The most rapidly growing religious category today is composed of those Americans who say they have no religious affiliation. While middle-aged and older Americans continue to embrace organized religion, rapidly increasing numbers of young people are rejecting it.
As recently as 1990, all but 7% of Americans claimed a religious affiliation, a figure that had held constant for decades. Today, 17% of Americans say they have no religion, and these new "nones" are very heavily concentrated among Americans who have come of age since 1990. Between 25% and 30% of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.
So, why this sudden jump in youthful disaffection from organized religion? The surprising answer, according to a mounting body of evidence, is politics. Very few of these new "nones" actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics.
On the one hand, I can't complain about anyone "walking away from church." And certainly it's a good thing when young people reject the loony right-wing political views now considered "conservative politics."
However, young people always tend to be less traditional than their elders, for obvious reasons. And this is especially true with social issues. For example, even today's conservatives don't promote racial segregation. Thus, they tend to be more "liberal" about racial issues than their right-wing parents were, who also tended to be more liberal than their parents. Our nation does move forward, if hesitantly.
Furthermore, if this article is correct, young people aren't becoming more skeptical of supernatural claims. They may be "unaffiliated" with a church, but they don't seem to be recognizing the fundamental error in religious belief, that it's not backed by good evidence. So, as this article itself suggests, they're still susceptible to just believing whatever feels good:
To be sure, some of these young people will remain secularists. Many of them, however, espouse beliefs that would seem to make them potential converts to a religion that offered some of the attractions of modern evangelicalism without the conservative political overlay.
Perhaps I'm just feeling pessimistic (reasonable enough these days, don't you think?), but I'm not getting my hopes up. If you don't understand what skepticism is and why it makes sense, if you don't understand why and how the scientific method works, if you're just walking away from right-wing religion because you want to believe something else, you'll always be susceptible to the kind of errors that religious belief typifies.
And young people - uncertain about the direction of their lives and really wanting to belong - seem to be especially susceptible to cults and similar kinds of belief systems. For example, in that Journey to Atheism video series I blogged about earlier, the young woman wasn't born into that Pentecostal church but joined it in college. It's not uncommon. Unless you understand how very easy it is to believe what we really want to believe, you can easily step into such snares.
But, as I say, I can't be too upset about this news. I've been waiting and waiting for a political backlash to recent lunacy, and although that doesn't seem to be happening with adults (please explain that, if you can, because I certainly don't understand it), maybe the long-term situation is more promising:
Evangelical Protestantism, which saw dramatic growth in the 1970s and 1980s, has been hit hard by this more recent development. From the early 1970s to the late 1980s the fraction of Americans age 18 to 29 who identified with evangelical Protestantism rose to 25% from 20%, but since 1990, that fraction has fallen back to about 17%. Meanwhile, the proportion of young Americans who have no religious affiliation at all rose from just over 10% as late as 1990 to its current proportion of about 27%.
Evangelical Protestantism has been hit hard? Gee, that's a shame, isn't it? As I say, I can't complain about that! (Although, I must say that 17% is still far too high.) Maybe I'm just being too pessimistic. We atheists are finally starting to come out of the closet. We're starting to get noticed. And we're even developing communities online. So maybe atheism will start to seem like a reasonable alternative to more people. Note that the gay movement should give us all hope. It's been a model of how hard work, dedicated activism, and personal risk-taking can rapidly change minds.
And regardless of what this portends for atheism, I thought the basic idea behind this article was fascinating. I guess I've always assumed that conservative religious belief led to right-wing politics. But what if it's the other way around? What if, instead, right-wing political belief leads to conservative churches? Would more liberal social and political attitudes, then, finally lead us away from religion?
This political "God gap" is a recent development. Up until the 1970s, progressive Democrats were common in church pews and many conservative Republicans didn't attend church. But after 1980, both churchgoing progressives and secular conservatives became rarer and rarer. Some Americans brought their religion and their politics into alignment by adjusting their political views to their religious faith. But, surprisingly, more of them adjusted their religion to fit their politics. [my emphasis]
Just as this generation moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many prominent religious leaders moved to the right, using the issue of same-sex marriage to mobilize electoral support for conservative Republicans. In the short run, this tactic worked to increase GOP turnout, but the subsequent backlash undermined sympathy for religion among many young moderates and progressives. Increasingly, young people saw religion as intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic. If being religious entailed political conservatism, they concluded, religion was not for them.
Most Democrats are Christians, of course, just like most Republicans. They're just much more tolerant of diversity than Republicans. (What an understatement, huh?) But Democratic politicians are always terrified of seeming to be less god-ridden than their opponents. OMG, what if I'm accused of being unchristian??? Well, Democratic politicians tend to be terrified of everything. It's hard to imagine a more timid bunch of people.
But what if their assumptions are completely backward? What if religion and politics are correlated, but in exactly the opposite direction from what they've assumed? What if most Americans will change their religious beliefs to match their political beliefs, rather than the other way around? It's an interesting idea, isn't it?
Let's think about the political implications of this. No, this is not about promoting atheism in our political system. Of course not! The opposite of the religious-drenched politics of the right is not left-leaning atheism. It's freedom of religion and the complete separation of church and state. And that just happens to be enshrined in our Constitution, too. Imagine that!
And maybe, just maybe, liberal politicians can stand up firmly for the separation of church and state without losing support among religious believers. Yeah, sure, that has always been traditional in American politics - among both parties, in fact - until just recently. So it's hardly a stretch, is it? But perhaps cowardly Democrats can get over their fear and actually stand up for what they believe, without fearing that they'll be punished at the polls. (Personally, I'd be more likely to vote for a courageous politician, but perhaps that's just me.)
Interesting idea, isn't it?