Are Americans becoming less religious?


Over the past two decades, sociologists have identified a rise of the so-called “nones” in American society — people who declare they have no religious identification. According to Gallup research, in 2012 the share of Americans who do not associate themselves with any particular religion reached 17.8 percent.

On Aug. 8, Pew Research Center gathered researchers to explain the trend and its meaning. Who are the nones? To be sure, among them are ardent atheists and hesitant agnostics; those who pray and yet are not interested in any of the existing religious institutions.

Frank Newport, Ph.D., Gallup’s editor-in-chief, stands by the title of his book: God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America. He concedes that “on some indicators Americans are becoming less religious. One of the key indicators is the percentage of those who have no religious identification [nones].”

“But,” he continues, “there are other indicators that are not moving that much — people who attend churches, or say they believe in God — are not moving dramatically. So it depends what indicators you are looking at. I would say, based on my analysis that yes, there is a general trend toward Americans becoming less religious — particularly from the 1950s — but it’s not as big as some people might think.”

Newport says numbers simply reflect the reality that those who haven’t been religious in the first place, now just feel more comfortable in admitting it.

Greg Smith, director of U.S. religion surveys at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life project, says that in the past, respondents didn’t have many options to state the absence of their religious affiliation. “People could add it themselves, but in 2007 we started providing them with answer options, such as “atheist,” “agnostic,” “nothing particular” — and the numbers of ‘nones’ climbed up.”

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-authored the 2002 paper about the number of “nones” rising from 7 percent in the 1990s to 19 percent in 2012, says that American society is still more religious today than 100 years ago. Part of it has to do with the change in the atmosphere. During the Cold War, holding religious values could be associated with being an American, as opposed to the atheist Communist society. Another factor is the disenchantment with religious institutions.

“It doesn’t look like Americans are becoming less religious, but a large portion of Americans are becoming alienated from the formal organized religious institutions, and that division is becoming evident,” he says. “I believe that the major reason is that a large segment of the population finds political mobilization of the church so offensive that when they are asked: ‘Do you have a religion?’ they choose to say, not for me. Should it alarm us? People who believe religion is an important part of American society and religious institutions are an important part of American society — well, they have to think down the road about more and more people, who refuse to even be nominally, pro forma, be affiliated with religion. It makes it harder for these institutions to survive.”

His colleague Michael Hout, professor of sociology at New York University, says that “60 percent of the trend” is explained by generational change. “God is alive and well, but churches have a problem,” he says. According to the scholar, this group of “nones,” mostly identifying themselves with liberal views, demonstrates detachment in various areas. Many do not necessarily read newspapers or bother to vote, although if they do, they tend to vote for Democrats.

The event’s participants didn’t necessarily agree on what denomination loses most people to “nones” (some said it’s the Protestants, others the Catholics, since more than a third of Americans were raised as Catholics, yet today only about 25 percent declare themselves as such).

An interesting question was raised during the discussion about possible connection between interfaith marriages — and the reluctance of the kids who grew up in mixed families to associate themselves with any particular religion. Dr. Erika Seamon, Georgetown University scholar and author of the book Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity, says there is a growing number of interfaith families practicing multiple religions who do not necessarily fit in any of the boxes offered to them by the pollsters.

“One of the challenges the Jewish community as well as other communities are facing is that not only individuals, but couples and families do not fit within boxes that are made for us,” she said. “What I found in my work on interfaith marriages is that there are individuals who are practicing through marriages and educating their children in multiple religions, living these hybrid religious lives. In one case, a woman that I spoke to lights Shabbat candles on her own, her husband takes the kids to church on Sunday, and at night they do Jewish prayers and Christian prayers. I don’t know what type of box this family would check. To label someone who practices multiple religions as ‘no preference’ is a  misnomer.”

Seamon argues new language and new categories are needed, and obviously, it’s a challenge not only for pollsters, but for the religious institutions as well.

“There is tremendous upheaval in terms of whether religious institutions can retain these families,” Seamon says. “Interfaith marriage has been a challenge in the Jewish community for decades, what is new is that in the past, if you married a Catholic or Protestant, [the couple] would pick one tradition to raise the kids — join a synagogue or default to the Christian religion. Today, interfaith families no longer have pressure to affiliate with any religious institution, and it’s not clear whether they are going to affiliate at all.”

What is clear, she adds, is that today these families indeed feel more comfortable with exposing their kids to different religious traditions, without the fear of confusing them.

“That’s a very new dynamic. Couples are embracing the notion that religion is one path to God, and exposure to multiple religions is actually beneficial for their children. It’s very different from the angst those couples experienced decades ago.”

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