Friday, April 16, 2021

Data on the Non-Religious in the US

Three recent surveys have put the number of people in the US with no religion as 21%, 25%, and 32%. The usual explanation for the broad spread is that people are still sorting out how they feel about religion, so their answer is quite sensitive to how the question is asked. The Cooperative Election Study offered respondents three separate possibilities: atheist, agnostic, and "nothing in particular." It fascinates me that "nothing in particular" was one of the most common responses at 21%, about the same as Catholic or Evangelical. (Atheist got  6%, Agnostic 5%) This suggests to me that the majority of "nones", as pollsters call them, are people who just never think about religion at all.

You might think that the decline is focused in young people, especially young liberals, but that is not so; faith is declining is every ethnic, age, economic and political category. Pew's data looks like this:

The decline over the last decade in the share of Black (-11 percentage points) and Hispanic adults (-10 points) who are Christians is very similar to the decline among white adults (-12 points). The number of college graduates leaving the faith (-13 points) is similar to those without degrees (-11 points). The decline in organized religion is indeed much bigger among Democrats (-17 points) than Republicans (-7 points) and among Millennials (-16 points) compared to Baby Boomers (-6 points), but the trend is very broad.

The CES survey (remember they found the largest percentage of "nones") shows even less variation across these groups, and in particular almost identical declines in every age group.

None of these surveys finds any evidence that the decline is slowing; CES finds it accelerating, with numbers that make "nones" the majority in a decade. Gallup just reported that less than half of Americans belong to a religious congregation of any sort, for the first time ever, so maybe that makes sense. There is plenty of data showing that faith fades rapidly among those who have no religious affiliation.

As to where this will take us, I think we can already see. The right wing will become less traditionalist and more nationalist, or Trumpist. For a decade at least Republicans will continue to support "religious freedom" to keep Evangelical votes, but what happens after that is unclear to me; a split between tough-guy nationalists and people who believe in faith and old-fashioned ("classical") education seems plausible.

Meanwhile religion's substitutes will continue to appeal very broadly but especially on the left: anti-racist wokeness is one powerful version, and various groups are trying to make longing for a Revolution another. 

The one thing I do not think will happen is that a decline in religiosity will lead to a major increase in rationality. Or happiness.


David said...

I think many, many people will continue to be fascinated by by paranormal phenomena, in fiction and rumor. Many people want parousia, not philosophy.

G. Verloren said...

The one thing I do not think will happen is that a decline in religiosity will lead to a major increase in rationality. Or happiness.

Rationality doesn't preclude religion and vice versa, since you can be perfectly logical and arrive at a totally rational conclusion based on certain givens, and only be wrong because your givens themselves are wrong. Lots of religious people are highly rational, they just aren't quite empirical - because they operate off base assumptions for which we lack evidence to either prove or disprove them.

As for increases in happiness, that's a definitional mire - "happiness" is not one thing, and it's certainly not easy to measure. Responses will quite obviously vary tremendously with who you ask; how self perceptive they are (our selection bias means we tend to remember the things that make us unhappy but tend to overlook the ones that truly bring us joy and wellbeing);and how people conceptualize of their own happiness and the language they choose to self report with.

If you ask an "ordinary" person in the street, they may not claim to be any more or less happy after losing their religiosity - but if you ask a homosexual who grew up in a repressive and hate filled religious community if they are happier having left it and their religiosity behind, you're very likely to find an utterly massive increase in reported happiness - not only because they genuinely ARE much happier, but also because they've put a lot of thought into understanding their own mental state, as well as effort into learning concepts and terms which can describe it.

For myself... well... perhaps it's mere coincidence that the era of greatest human achievement and overall prosperity thus far lines up with the greatest decline in religiosity ever known; and perhaps it's also a coincidence that the "Dark Ages" of the past lined up with the periods of perhaps the most intense religiosity ever known... but frankly I won't be sorry to see religiosity decline to the point of irrelevance, and tend to feel it will be a net positive.

There's enough wrong with the world already without giving people a source of faith based "evidence-immune" justifications for awful behaviors and treatment of others. That's not to say that they won't turn to other forms of justification instead, but it will at least strip away the veneer of legitimacy. Flat earthers, for example, aren't given massive tax breaks and other special rights and privileges; aren't courted by politicians because as a valuable base of voters with massively outsized influence far beyond their mere numbers; etc.

G. Verloren said...

Typo - "selection bias" should read "confirmation bias".