The annual Pew Research Center released their annual survey an religion and public life in America the other day, and it had some mildly encouraging news for us seculars. The number of Americans willing to state that they have no religious affiliation stands at 19.6%, up sharply from 2007, when it was about 15.2%. Even more encouraging, the number of people willing to admit to be atheist has jumped from 1.6% to 2.4% and admitted agnostics from 2.1% to 3.3%.
Religiously unaffiliated doesn't necessarily mean secular, although a case can be made for “leaning secular”. About 90% of them say they attend church once a year or more, but only 2% claim to attend on a weekly basis. About one in three unaffilateds affirm the existence of a god, a similar number consider it likely or probable, and 30% say there is no God. And yes, that exceeds the number of professed agnostics and atheists combined.
There's two percent of the population who don't know if they are religious or not, and I doubt there's any faction in America who would claim them as allies. It's a bit like encountering a person who doesn't have an opinion on cats: you might want to ask how that is possible, but stop, realizing that there is no answer that is going to be interesting or anything you can relate to.
Christianity saw a fairly sharp decline, with 73% of the population declaring themselves to be Christian, compared to 78% in 2007. Somewhat surprisingly, the drop occurred nearly entirely among Protestants, with the decline spread evenly between evangelicals and mainstream Protestants. Despite all the horrific scandals and Vatican meddling in American politics of recent years, Catholic affiliation levels remained static.
The decline isn't homogenous by demographic, either. For example, 24% of Democrats are unaffiliated. Thirty-four percent of Americans born after 1990 were unaffiliated, compared with just 5% of those born before 1924. The greatest rise, unsurprisingly, was among the young.
The decline began in 2001, which coincided with the Republican coup d'etat and the terrorist attacks in New York City, and it wouldn't be amiss to surmise that those two event have at least some influence on American religiosity.
Religious fervor is on the decline, as well. In 2007 61% said religion was very important in their lives; it has dropped to 58%. The number willing to admit they sometimes doubt the existence of God fell from 88% in 2002 to 80% now.
This comes at a time when a number of the more rabid evangelical churches have effectively declared war on the doctrine of separation of church and state, and more and more of them are running for public office. Some are spouting absurdities as they do so, not just their usual loony-toons crap about evolution and climate change, but such things as a woman who is raped cannot conceive unless she actually wants the baby, and that children who disobey their parents should be executed. Some of these same people warn against a vast Moslem conspiracy to impose Sharia Law in America, apparently unaware of the fact that Sharia Law is just Mosaic Law, the same adhered to by ultra-Orthodox Jews and which Protestant fundamentalists like to quote when inveighing against witches, gays, or World of Warcrafters. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch, or Jewish Torah, and the basis of Sharia Law.
The nuts may be getting noisier and more dangerous, but among Americans, they are losing ground, doing their religions more damage than even pedophile priests can manage.
There are a few other interesting variations in the level of secularism. Twenty-three percent of men are unaffiliated, compared to seventeen percent of women. Moderates and liberals have the same level of religiosity, sharply above that of conservatives.
One BIG difference: unaffiliated was only 14% among married people, 24% amongst unmarried. Insert joke here about how the right spouse can drive anyone to Jesus or drink.
Oddly, religious affiliation didn't significantly rise or fall based on income levels or education. Not surprisingly, the South is the most religious part of the country, the West the least.
Perhaps the most encouraging bit of news in the survey was negative views held of churches. People tend strongly to be critical, rather than hostile, and the three most common complaints about churches among the general population are that they are “too concerned with money and power” (51%), “focus too much on rules” (51%), and are “too involved with politics (46%). The numbers are above 2/3rds among unaffiliated, as one might expect, but are surprisingly strong among affiliateds: 47% on each of the first two criticisms, and 41% on the separation issue.
Unaffiliateds had praise for churches, as well. Nearly 4 in 5 agreed that churches “bring people together/strengthen community bonds” and “play important role in helping poor and needy”, but only half (52%) saw them actually doing anything to improve anyone's morals.
A favorite gambit among religionists is to accuse non-believers of pursuing other sometimes oddball beliefs, such as astrology or ghostchasing. In reality, numbers of unaffiliateds who are into such things tend to be fairly low, between 15 and 25 percent. Nor are seculars necessarily non-spiritual; 58% report “feeling a deep connection with nature and the earth”. Such numbers are about the same amongst affiliateds, it should be noted.
Party affiliation is becoming more sharply polarized. In 2000, 61% of unaffiliateds voted for for
Al Gore, compared to 30% for Bush. In 2008, 75% voted for Obama, 23% for McCain. However, this doesn't translate to general party affiliations, which have seen little change since 2007.
So if some Dominionist tells you that America is ready to kneel before the throne of Jesus, don't believe him. American Christians may believe they belong to Jesus, but they don't believe America does, And more Americans are willing to assert that they are freethinkers.
Posted: October 14, 2012