Mar 18, 2013

Religiously unaffiliated now at 20%

One wonders: What happened in 1988?

A new survey, done by the University of Chicago and analyzed by sociologists from UC Berkeley and Duke, puts the religiously unaffiliated at 20 percent of the American population. Atheists, meanwhile, come in at about 3 percent, and don't seem to be growing.  

Elizabeth Drescrer writes:
The report makes clear that the trend away from affiliation with organized religion is not an indication of declining religious belief. They write that “conventional religious belief, typified by belief in God, remains very widespread—59 percent of Americans believe in God without any doubt,” adding that, “Atheism is barely growing,” with 1% in 1962 and 3% in 2012 indicating no belief in God.
Also interesting: even though we've now seen two decades of rapidly growing disaffiliation, the number of those raised outside of religious organizations is still very, very small. Only 8 percent say they were raised without religion. This could be connected to fact that people tend to get more religious when they have children. David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam point this out in American Grace. For each generation since the '60s, religious affiliation has increased at about the time that generation has children. 

For those who came of age in the '60s, for example, about 12 percent said they had no religious preference in the mid-'70s. By 1985, though, that number had dropped to about 8 percent. In fact, that generations' irreligion only rose again in the early 2000s, around the time their children came of age. By the end of the 2000s, the generation that came of age in the '60s was again as likely to profess no religious preference as they had been in the mid-'70s. That trend holds for each successive generation. For those who came of age in the 2000s, for example, irreligion spikes in the first few years of the millennium (possibly for historical reasons, rather than generational ones) to the point that 30 percent said they didn't have a religious preference. But then that number drops. By the late 2000s, 25 percent say they have no religious preference. They're still, of course, a lot less religious than previous generations, but it seems that even a lot of that 25 percent will raise their children with a religious preference. 

All the normal caveats about misinterpreting and over-interpreting this data from this new study apply. What we might be looking at, here, is the waning usefulness of the term "religion."

The question asked, specifically, was: "What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?" That's slightly different that the question asked by Pew, and the difference in the phrasing of the question could account for the difference in answers. 


  1. "One wonders: What happened in 1988?"

    Interesting question. First hypothesis: Could be that the end of the Cold War, and the removal of the atheist enemy/competitor, made it easier for Americans in general to drift away from politico-theological prior commitments. Presumably other factors were also involved, of course, possibly in some synergetic interrelationship. Interesting that the upward slope seems to have stalled around the year 2000, temporarily reversed just after 9/11 and during initiation of the "War on Terror," then re-accelerated through the end of the Bush years and the dawning of the "Age of Obama."

  2. That's an interesting theory.

    The mid '80s was also the first time when the Catholic sex abuse scandal became public.

  3. We're scratching our heads about this one over at my blog, too. Isn't there some, any conventional sociological or other explanation for the specific phenomenon in the U.S. - that could be related to the apparent point of inflection in the survey? Interesting also, as we've discussed before, that the Nones are generally unaffiliated theists, not professing atheists.

  4. There's nothing like a clear consensus that I know of. Many of the explanations I know of are really begging the question. For example, people are said to not be joining religious organizations because they're now spiritual-but-not-religious. But that's just what spiritual-but-not-religious means. Other explanations (including my own) lack clarity, and seem to be amalgamations of issues and tend towards descriptions rather than explanations.

    One major work on this question of a shift is Habits of the Heart, by Robert Bellah et al. I haven't gotten to it yet, though.