Pew study: One in five American adults now have no religious affiliation

It’s a steep climb to respectability, but at the rate we’re going, I think America might be ready for an atheist president within, oh, another hundred years or so.

Openly atheist president, I mean. You-know-who doesn’t count.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%)…

However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

Click the link and start scrolling, as there’s plenty of tasty data to digest. Most unaffiliateds aren’t atheists but neither are they “seekers,” as believers often assume about the nonreligious crowd: Fully 88% of those who say their faith is “nothing in particular” aren’t looking for a religion that’s right for them. This is interesting too:

Five years ago, 38 percent of people who rarely attended services copped to having no religious affiliation. Today it’s 11 points higher. That suggests a change not so much in behavior as in people’s willingness to identify as unaffiliated, which, I suspect, is one legacy of Hitchens, Dawkins, and the capital-A Atheism identity movement. The more publicly acceptable professions of disbelief become, the more comfortable marginal members of a church will be in calling themselves unaffiliated. I’ve seen that happen among people I know, although there seems to be a generational divide: Younger friends who never go to church drift into unaffiliated-ness whereas older ones who never go to church still consider themselves nominally members of the faith. There’s a generational divide in Pew’s data here too, with 34 percent(!) of 18-22 year olds calling themselves unaffiliated versus 15 percent or less of people born before 1964 calling themselves that. Although it seems that has less to do with comparative reluctance in openly identifying that way than it does with more fundamental disagreements over values:

The new Pew Research Center/Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly survey contains some data that can be seen as consistent with this hypothesis. The survey finds that the unaffiliated are concentrated among younger adults, political liberals and people who take liberal positions on same-sex marriage. In addition, two-thirds or more of the unaffiliated say that churches and other religious institutions are too concerned with money and power (70%) and too involved in politics (67%); these views are significantly more common among the unaffiliated than they are in the general public.

That’s the “political backlash” theory of declining religious affiliation; follow the last link for three more. As for the inevitable partisan split, behold:

Unaffiliateds are now the second-biggest religious demographic in the Democratic Party, ahead even of Catholics. Among the total electorate, they split 63/26 between Democrats and the GOP, although 75 percent of them broke for Obama in 2008. They’re significantly more likely to say they’re pro-choice and pro-gay marriage than the American public at large. That’s something to keep an eye on in the years ahead as the parties’ demographic bases evolve. Are we headed to a true “GOP is the religious party, Democrats are the secular party” dynamic? Even more so than now, I mean.

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David Strom 2:31 PM on October 04, 2022
David Strom 1:31 PM on October 04, 2022