily. Unaffiliated is a step in the right direction. Maybe the first baby step away.

  • carlene

    Two comments: 1. The numbers don’t necessarily show how strongly people hold a certain belief. The Millenials may just be giving religious beliefs a vague nod rather than taking them to heart.
    2. Little rant coming up here–no one born in the early 60s is a boomer! For the love of god, I thought the boomers were supposed to be the post-WWII wave of GIs’ kids. Who the hell came back from WWII in 1965? Maybe one of those abandoned Japanese guys? How can I be a boomer when my dad’s military service was in the peacetime army in 1956-1958? STOP CALLING ME A BOOMER!

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  • Tim


    Jake said:
    “We need to keep working to rid them of the Christian mindset altogether”

    That sounds fairly dogmatic.

    No more so than say a scientist having to repeatedly avoid themselves from biasing an experiment or an observation.

    The statement isn’t in reference to ending Christianity or it’s doctrine in general, though it might seem that way out of context. I’m sure it actually means removing though-processes that remain from dogmatic religion amongst people who have become atheistic, agnostic or sceptics.

  • gski

    I still wonder about bias due to social pressure. The pressure in this country to appear religious is very strong, so I’d like to see a study comparing different survey methods asking these same questions. Especially anonymous response vs. direct interview vs. survey questionnaire.

  • Chris

    There is also a great deal of pressure to believe in a “watchmaker” god of some sort at the very least. To respond positively to the question:

    “You may not go to church, but you do believe in SOMETHING, right?”

    Because coming right out and saying that, “nope, I don’t believe in anything supernatural,” is just so damn threatening to those that do.

  • DSimon

    Jake, I don’t think it’s dogmatic at all. There’s plenty of explanations all over the site as to why we think Christianity is harmful. Maybe “dogmatic” doesn’t mean what you think it means?

    I do think “stamp out” is a harsh choice of words, though; nobody here (that I know of) supports oppression of religious beliefs, we merely think the world would be better off if we could convince religious people to stop being religious.

  • http://seangill-insidemyhead.blogspot.com SeanG

    Trending toward a sort of deism and away from the human construct of religion I can handle. Trending toward some earth mother/universal mind hippy bullcrap makes me want to vomit in my shoes.

    I wonder which way the unaffiliated group is leaning.

  • ed42

    “We need to keep working to rid them of the Christian mindset altogether — the mindset that basks in the glory of a god that no one can see or hear outside their own mind and that prides itself on anecdotal stories rather than solid, reason-based evidence.”

    No need to limit this to the ‘Christian’ mindset. Many have the mindset that something greater than themselves will take care of them and punish others. Some call this greater thing god, others call it society.

  • http://onestdv.blogspot.com OneSTDV
  • Autumnal Harvest

    Let’s look at the difference between the heathen-leaning Millennials and the church-lovin’ non-Millennials

    That’s not what the graph you follow this statement with compares. It looks at the difference between the subset of Millennials who are unaffiliated, with the subset of non-Millennials who are unaffiliated.

    We may not be going to church as much, but we’re buying into the same superstitions and mythologies. Hell, in some cases, we’re even worse than our elders!

    By “we,” you seem to mean younger people/Millennials (way to dis your older readers, Hemant!), in which case your statement is unsupported, and probably false. The subset of younger people who are unaffiliated may not differ in beliefs from the subset of older people who are unaffiliated, but the fraction of younger people who are unaffiliated is higher than the fraction of older people that are unaffiliated. If one assumes that unaffiliated people of any age are less likely to believe in God/afterlife/heaven/hell than corresponding affiliated people of the same age, then those beliefs are in fact declining. That assumption is neither supported nor contradicted by the data that you’ve shown, but it seems reasonable.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    Autumnal Harvest — you’re right about my pre-picture caption. I’ve fixed that.

    In a rush now, but I’ll check out the rest of your statement later.

  • Aj

    I just hope that the unaffiliated group isn’t filled with those that believe in conspiracy theories, homeopathy, and alien abductions. Actually, scrap that, I hope it’s not filled with libertarians. They know where they can stick their invisible hands.

    Jake,

    “We need to keep working to rid them of the Christian mindset altogether”

    That sounds fairly dogmatic.

    Only because you people blatantly and stupidly misrepresent atheists who criticize religion. The mindset of Christians is faith over reason, ridding them of that, i.e. encouraging freethinking, is going against dogma. Since you cut off the quote that clearly shows this we can conclude you’re a troll.

    Autumnal Harvest,

    If one assumes that unaffiliated people of any age are less likely to believe in God/afterlife/heaven/hell than corresponding affiliated people of the same age, then those beliefs are in fact declining. That assumption is neither supported nor contradicted by the data that you’ve shown, but it seems reasonable.

    You don’t have to assume, it’s in the study that the unaffiliated are far less likely to believe in those things. It’s not necessarily true that this shows a decline in those beliefs overall because there are differences between age groups in both unaffiliated and affiliated groups that could counteract this.

  • Steven

    Going on what Autumnal Harvest said, the percent in the total population of millennials who do not have an absolutely certain belief in god (66% of the 26% unaffiliated) is about 17%.

    It’s harder to find the number for non-millennials since they’re bunched together on one graph and separated on the other, but I’m coming up with about 7% (that’s non-millennials who do NOT have absolutely certain belief in god).

    Okay I’m not much of a math person so I could have done something totally crazy with the numbers but if that’s even close I’d say we’re doing okay.

  • Derek

    It’s not enough to get people to leave their church or no longer call themselves Christians.

    We need to keep working to rid them of the Christian mindset altogether — the mindset that basks in the glory of a god that no one can see or hear outside their own mind and that prides itself on anecdotal stories rather than solid, reason-based evidence.

    Honestly, this made me just a little sad. I suppose I understand the concept of the need to work to de-convert people, but I’m not sure I agree with it any more than I’m convinced of the need to consciously convert people. Personally, I think that the goal of accepting one another as equals in this thing we call humanity is more important than either one.

    Cheers…

  • http://libraryatheist.wordpress.com David

    “Trending toward a sort of deism and away from the human construct of religion I can handle. Trending toward some earth mother/universal mind hippy bullcrap makes me want to vomit in my shoes.

    I wonder which way the unaffiliated group is leaning.”

    I know anecdotes are of limited use, but my Protestant parents have produced 1 atheist and 1 agnostic so far out of 3 kids, and the youngest is very young still, so we don’t really know where she will land.
    My wife and her only surviving sibling are both deists, and they were raised by Protestants, too.

    I honestly think that given the social pressure to belong in a religion and the stigma attached to being a nonbeliever, it is amazing how many people come out as nontheistic.

    If we- as Greta Christina suggests- make atheism a safer place to land, I think we would be inundated by people who otherwise might be anything from reluctant pew warmers to those who feel a pressure to believe in something which can’t be sensed and thus go with “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2008/11/a-safe-place-to-land.html

    I should, having said that, acknowledge that this is one of the safer places as a result of the efforts of Hemant and recently Richard as well. Thank you both.

  • Ron in Houston

    @Derek

    Well said. I’m there with you.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    I see about a 5% reduction is religious affiliation each generation that seems to increase by an average 1% with advancing age. Church attendance seems to increase as adults become parents and then increases slightly as people grow old. I’m unsurprised by this and would expect these trends to continue. In 15 generations maybe we won’t see any more religious affiliations. In 10 it’ll just be the crazy places of the world (Alaska ;) ) In five generations America will be as religious as England is now.

    That is assuming that the irreligious trend doesn’t reach a critical mass where rejection of theism takes on a life of its own or that religion doesn’t see a huge resurgence. Trends are nice to see but to is a shame we’ll not be around to check out how accurate they might be.

    Although so far I have managed to beat my personal best for “number of consecutive days without dying” every single day so who knows. If the trend continues then I’ll be around to see.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    If I’m reading this data correctly, you are correct that the unaffiliated are about the same in each generation, but the larger fraction of unaffiliated accounts for overall smaller fraction of the Millennials believing in the supernatural.

  • Lymis

    I suspect you would find, in a properly worded set of questions, that the unaffiliated will be hugely more willing to let other people follow the set of beliefs that work for them rather than try to force them into believing in The One Truth.

    The valid reason for opposing religious belief as an atheist is that you are not being left alone to live your life the way you choose without interference, that religions have a tendency to oppress those who don’t toe the line, and to shut down any free thinking that disagrees.

    None of those things are going to be nearly as true of unaffiliated people with spiritual beliefs.

    Remember, just because their explanation of their experience doesn’t fit your theory of how things work doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

    Epilepsy may not be caused by demonic possession, but not believing in the demons doesn’t stop the seizures. God may not punish people with diseases, but being an atheist doesn’t stop the viruses from infecting people.

    It is perfectly valid to demand that people keep their religion out of your life, but doing the reverse is just as wrong, and for the exact same reason.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    I found the comments section for the New York Times article extremely depressing.

    It’s so hard for me to understand the theistic mindset. Are we atheists really this different from the rest of humanity? I always thought I was a pretty normal person, but why is it that the majority of respondents seem consumed by existential angst and the quest for the spiritual or transcendent? What do those words even mean? Why are people so driven to believe in some kind of ultimate meaning and their own immortality? Are people really this dysfunctional when it comes to the reality of death?

  • Aj

    Lymis,

    The valid reason for opposing religious belief as an atheist is that you are not being left alone to live your life the way you choose without interference…

    Remember, just because their explanation of their experience doesn’t fit your theory of how things work doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

    That’s not a valid reason at all. If religious beliefs were true, like blaspheming caused droughts, then leaving people alone to live their lives would seriously fuck things up. Their explanations aren’t likely to be real because there’s evidence against them, and no evidence for them. Fuck truth relativism and post-modernism. The valid reason for opposing religous belief as an atheist is that it isn’t real.

  • Miko

    There are two elements to the theistic ‘mindset’: the part “that basks in the glory of a god that no one can see or hear outside their own mind and that prides itself on anecdotal stories rather than solid, reason-based evidence,” and the part that accepts hierarchy-based systems of domination. The data suggests that we’re getting rid of (or, at least, diminishing) the latter, if not the former. If we have to make a choice, I’d definitely say sending the latter to the scrap heap of history is more urgent, so I’m glad.

    @Aj:

    Actually, scrap that, I hope it’s not filled with libertarians.

    I’d wager that it is. I’ve never seen the two variables tracked together unfortunately, but the generational growth of libertarianism is of the same order of magnitude as the generational growth of religious non-affiliation. From my anecdotal experience, somewhere around 95% of libertarians are atheists (although it’s not true that almost all atheists are libertarians), so the two variables are linked in some way. I’d argue that libertarian ethics provide excellent reasons to be an atheist, but not necessarily the other way around, probably because libertarianism is a positive vision for society whereas atheism is just a statement of what we don’t believe in.

    Also, I’d suggest that the growth in both has the same underlying cause. Young people see a church that stigmatizes gays and rapes young boys and withdraw affiliation from the church. Young people also see a government that stigmatizes everyone except employed white males born in the continental U.S. aged 25-40 and drops bombs on young children; seeing as the state is objectively worse than the church, is it any surprise if they use the same logic to withdraw affiliation from the state (to the greatest extent that they can)?

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Epilepsy may not be caused by demonic possession, but not believing in the demons doesn’t stop the seizures. God may not punish people with diseases, but being an atheist doesn’t stop the viruses from infecting people.

    Interesting examples. I tend to think that understanding that epilepsy is not caused by demons is a necessary first step in developing treatments for epilepsy. Similarly, I think the CDC’s policy of understanding the spread of disease as based on non-religious vectors for viruses is more successful at “[stopping] viruses from infecting people” than a policy that understands the spread of disease as based on divine punishment.

  • http://smalldogbigstick.blogspot.com Brittany

    Millennials?

    We’re called Generation Y, up until about 1999 or so, and then it switches to Generation Z.

  • http://riotingmind.blogspot.com/ BeamStalk

    I hate vague generation things. Technically I am supposed to be in Gen X as I was born in 76, but I have never felt any similarities to the group that describes. I have always been in more agreement with Gen Y or Millenials as they are called here.

  • plutosdad

    So many people I know think the older organized religions are “silly”, then they turn around and tell me about friends who see ghosts or if I use some crystal it will help me with some pain, or they are into paganism. Man talk about going backwards!

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    I hate vague generation things. Technically I am supposed to be in Gen X as I was born in 76, but I have never felt any similarities to the group that describes. I have always been in more agreement with Gen Y or Millenials as they are called here.

    Me, too. I was born in 77, and I remember when Generation X was all about 20-something slackers, so I find it curious that my younger brother and I are both tossed into a generation that was “invented” when we were still children.

    From Wikipedia:

    Generation Y, also known as the Millennial Generation or Generation Next or Net Generation, describes the demographic cohort following Generation X. Its members are often referred to as Millennials or Echo Boomers. As there are no precise dates for when the Millennial generation starts and ends, commentators have used birth dates ranging somewhere from the mid 1970s to the early 2000s.

    So, hey, it looks like you and I might barely squeak in to the Millennials.

  • Jesse Richardson

    This is a good demonstration that it is not religiosity itself that is the problem but, rather, an ignorant mindset. Those who have been taught to think for themselves aren’t capable of being religious, and those who have not been taught to think for themselves invariably believe in things for which there exists no evidence. Christianity isn’t what we should be fighting, ignorance is (and then the rest will take care of itself).


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