Pew Research Center digs into why more and more people are not affiliating with particular religions.
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For years, there have been reports on the rising number of “nones” in America: people who check the box next to “none of the above” for a question about their religion.
Now, the Pew Research Center has begun to ask why nones are unaffiliated with any particular religion.
“Why America’s ‘nones’ don’t identify with a religion,” published August 8, found that the most common reason nones give is that they question a lot of religious teachings.
“Six-in-ten religiously unaffiliated Americans—adults who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’—say the questioning of religious teachings is a very important reason for their lack of affiliation,” the study reported. “The second-most-common reason is opposition to the positions taken by churches on social and political issues, cited by 49% of respondents (the survey asked about each of the six options separately). Smaller, but still substantial, shares say they dislike religious organizations (41%), don’t believe in God (37%), consider religion irrelevant to them (36%) or dislike religious leaders (34%).”
The findings were based on a representative sample of more than 1,300 “nones.” It reported further:
Those who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” tend to give different reasons for their lack of affiliation, showing that “nones” are far from a monolithic group. For example, about nine-in-ten self-described atheists (89%) say their lack of belief in God is a very important reason for their religious identity, compared with 37% of agnostics and 21% of those in the “nothing in particular” category. Atheists also are more likely than other “nones” to say religion is simply “irrelevant” to them (63% of atheists vs. 40% of agnostics and 26% of adults with no particular religion).
William D. Dinges, who has been writing about Catholic disaffiliation for some time, is teaching a graduate seminar at the Catholic University of America this fall on nones and religious disaffiliates. He said in an interview that in the 1980s and 1990s, when the phenomenon of “nones” began to appear, they were predominantly what would be termed “spiritual but not religious.”
“They were in that kind of seeker modality,” said Dinges, Ordinary Professor of Religious Studies in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at CUA. “They weren’t conventionally religious but were kind of looking for something. And what I’ve noticed in the Pew data and other places, such as a recent study in Canada of religious trends, what we’re seeing is an increase in the number of people who see themselves as atheists, in other words, that this is not just a matter of ‘I don’t go to church but I still believe.’ We’re seeing a slow increase in the number of people who say that they simply question religious teaching or ‘I don’t believe that stuff anymore.’ Or another way this comes off is ‘I believe in science.'”
But in order to truly be an atheist, it takes a “certain level of intellectual sophistication in order to work out a philosophical repudiation of theism,” Dinges argued. Most nones are “at a point in their life where metaphysically they’re not capable of working out a repudiation of theism.
“So in that sense, you have to ask yourself what do they mean when they claim atheism,” he continued. “I think more often than not it’s not metaphysical atheism but what I’d call a kind of practical atheism, that is to say, they have certain conventional notions about the idea of God and so forth, and then bad things happen, … and they don’t have any kind of a sense that this image they had of God is somehow or other relevant to that, or it’s failed them in some way. I think that that’s probably more likely what’s feeding this claim to be atheist.”
Dinges suggested too that the so-called “New Atheism” of authors like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins has “had a certain influence at the level of popular culture. They lend a certain kind of resectability to claim one’s an atheist.”
Tricia C. Bruce, Associate Professor of Sociology at Maryville College in Tennessee, however, sees that many nones are still spiritual.
“One thing about the nones that’s interesting is that there are a lot of ironies or contradictions,” Bruce said in an interview. “For example, a lot of folks claim no religious affiliation but nonetheless believe in God or pray vigorously or even participate in a religious community. But they nonetheless have this hesitancy to take on a religious label, so I think part of the study is trying to help understand what’s behind that.”
She finds it interesting that stigmas around religious labeling has changed over time. “In the 1950s, people might have had doubts internally, but “it was considered more culturally acceptable or even expected to nonetheless identify as whatever your religious tradition is,” she said. “So people who had doubts would say ‘Well, I’m a Baptist,’ or ‘I’m a Catholic.’ Today … there’s this new space where people feel comfortable saying ‘I’m nothing in particular’ or I don’t believe or I don’t affiliate.”
Dinges pointed out that nones are the fastest growing “religious” demographic in American society today. “In my mind, this is something that is not going to go away. It’s a serious and important cultural transformation that’s taking place, and this is obviously not a time when institutions like the Catholic Church can afford these shameful public sexual abuse hierarchical malfeasance crisis. It’s a perfect storm,” he said.
Is the sex abuse scandal contributing to the rise of the nones? Dinges said that while there isn’t yet a lot of evidence of that correlation, the scandals are probably pushing out people “who were already on the edge.”
The Pew study came out just before the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse and coverup in six of the state’s dioceses.
“It’s just horrific,” he commented, “and I suspect it’s going to have an even more pronounced effect.”