Are atheists ‘switchers,’ too?

Are atheists ‘switchers,’ too? April 29, 2014

The fact that a majority of religious Americans switch religions at some point during their lifetime has been well documented. But what about atheists? How many people who are raised without faith and religion remain so throughout their lifetime. An article at yesterday entitled “Your atheism isn’t going to keep your kids from believing in God,” draws on a 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey that indicates that only 46% of those raised “unaffiliated” remain so as adults. Of course, “unaffiliated” is a catch-all category that includes, atheists, agnostics, skeptics and believers who do not affiliate with a particular religious group. In contrast, the article points out, 68% of Catholics and 52% of Protestants remain in their childhood religion and only 14% and 13% respectively leave their childhood faith altogether.

But, says Daniel Cox, Research Director at Public Religion Research Institute, in a July 2013 Huffington Post article entitled, “Born and Raised: More Americans Are Being Raised Without Religion and Choosing to Stay that Way,” times are changing. Whereas the data quoted above was true of previous generations, Millennials, more than previous generations, tend to remain unaffiliated when raised without religion.

An equally important development is the increasing resilience of nonreligious identity. In the United States, religious attachments have generally proven stronger than nonreligious attachments. This has been true for a couple reasons. First, regardless of their denomination or tradition, religious Americans tend to be embedded in religious networks of friends, family members, neighbors and leaders that reinforce religious beliefs and identity. Second, religious norms in society provide strong incentives to at least nominally affiliate. In contrast, religiously unaffiliated Americans represent an amalgam of atheists, agnostics, seculars and unattached believers. They tend to be more isolated from social networks that could reinforce their views–in fact the unaffiliated tend to be less civically and socially engaged than religious Americans. They are also less able to rely on established institutions to facilitate the maintenance of religious beliefs and commitments. Subsequently, Americans who were raised without religion in the past were not likely to stay that way. In the 1970s, only about one-third (34 percent) of Americans who were raised in unaffiliated households reported that they remained unaffiliated as adults.

However, there are signs that nonreligious identity is proving more durable, the result of increasing religious diversity, shifting marriage patterns and growing acceptance of nonreligious people. By the 1990s, the majority of Americans who were raised unaffiliated remained that way as adults. In the decade that followed, commitment among the religiously unaffiliated approached that of members of established religions. In 2012, more than 6-in-10 (61 percent) Americans raised unaffiliated were still without religion in adulthood. In comparison, two-thirds (66 percent) of Catholic adolescents remained Catholic as adults during this same time period.

In a religiously plural environment like the United States, we are presented with a smorgasbord of ideas from which to cobble together our own view of the world and our place in it. In a democratic society like ours you would expect people to switch their religious affiliation or non-affiliation throughout their lifetime—sometimes more than once. And yet, non-affiliation is proving more durable than before and steady religious affiliation is eroding.

Cox’s closing paragraph is telling:

The increasing number of Americans raised in nonreligious homes presents a significant challenge to churches. Instead of luring back those who were once part of a religious community, they now face the prospect of trying to attract those with no formative religious experiences to draw on. Moreover, Americans with no formative religious experience often have very different expectations and attitudes about religion that are drawn not from personal experience in church, but from the views of friends, family, and also popular culture.

The reaction to these discoveries ranges from angst-ridden hand-writing to jubilation. A humorous and purely anecdotal illustration of this greeted me in the top two comments on Cox’s Huffington Post article—and so typical of online forums.

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