How do the three main categories differ among America’s rising non-religious “nones”?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Political scientist Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University has lately emerged as the most prolific analyst of the religion factor in U.S. politics, The Religion Guy contends. He’s now out with a book examining the biggest trend of our times within U.S. religion: “The Nones: Where Thy Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going” (see www.fortresspress.com/store/product/9781506465852/The-Nones).
“Nones” refers to Americans who say they have none when pollsters ask about their religious affiliation or identity. Since the turn of the century they’ve grown rapidly and make up around a fourth of the U.S. adult population, so this book is highly recommended for anyone interested in contemporary American religion.
Burge is an interesting figure. On the one hand, he’s a hard-nosed, objective observer of poll-driven facts, while on the other a religious practitioner as a long-serving, part-time pastor of an American Baptist congregation. His local flock typifies our era’s second major trend, the unprecedented membership decline in white “mainline” Protestant denominations that in former times dominated the national culture, as distinguished from conservative “evangelical” Protestantism.
The most revelatory material in this data-rich survey of all things “none” is the distinctions among the three subcategories of non-religious people carefully marked out by Pew Research Center surveys. Atheists are those who are certain God does not exist, and the same for all supernatural aspects. Agnostics say we do not or cannot know such things. By far the largest segment of nones, however, choose Pew’s third option of “nothing in particular” (NIP).
Burge thinks the NIPs “might be the most consequential religious group in the United States, and no one is talking about them the way they talk about atheists or agnostics.” NIPs are one-fifth of the population and “the fastest-growing religious group in the United States.” On point after point, they are notably different from both atheists and agnostics. Lumping all the non-religious together as the same “glosses over vast differences in the lifestyles, occupations and political worldviews.”
On basic demographics, NIPs are evenly split by gender and thus reflect the general public, while atheists and agnostics are heavily male. On education, 44.2 percent of atheists have bachelor’s degrees with agnostics ranking nearly as high, but only one in five NIPs are college grads. Regarding income, half the U.S. population earns less than $50,000 a year but nearly 60 percent of NIPs, while atheists and agnostics are affluent over-all.
On politics, atheists and agnostics are among the most liberal of groups, a vital Democratic Party vote and unusually active in political matters. Meanwhile the NIPs are slightly more conservative than average Americans. Further, “on every measure of political participation they fall far behind,” which is not the case for other social groups having lower social and economic status.
His blunt summary: NIPs “are often the most distant, isolated, and checked-out members of society.” They have no religious ties, but it’s the same with all other sorts of ties. ‘They are one of the most educationally and economically disadvantaged groups in the United States today.”
NIPs also stand out on religion, where they’re less negative toward belief and religious activities than atheists and agnostics. For example, they are more likely to attend worship services occasionally, though half never attend. Surprisingly, 35 percent of NIPs even say that religion is “somewhat” or even “very” important in their lives. In one longitudinal study over time (2010 through 2014) 16.4 percent of NIPs switched from none status to identify as Christian and nearly 9 percent switched into a non-Christian religious identity.
Burge advises church strategists to forget hopes of winning settled atheists and agnostics and target outreach to the one in five Americans who are currently NIPs. By and large, they are struggling. They are more “receptive to faith” than other nones and are “the most likely to gain real social and economic benefits from being part of a religious community.”
What other guidance does the author have for fellow religionists?
Religion is affected when so many Americans have suffered dislocations with economic globalization, which Burge sees as “the most important force in American life today.” Capital is incredibly mobile, middle-class incomes are stagnant, and many or most things can be made with cheaper labor outside the U.S. Inevitably, disaffected workers look for someone to blame, whether immigrants by the right or plutocrats by the left.
He sees secularization as similarly powerful and says efforts to turn the tide are “futile.” In sunnier times Americans used to be “Christians simply by default” and America’s drift away from religious faith “merely gave permission for a lot of people to express what they truly are: religiously unaffiliated.” Yet religious belief is “still surprisingly robust” in America. Only a tenth of the population does not believe God exists, and NIPs have some religious beliefs and behaviors but spurn labels and are averse to “organized religion” with its expectations about moral lifestyles and donation of time and money.
As a political scientist, he believes this generation’s identification of conservative religion with conservative politics, exaggerated in the Donald Trump days, damages religion’s appeal over-all and especially with an alienated third of the population. Meanwhile legions of unattached people outside church walls have real needs, both material and spiritual.
So much for dynamics with religious congregations and individual Americans, but what does irreligion’s rise mean for America otherwise? Here we turn to a Muslim fellow at the Brookings Institution, Shadi Hamid, writing in the current Atlantic under the headline “America Without God.” .He says America was not founded as an officially Christian nation but this religion “was always intertwined with America’s self-definition. Without it, Americans — conservatives and liberals alike — no longer have a common culture upon which to fall back.”
Hamid thinks little good has come from secularization. Look at the tone of American politics since the strong religious decline set in around 2000. Politics itself becomes ‘faith-based” as debates and loyalties take on absolute and ultimate character. “What was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief.” Witness, he asserts, the similar excesses of both liberal “woke-isn” and of conservative “Trumpism” that’s like tent revivalism “stripped of Christian witness.”
“This is what religion without religion looks like” and e\mere politics cannot ‘fill the spiritual void’ America faces,” he warns. Important concepts to ponder. Read the full piece at www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/04/america-politics-religion/618072/