America is not a secularized country. But the relative decline of institutional religion has public consequences. While the number of the devout has remained steady, fewer of those in the religious middle identify with the organizations and values of the devout. What we are seeing, according to Luis Lugo of Pew, is not “secularization but polarization.” Institutional religion has gained a larger body of critics. …

But the main tension is emerging between the parties. Religious conservatives remain the largest constituency within the Republican Party. So America is moving in the direction of having one secular party and one religious party, bringing polarization to a new level of intensity. This is movement in the direction of Europe, which has been cursed by the conflict between anticlerical parties and religious parties. For America, this could be a dangerous source of social division, with each side viewing the other as theocrats or pagans. There is no contempt like the contempt of the true believer or the militant skeptic.

Those cheering the trend of religious disaffiliation should consider some broader social consequences. The rise of the nones is symptomatic of the decline of many forms of belonging. According to Pew, all of the recent growth in the nones has come among those who are not married. This indicates a group of people distrustful of institutions, with marriage being the most basic of institutions. The unaffiliated donate less to charity than do the affiliated. They participate in fewer volunteer organizations. Individualism can easily become atomization. Whatever else you may think of the communitarian creeds, they help create community.