I am fairly addicted to FiveThirtyEight, even though I am a Brit, although I’ve more recently been watching their podcasts and videos on YouTube. That said, a recent piece was particularly interesting: “It’s Not Just Young White Liberals Who Are Leaving Religion“.
Only 47 percent of American adults said they were members of a church, mosque or synagogue, according to recently released polling that was conducted by Gallup throughout last year. It marked the first time that a majority of Americans said they were not members of a church, mosque or synagogue since Gallup first started asking Americans about their religious membership in the 1930s. Indeed, Gallup’s finding was a kind of watershed moment in the long-chronicled shift of Americans away from organized religion.1
What’s driving this shift? In part, it’s about people who still identify with a religious tradition opting not to be a member of a particular congregation. Only 60 percent of Americans who consider themselves religious are part of a congregation, compared to 70 percent a decade ago, according to Gallup. But the bigger factor, Gallup said, is the surge of religiously unaffiliated Americans — people who are agnostics, atheists or simply say they are not affiliated with a religious tradition. The rise of this group — sometimes referred to as “nones” because they answer “none” when asked about their faith (and, you know, it’s a play on words) — isn’t new. But the Gallup survey is part of a growing body of new research on this bloc (that includes a recent book by one of us, Ryan’s “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going”).
I talked about this shift before the election in terms of the demographic group being of growing importance in elections, and the notion that they might need to be considered when devising policy and creating marketing campaigns, in some way. On the flipside, if such a demographic is overwhelmingly more likely to vote Democrat, then perhaps they can be discounted from being appealed to because (1) they are already in the bag, and (2) appealing to them might be divisive, causing them Democrats to lose other voters.
“Nones” now represent somewhere from 21% to 32% of the electorate (Gallup puts this group at about 21%. Pew Research Center at 26%, The Cooperative Election Study at about 32%). There is certainly confusion over what the terms entails and how people feel about self-describing as having “no religion”. I know a number of people commenting here claim they are not religious and I am left wondering how that really works for them; others less so.
Having said that such people skew Democratic and left, this is not necessarily so clear. Whilst it favours Democrats, it has been pretty widespread:
Compared to the U.S. population overall, nonreligious Americans are younger and more Democratic-leaning. But the number of Americans who aren’t religious has surged in part because people in lots of demographic groups are disengaging from religion — many nones don’t fit that young, liberal stereotype. The average age of a none is 43 (so plenty are older than that). About one-third of nones (32 percent) are people of color. More than a quarter of nones voted for Trump in 2020. And about 70 percent don’t have a four-year college degree.
The decline over the last decade in the share of Black (-11 percentage points) and Hispanic adults (-10 points) who are Christians is very similar to the decline among white adults (-12 points), according to Pew. The number of college graduates leaving the faith (-13 points) is similar to those without degrees (-11 points). The decline in organized religion is indeed much bigger among Democrats (-17 points) than Republicans (-7 points) and among Millennials (-16 points) compared to Baby Boomers (-6 points), but the trend is very broad.
The growing diversity of nones explains a lot of dynamics we see in America today. For example, unlike the civil rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s, Black Lives Matter didn’t emerge from Black Christian churches and is not principally led by Black pastors. Part of the story there is that some activists involved in BLM view Black churches as too conservative, particularly in terms of not being inclusive enough of women and LGBTQ people. But another part of the story is simply that the Black Lives Matter movement was largely started by Black people under age 50. Many Black Americans under 50, like their non-Black counterparts, are disengaged from religion. About a third of Black Millennials are religiously unaffiliated, compared to 11 percent of Black Baby Boomers, according to Pew.
So whilst the young, left-leaning voters have greater numbers who are nones and continue to be so, we see a pretty universal trend. This will be yet another opportunity for churches and religious organisations to do some soul-searching – in two meanings of the term. They need to look at themselves to think about what they are doing wrong in retaining people (though they will no doubt just blame those people, or Satan), and they need to search for some souls to fill up the pews!
And it seems that where the civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s may have had their roots in the churches at the time, their modern-day parallels have their roots in a growing secular society.
I will continue looking into this data in the next piece.
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