Religious identification is on the wane in the United States, as in most other nations in the developed world. Yet, many scholars and pundits are somewhat dismissive of trends in disaffiliation as evidence of growing secularism because, they claim, Americans increasingly believe but don’t belong. However, Americans’ beliefs are changing as well. And, many who do not believe are nonetheless forced to belong because of social influences on religious commitments. Indeed, as I will show, there are far more people who belong to religious groups but do not believe than there are people who believe but don’t belong. And, furthermore, a growing proportion of Americans neither believe in the authority of religious creeds nor belong to organizations devoted to religion.
A critical assumption of the supply-side explanation for the “Churching of America” is that Americans wanted Christianity, but there simply weren’t firms available from which to purchase high quality Christian religion, as per Finke and Stark. Yet, sociological studies of conversion to religious movements do not make a strong link between preferring and believing specific religious principles or explanations and embracing a particular affiliation or identification. Indeed, studies of conversion to cults and sects view conversion as an ongoing, negotiated process, and even members of high cost religious groups like the Hare Krishna often differ from orthodoxy, yet maintain belonging for social ties and other benefits, as Burke Rochford shows. Religious attachments are not simply a function of preferences for certain religious goods, but are also choices made under the influence of a variety of social factors. People belong to religious groups for varied reasons, and not simply to find spiritual solace or to ensure eternal rewards and insure against damnation. Family pressures, friendship ties, social status, and the desire to set an example for children are among the strongest predictors of religious behaviors, including whether or not people choose to belong to religious groups. Churches provide a myriad of social activities and opportunities, ranging from sports clubs and music groups to daycares and schools. And, motivations for belonging to religious groups are less related to religious preferences when social pressures or benefits are high.
Further, social influences and past choices can affect preferences for particular religious explanations and beliefs. Friends, schools, co-workers, and the broader culture can influence which religious explanations are deemed valuable, and these shifting preferences can influence rates of religious belonging. As more and more Americans reject belonging, it could undermine preferences for religious explanations—which could further dull the impulse to belong to religious groups.
I examine two core beliefs: (1) the divine inspiration of the Bible; and (2) the existence of a god. If the non-affiliated are simply unchurched Christians, then they probably have to grant some authority to a God for producing the sacred texts of that tradition. And, more crucially, if a person does not believe in a god, then they cannot be presumed to prefer Christianity, nor any of the other Abrahamic faiths.
In the figure below, I compare analyses from 2008 and 1988. The specific General Social Survey (GSS) item asks respondents: “Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible? a. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally; b. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word; c. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” The third response grants no divine authority or inspiration to the Bible.
For belief in god, the GSS asked respondents: “Which statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about God? (1) I know that God exists and I have no doubts about it; (2) While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God; (3) I find myself believing in god some of the time, but not at others; (4) I don’t believe in a personal god, but I do believe in a higher power of some kind; (5) I don’t know whether there is a god, and I don’t believe there is any way to find out; and (6) I don’t believe in God.” Responses 4-6 reflect a rejection of the conception or image of god presented in all of the Abrahamic traditions. While there are radical theologians who present an ephemeral image of God, these are exceptional views not shared by the majority of American Christians.
Non-identification with a religious group doubled from 7.6% of GSS respondents in 1988 to 16.3% in 2008 (among those with valid answers on the beliefs items). Notably, religious beliefs also shifted during this period, though not quite as dramatically. In 1988 fewer than 17% of Americans believed the Bible was a book of fables, and 13% rejected the idea of a personal god. By 2008, non-belief in the Bible rose to nearly 20%, and disbelief in a personal god grew to almost 18%.
Based on these beliefs, the percentage of Americans who “believe but don’t belong” increased from 3.3% (believers in the divine authority of the bible) or 3.5% (believers in a personal god) to 6.7% or 6.5% respectively between 1988 and 2008. Notably, these measures of belief chart fewer “believers who don’t belong” than do Hout and Fischer, who estimate this at 11% in 2008 using a much stricter definition of atheism.
People who identify with a religious group but do not believe make up a much larger fraction of the American population than do believers who don’t belong. In 1988, non-believers who belong constitute over 12% of GSS respondents, and this dips to under 11% in 2008. While the percentage of believers who don’t belong has grown, they remain a far smaller proportion of Americans than those who belong to religious groups but reject their beliefs. Notably, the proportion of churched non-believers decreased while the ranks of those who don’t believe grew. This suggests that normative pressure to affiliate with religious groups is waning, and so non-believers are opting out of belonging to a religious group.
While most of the journalistic attention has been on believers who do not belong, the proportion of Americans who neither believe nor belong is higher, and increased just as much between 1988 and 2008. Nearly 10% of Americans do not believe in the divine authority of the bible or personal gods and avoid religious attachments—more than double the percentages found in 1988.
In sum, Americans increasingly don’t believe, and they are more prone to not belong. Further, non-believers are becoming less likely to belong to religious groups for social reasons, and this probably also explains why more believers also choose not to belong—social norms mandating religious ties are receding.
While this research presents an interesting set of data on trends connected to belief and belonging, it highlights the difficulty of separating “religion” from societal assumptions about what “religion” is. Do those who “don’t believe” really not believe at all, in anything? Surely not. If religion is about “belief” and “belonging,” then all Americans (and all people) are religious, since all believe in something — whether it’s the authority of science, the evolved nature of the world, the existence of invisible entities, or the reality of one’s body or of the effects of one’s actions on others — and all belong to or affiliate with larger groups to one degree or another.
By hewing so closely to traditional Anglo-American ideas of what is “religious” and what isn’t — religion as belief in a Christian deity, a creator separate from His creation, and as participation in a Sunday church routine — couldn’t we be missing a whole set of emergent phenomena that are also about belief and belonging but that don’t fall into those categories? (Just to name a few: belief in the virtues of a life lived closer to nature or in the power of love and compassion, belonging to environmental organizations, political or nationalist movements, self-help groups, and the like…)
What if sociologists instead asked their subjects to define what gives their lives meaning, and then proceeded to analyze how people make sense of “ultimate things” in their own terms? Might that not lead to some very interesting conversations? It seems to me that by reiterating the frames of reference that we’ve inherited from an early modern division of labor between science/politics and religion — the first being about the material and social worlds, and the second about the moral and “invisible” worlds — we miss out on the many ways in which the world is becoming ever more pluralistic, global, and complex.
I agree that only about 3% would be adamant atheist rationalists with no supernatural beliefs whatsoever. However, the point is that contemporary treatments of religious markets assume that because of this, 97% of Americans prefer Abrahamic religions (minus a handful of Buddhist and Hindu immigrants, or members of marginal new religious movements). About a fifth of Americans reject the core beliefs of the Abrahamic tradition, while many of these “non-believers” actually identify as members of mostly Christian religious denominations. This is not really about “societal assumptions” about what religion is, but instead about social scientific assumptions about the market penetrability of Christianity in the contemporary United States. While supply siders like Finke, Iannaccone, and Stark assume that the unchurched believers would join a Christian church if the proper firm were available, my perspective argues that most of those who do not have an affiliation do not prefer Christian religion, and many who do affiliate also have quite divergent religious tastes—they join and identify for social reasons.