Percentage of Americans identifying with a religion (as opposed to "no religion") | ARIS/WikimediaProponents of increasingly unfashionable ideas about secularization may take comfort in recent reports on the growth of religious “nones.” In 2008, roughly 15 percent of Americans told telephone surveyors with the American Religious Identification Survey that they had no religious preference, were atheist, agnostic, secular, or humanist. Having grown stealthily throughout the later 1980s and 1990s, as Mike Hout and Claude Fischer note in a recent posting on The Immanent Frame, the ranks of nones roughly doubled, then continued to grow, but at a slower rate, since 2002. Roughly half of the nones believe in either a “personal God” or a “higher power.” This growing none population seems to confirm, albeit very belatedly, sociologists’ predictions of several decades ago. Thomas Luckmann argued in 1967, for instance, that religion was becoming “invisible”—alive mainly in our private ponderings. Believing did not need to mean belonging, and Luckmann further supposed that many of those who did still go to worship services did so mainly out of dull rote.  In light of these now-classic ideas about religious change, a growing none-hood does not sound so surprising.

Whether or not we want to feed these findings back into a very long-running debate about sociology’s secularization thesis, many of us will feel compelled to ask what this trend means for American public life.  We are trained to ask the question because we are so used to thinking in Tocquevillian terms about religion’s relation to democracy. For that reason alone, it is worth taking a little time to clarify what the oft-quoted French traveler, diarist and social thinker Alexis de Tocqueville actually did say about American religion and its public consequences, so we can better decide what, if anything, in the Tocquevillian heritage helps us grapple with these findings. As my co-author Brady Potts and I have pointed out in a new volume, it has become popular to read Tocqueville uncritically and rather hurriedly as saying that American democracy depends on Americans’ deeply ingrained religious sensibilities. From that standpoint, ARIS findings on growing atheism and agnosticism would look especially troubling.

But Tocqueville’s writing on religion was much more nuanced than such simple readings would have it, and I am not ready to be as concerned about the growing ranks of nones as neo-Tocquevillian sensibilities might dictate. Like much of both common-sense and social science thinking about religion, Tocqueville supposed that religion matters socially because of the power of religious beliefs; he had Christian ones in mind. He supposed that religious beliefs would make Americans both forbearing and other-regarding, keeping us from succumbing either to rash collective enthusiasms or heedless individual striving. Tocqueville was aware of cult-like religious enthusiasts in America, but his view of religious beliefs overall is closer to what observers have said about mid-twentieth century mainline Protestantism: that it celebrated moderation, decorum, and polite, charitable social concern. We can’t really fault Tocqueville for not foreseeing that political candidates would use evangelical Protestant beliefs immoderately and sometimes impolitely—to put it politely—to forge political constituencies and sway national elections. We can, however, take some of his claims less for granted.

As for heedless individual striving, it is true that religious groups make up nearly half of the realm of voluntary associations. Many of these perform the kinds of charitable social service, such as staffing food pantries or hosting homeless shelters, that Americans typically point to as examples of our not so selfish, not so materialistic impulses. It is not so clear that religious beliefs make a great deal of difference in either the form that volunteer projects take or their effectiveness over all. Research suggests that a few sorts of “faith-based” social service really could be more effective than their secular counterparts, but research also shows that some religiously motivated social service is ineffective and even self-defeating if it eschews strong partnerships with secular, governmental agencies. More often than not, religiously sponsored social and community service looks pretty similar to what non-religious volunteers and networkers do.  If increasing numbers of people decline to state a preference for some religious beliefs over others, or avoid religious certainty altogether, this indifference to religious belief may not greatly weaken prospects for the local, charitable version of good citizenship that neo-Tocquevillians prize.

Yet Tocqueville said something else, something more subtle, about American religion, which also may be changing: He said it did not matter if Americans all really believed the religion they propounded, and he surmised that quite a few, in fact, did not. What mattered to Americans was that they hear each other sounding religious. Not religious belief so much as the reputation of religion would give individualistic Americans some recognized, shared moral standard. In contemporary—and, frankly, over-used—terms, religion would give Americans “social capital,” a widely accepted token good for “buying” trust from others in this far-flung, sometimes very disconnected republic. Since roughly half the nones said that they believe in some kind of divine power, we can infer that a lot of Americans still sound like they accept the standard, even if only vaguely.

It’s striking, though, that they don’t affiliate with any particular religion. Nevermind for a moment whether or not and how often Americans practice institutionalized religion; what is interesting here is that a growing minority of Americans don’t feel compelled to name themselves with a specific, religious identity. Only twenty-five years ago, Richard John Neuhaus supposed in a much-discussed book that Americans wanted to hear other Americans sounding religious, and identifying with specific religious teachings, in an otherwise “naked” public square—and, by implication, that they may have longed for the openness to sound religious themselves. That was why Christian Right politics was on the rise, he said.  If Neuhaus was right then, we could infer from the findings on nones that his argument no longer applies so easily to a growing swath of Americans. We can’t know exactly what the survey results mean yet, and what the two-decades-long trend does or will amount to, but here are some starting points that get us beyond both Tocquevillian celebrations and Tocquevillian forebodings.

Religion scholars have said for quite awhile that just as Americans have become increasingly singularized agents since Tocqueville’s day, religion in the American mainstream has become more personalized, especially in the last several decades. Students of contemporary spirituality know there is more than a germ of insight in mid-century sociologists’ hunch that the future’s religion would have to survive without collective, institutional moorings. Personalized religion may be able to dispatch with even the broadest categories of affiliation—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist. Maybe the rise of none-hood reflects a larger move toward de-centered social relations, personal nodes, and shifting networks—the Facebook society. Are the nones giving up anything when they give up conventional religious affiliations?

For some Americans even today, religious affiliation and the language that goes with it locates people, helps us place them on some social or moral map. That is not to say we always trust people when we know where they are coming from. Sometimes the public fact of religious affiliation—the reputation of religion—does work the way Tocqueville surmised, as a badge of trust. In one alliance of churches I observed up close in a Midwestern city, middle-class churchgoers used religious language to talk about the public health nurse they wanted to fund for a low-income neighborhood where relatively few people could afford doctors. It was not that they wanted to proselytize their neighbors; rather, they wanted to signal with quietly religious language that they had decent motives, a sense of collective responsibility.

In the same city, a pastor’s coalition against racism nearly broke apart over religion’s reputation. The clergy agreed easily that their beliefs told them that racism is wrong. The trouble was that in this largely Protestant coalition, mainliners wanted to be known as anti-racist first while evangelicals wanted to be known as Christian first, and each side suspected the other of being less than fully committed to what they took to be the true cause. At stake was not religious belief but conflicting ideas about the proper reputation of religion in their town, the social fact of being religious in public.  Members of yet another church-based alliance, a small network of social activists, told me that they did not use religious terms to describe their group’s opposition to capital punishment or welfare policy reforms because “that’s how fundamentalists talk.” People use religious identity to locate people, for better or worse; and for some Americans, sounding religious means being rigid, closed-minded.

Maybe it is no wonder that some Americans want to disaffiliate, to step off the map of religious identities altogether. If conservative Christian politicians and commentators hoped to clear the public fray of less orthodox believers and to claim the very reputation of religion for themselves, then this may be evidence that they have been succeeding, and in some Americans’ eyes, religion’s reputation really may have suffered and declined. In that case, we need to think a lot more about how public life changes if, when Americans are asked to think about religious affiliations in general, theological conservatism increasingly comes to mind. Those myriad, religiously based community service efforts that Tocquevillians prize may be harder to see for what they are—and are not—if they are obscured by a growing sense that religious people out there mostly are theological and political conservatives pursuing hot-button, polarizing issues.

We don’t know what Americans tapped by the ARIS “really believe” in their hearts. We don’t know how much they know about any of the religions or denominations they theoretically could have chosen to affiliate with. We know what they said when asked what religious category, if any, they identified with. In the American context, the act of telling a stranger that one has no religious preference is itself fascinating. It calls for more study and interpretation before we can say what it means for society, democracy, or the future of religion.