This is the second of two posts by Christopher McKnight Nichols on the rise of the ‘Religious Nones’. Read the first post here.—ed.

The “Nones” in American society and political life

Percentage of Americans identifying with a religion (as opposed to "no religion") | ARIS/WikimediaAs Hout and Fischer note here on The Immanent Frame, “the fraction of American adults with no religious preference doubled from 7 to 14 percent during the 1990s. Data from this decade show that the trend away from organized religion continues, albeit at a slower pace.” In revising some of their earlier work, Hout and Fischer remark that this trend began before the 1990s, perhaps between 1985 and 1987, and thus the rate of change may not have been as rapid as previous estimates indicated. Or, if we turn to the ARIS data as our source, the percentage of “no religionists” escalated from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 14.1 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2008. So, with more than 15 percent currently reporting “no religion” in 2009 and the growth continuing, albeit more gradually, what explains the dramatic shift toward “none” status in the mid-to-late 1980s through the 1990s and how can we best understand the subsequent slowdown in the current decade?

There is no one compelling answer. Clearly there was and still is an ongoing transition toward a general pluralization of religious beliefs with, in part, a secularizing tendency. Hout and Fischer point us toward two components of generational and age cohort shifts that explain elements of this trajectory and provide a provisional set of answers. As they state, first, “People who were raised without religion from the 1960s onward are less likely than previous generations to acquire a religion in adulthood.” Second, there “is a trend away from organized religion among people raised with religion. People who were raised with religion from the 1960s onward are also less likely than previous generations to stay with religion in adulthood.”

Most recently, though, the drop-off in the rate of transition to “no religion” as a self-assigned identity points to something beyond demographic and age-related drivers of change. Again, the ARIS data show that approximately 1.3 million adults moved from one religion or other into the “no religion” category each year during the 1990s. However, the annual shift since 2001 stands at approximately half that total, with 660,000 or so Americans reporting as “nones.” While this still represents a vast growth of the bloc reporting “no religiosity” each year, it is far below the annual highs of the 1990s. How can we assess the causes of this change?

I have discussed this question and proposed several points in previous work, which I condense here as falling under three rubrics.

Catholics. Building on Kosmin and Keysar’s work, we can say that because some of the worst sex scandals and other tumult in the American Catholic Church have abated, the rate at which Catholics (still the largest religious group making the shift) become “nones” is lower now than in the late 1990s. Still, Hispanic Catholics are the fastest growing demographic, both in the U.S. population generally and among the self-designated “nones.” Catholic Hispanics will thus be a crucial determinant of future national religious propensities.

Culture and the market. An alternative explanation lies in culture and its complicated relationship to religious and intellectual markets. How many people can make any major transition in religious values at a given moment? It is almost a truism of moral philosophy to note that, for the vast majority of citizens, there is great difficulty in moving beyond the norms inculcated by family and community. No matter what the circumstances, there are limits on how many individuals or groups can make such a shift in belief at any given time; thus, there are natural limits to the liquidity of the intellectual marketplace. Or, taking a different perspective, the “marketplace” for faith in America itself is doing a solid, perhaps a better, job of holding market share by using new techniques for outreach and to improve sociability, as Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have discussed. Sociologists of religion also have explained that since the mid-1990s America’s organized religions (particularly certain Protestant denominations) started to adapt, first at the local level and then at the national level, by incorporating innovations in media for religious services and by embracing new methods to enhance social events and communal environments. In short, over the past ten-to-fifteen years many organized faiths in the U.S. became more efficient in retaining members and gaining new members.

Context and challenges. The historical context, together with new national challenges, help us to understand the continued movement toward “none” status, as well as the slowdown in the rate of growth. I hypothesize that three challenges have pushed Americans to seek greater stability in faith: the catastrophic events of September 11th, 2001; the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the geopolitical uncertainties related to the global war on terror); and the massive recent economic downturn. Such crises have historically led individuals and groups toward traditional sources of meaning, community, and security. In uncertain times, calls for individualism seem weaker, and the claims of skepticism associated with secular, atheist, agnostic, and humanist worldviews seem less persuasive. Journalist Jeffrey Weiss has hypothesized that this may be another example of the old “no atheists in a foxhole” phenomenon, often invoked to explain why religiosity flourishes in times of crisis.

Thus, while there are no clear or singular answers to the rise of the late 1980s through 1990s, and then the slowdown since 2001, these explanatory categories illuminate some of the crucial drivers propelling this set of transitions.

I. What Difference Do the Trends Make for American Society?

Let us consider a few of the most hotly contested implications of the increase in “no religionists.”

Their rise over the past two decades underscores a familiar dynamic in American history: fears of godlessness are often deeply entangled with fears concerning the moral decay of the polity.  But, of course, how increases in the “no religion” demographic will influence the goals, forms, and institutional spaces of civic engagement in the United States remains to be seen. I suggest that the growing tendency of people who are not necessarily atheists to reject a religious identification reflects, and is likely to continue to affect, three political and cultural transitions.

Stop the  Intersection of Church and State | CC: It's a Caveman Christmas!Polarization. Over the past few decades there has been a marked trend toward sharper polarization amongst religious outlooks. With the decline of membership in the so-called liberal churches, explicitly and unabashedly faith-centered “conservative” political factions have grown and have brought their views to bear in the public square on an array of social, political, legal, and economic issues. Most prominent has been the electioneering of evangelical Christians, whose ascendance to power since the 1970s was epitomized by the presidency of George W. Bush. These developments have prompted outcries from liberals and, increasingly, from moderates as well. Having promised a deepening of the role of faith in American politics, this conservative Christian movement has splintered in the wake of divisions regarding its desired means and ends, corruption-related scandals, and the unsuccessful elections in 2006 and 2008. Further, in polls and surveys before the 2008 election, many Americans affirmed the need for a liberal, religious “vital center” (to borrow a phrase from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) and expressed a more apolitical (that is, non-partisan) aim to push back against the rise of religiously inspired and directed political blocs.

Recent evidence of cultural polarization also appears quite persuasively in the bestselling appeal of works by “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. The unexpected sales and brisk public discussions generated by these works underscore how well received such torrid critiques of religion have become, particularly in the face of the politically oriented invocations of faith by conservative politicians and pundits. What we do know is that the religious center seems to have shrunk. Survey data reveals that “no religionists” firmly believe they can still be spiritual without claiming a formal religious affiliation, and they seem to be part of a wide swath of American society that does not favor the thorough intermingling of religion and politics. (The desired “mix,” however, is an intensely debated subject.) Still, the data on what Americans want from their politicians and presidents mirror these contests and contradictions. When polled, Americans reject “atheistic” presidential candidates in the abstract and want their politicians to affirm faith.  Is this a “Goldilocks” phenomenon—they want faith, but not too hot?

Historical and current international relations. Diverse changes on the geopolitical stage have had profound historical ramifications for new “prophesies of godlessness” and movements away from formal, public religious beliefs. From the 1930s through 1989, Americans imagined their enemies as deeply “godless”—first Germany and Japan, then the avowed atheism of the communist Soviet Union. The apparent “opponents” of the U.S. in the twenty-first century, most notably Islamist terrorism, are suffused in religiosity and the languages of political theology. This represents quite an inversion and could be the most significant factor shaping the future of the “nones” in American politics and society. If totalitarian godlessness encouraged American views of the importance of godliness throughout much of the twentieth century, what might this switch mean for the twenty-first? Now that America is well beyond the bipolar world of the Cold War, and particularly given a growing minority of the population that no longer believes in any of the organized religions, what will happen to civic culture when affirming America’s godliness no longer seems to be the best way to distinguish “us” from “them”?

If irreligion abroad encouraged identification with religion at home—perhaps even greater religiosity, at home—then defining the foreign “other” more explicitly in terms of religious extremism may encourage even more U.S. citizens (and civic culture as a whole) to increase their personal and ideological distance from formal religious affiliations. In turn, such a distancing might heighten other sources of religious alienation in the future. Indeed, disaffection from organized religion has been growing for other reasons, too varied to discuss here. But those forces highlight the voluntarism with which people increasingly view religion, along with the widely held belief that one can be “spiritual” without being “religious.”

Shifting partisanship and politics. One fascinating question is: what exactly are the beliefs under the surface of “no religion”? Two stand out: political orientation and views on evolution.

The former converges with and supports the recent trend of religio-political polarization and the apparent alignment of Republican politics with more orthodox Judeo-Christian values. In the ARIS data for 1990, 12 percent of Independents identified as having “no religion,” along with 6 percent of Democrats and 6 percent of Republicans. As of 2008, however, 21 percent of Independents claim “no religion,” as well as 16 percent of Democrats and only 8 percent of Republicans.

As Kosmin and Keysar  explain, a “plurality (42%) of the “nones” consider themselves Independents; 34% are Democrats; and 13% are Republicans. In the general population, only 29% consider themselves Independents, 34% Democrats; and 24% Republicans.” It is difficult to discern whether the “no religion” growth since 1990 was more of a politically-motivated movement away from the Republican Party toward Independent status, or is better explained as part of a general social shift in the direction of decreasing party affiliation. No matter what the social pattern, the underlying political trends seem clear: “nones” are growing; they are less likely to favor or identify with the Republican Party; and, in a parallel but probably separate trend, the number of Independents is growing in the American political sphere. These developments constitute a serious present and future challenge to Republican electioneering, barring a transformation of the party and its positions.

Views on evolution offer a vivid example of how “nones” are outliers in American life. “No religionists” are one of the largest demographic slices of the populace who hold to the definitude of human evolution. Further, “nones” apparently agree with the importance of teaching evolution as settled science; on this point the survey data is a bit more mixed. “Nones” report believing in human evolution at rates twice that of the general population (61 percent to 38 percent). Generalizing from their self-reported beliefs, then, “no religionists” seem to be skeptical and independent-minded, frequently objecting to rigid doctrines of either secular or religious origin. They also seem to prefer empirical, often scientific data as a primary source of belief to faith. Such a worldview suggests that “no religionists” will be predisposed to object to the more overtly religious rhetoric and to some of the “received wisdoms” of recent Republican politics at the state and national levels. This may be most predictive at the local and school board levels where behavior and belief will continue to shape battles over the teaching of creationism alongside evolution and related religiously derived curriculum initiatives.

II.  Speculations

These last points lead me to a few concluding speculations about “no religionists” in American political life. If one purpose of this discussion series is to foster novel interpretations of the growth of the “no religion” population—both its causes and its transformative potential with respect to the discourse and conduct of politics in the United States—then I take up that mission by concluding with several historically oriented observations.

The marked increase in these numbers since the 1980s appears to be explained in part by changing domestic and international politics and related cultural transitions, as well as the long-standing pervasiveness of voluntarism as a characteristic of American democratic practices. The voluntarism attached to American democracy and the so-called “marketplace” of religion is central to an extraordinary social chemistry in American life that Alexis de Tocqueville diagnosed nearly two centuries ago. Yet there is a new facet to the voluntarism that inheres in present-day American liberalism: its pluralist commitments are fundamentally different from those of its early nineteenth century variant.

Today, as Charles Mathewes and I found in researching our book Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America’s Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day, contemporary voluntary religion entails a “common-sense” epistemology that in some ways is strangely unaware of its own limits. Today’s widespread deference to a liberal voluntarism is so radically “open,” for example, that it can lead to intransigence, and to an inability to imagine that “others” see things differently from the way you do.  A parallel development over at least the past three decades is the power of explicitly and unabashedly faith-centered political factions to bring their views to bear in the public square, to exclaim against imminent moral decay in American life, and to rail against rising unbelief.

One interpretation of what is going on, as we suggested in Prophesies of Godlessness, is that this tenuous, conflicted state of crosscurrents is virtually a permanent constituent of American belief. In the early nineteenth century Thomas Jefferson believed all Americans would become Unitarians. Most twentieth century social scientists believed that secularization was an unstoppable force, that it was an Americanizing power, replacing immigrants’ traditions with much-needed pragmatism and materialism. Neither prediction came to fruition. Every generation seems to have given rise to new claims of “godlessness.” Yet the developments of the past half-century hint at a fundamental difference. There has been a demonstrable shift toward spiritual “no religion”—a view that is far from “godless”—that has altered the landscape of American religious life.

This history is cold comfort in at least one important way. The intolerance of outlier religious groups, along with heated claims heralding a looming decay into godlessness, is not harmless. In their most zealous and alarmist forms, these intolerances and predictions, and the fracases they provoke, obstruct democratic dialogue and hinder religious understanding. The conflicts and noise distort pressing political issues. They also obscure genuine and fundamental changes in the nature of religion in America. It seems that contemporary public religion is more often marked by extremism and, as Hout and Fischer rightly observe, politics and religion have become increasingly publicly “intertwined.”

Americans take and have historically taken astonishingly diverse (ir)religious paths, but they continue to measure their lives and times by what many say are religious values and standards. What is happening may well be another pivotal moment in history: we appear to be seeing the limits of a faith-based model for liberal pluralism. That is, though more Americans are reporting “no religion,” simultaneously there appears to be less tolerance of irreligion in American political life and in the public sphere.

While some see the rise of “no religiosity” as a calamity heralding impending godlessness, that need not be the case. On the contrary, could the nation be close to a revival of religion? If so, perhaps this is no contradiction at all. Combined with the slowdown in the growth of “nones,” the new spirituality of “no religionists” may be part of a revival, just as the major revivals of faith in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the U.S. assumed remarkably new shapes, surprising most contemporary observers. Many of today’s Americans who profess faith, however, seem to have not yet awakened to the possibility that “no religionists” could in fact be believers of a new sort. Even if there is no revival imminent, I suggest that the resiliency of religion in American life has been a profound continuity in U.S. history and should not be underestimated. Today’s predictions of an impending collapse of American faith, like the myriad other historical predictions of godlessness, appear premature if not entirely mistaken.

To provide a final piece of context, consider that today there are more Americans professing “no religion” than there are Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans combined. Because the number of “no religionists” probably will continue to increase, so will their influence.