Culture warriors on the left and right would be wise to carefully examine a new survey from the Pew Research Center showing that a growing number of Americans are moving away from religious labels.
The study, titled “Nones” on the Rise, indicates that one in five Americans now identifies as “religiously unaffiliated,” a group that includes those who say they have no particular religion, as well as atheists and agnostics.
Perhaps more instructive is a close look at the age breakdown: if you’re under 30, there’s a one-in-three chance that religion plays little or no role in your life, according to the survey.
“This finding and the growth of this group has very real political consequences and political implications,” says Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life and a co-author of the study.
“It’s heavily Democratic,” he says.
Smith points out that in each of the last three presidential elections, big majorities of the religiously unaffiliated voted for the Democratic candidate. In 2008, as many of the unaffiliated went for Obama as evangelical Christians went for John McCain.
“The ‘nones’ are a very politically cohesive group,” he says.
Some 63 percent of them identify as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democrats; only 26 percent identify as Republicans or lean that way. Most of them call themselves moderate or liberal and only 20 percent say they are conservative.
Beyond that, this group seldom or never attends worship services or prays, is more likely to have at least some college and is roughly split between those who come themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ (37 percent) and those who say they are ‘neither spiritual nor religious’ (42 percent).
“One of the ways that the religiously unaffiliated are most distinctive is with their views on things such as same-sex marriage and abortion,” Smith says.
“The religiously unaffiliated tend to be quite liberal in their views on those kinds of issues,” he says. “About three-quarters of them say that abortion should be legal in all cases. A similar number favor same-sex couples to marry.”
What’s more, there’s little evidence to show that “generational cohorts” tend to become more religious as they get older, Smith says. So today’s young nones are likely to stay that way.
Ann Duncan, an assistant professor of religion at Goucher College in Baltimore, agrees that “younger voters in particular are frustrated with the failure or refusal of traditional denominations to change with the times and embrace broader ideas on marriage and the environment, for example.”
Duncan believes the growing number of unaffiliated, along with the infusion of religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism from Asian immigrants, will cause increasing political polarization in the short term.
“It’s terrifying to a portion of the population that views the United States as a Christian nation,” she says. “There is a certain segment that will see this as a sort of call to arms and a sign that it’s time to step things up and to really assert a Christian identity for the nation.”
The Pew study doesn’t say what is driving the gap, but David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, thinks he knows.
“There is considerable evidence suggesting that the ‘nones’ have actually been caused by politics,” says Campbell, co-author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. “Many people have pulled away from the religious label due to the mingling of religion and conservative politics.”
The unaffiliated, atheists and agnostics, while growing, still comprise the smallest groups measured in the survey. And, as a whole, many Americans are still uncomfortable with the idea of a president who doesn’t believe in a deity. In a Gallup survey conducted earlier this year, barely half of those polled said they would be willing to support an atheist in the White House. That’s an increase from 40 percent in 1978, but still ranks at the bottom of a fill-in-the-blank list behind a gay or Muslim president. Currently, there is just one member of Congress, Rep. Pete Stark (D, Calif.), who says he does not believe in a Supreme Being.
Duncan sees a challenge in the new numbers for both sides of the political divide.
The GOP need to avoid polarizing language and “to show that there is a door wide enough for folks who have a more nuanced religious perspective,” she says.
Democrats, she says, need to realize that religion “is not the exclusive purview of the right.”