Why Are Americans Becoming More Willing to Say They Don’t Belong to a Religious Tradition?

I don’t think we really know the exact answer. It’s easier to establish the fact of the trend than to say why it’s happening. It does seem to be the case that religiously inactive people are more likely to say “none” if asked today rather than several decades ago, “What’s your religion?”

It seems to be more of an identity shift than a behavioral shift. I don’t think it’s that more religiously active people, or the very religiously active people, are now saying they have no religion. I think it’s mainly a shift among the most religiously inactive people in whether or not they still think of themselves as connected to a religious group or not.

One thing that is interesting about this is that the proportion of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has been rising for a long time. In the 1950s, only 3 percent of Americans said they had no religion affiliation. Today, it’s about 18 percent. This increase probably reflects a growing willingness among the least religious people to say that they have no religion as well as a decline in meaningful attachments to religious traditions.

But it hasn’t been going up in a straight line. The trend seems to have accelerated since 1990; it has gone up faster from 1990 to today than it did from 1950 to 1990. The question is: Why? What happened in the 1990s that changed the rate of increase?

Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, sociologists at the University of California, Berkeley, claim—and I think they are basically right— that it is part of the reaction to the religious right’s rising visibility in the 1980s. That is, before 1990, people who were raised, say, Catholic or Baptist, but were socially and politically liberal and already religiously inactive, would still be comfortable enough with their religious background to tell a pollster they were Catholic or Baptist. And then they saw all this conservative politics happening in the name of religion, in the name of their own religion maybe, and said, “You know what, I’m not that.” It pushed them across the line. They were less comfortable affiliating with the religion in which they were raised. Now, they are more likely to respond to a religious preference question by saying “none” because that is a way to say, “I’m not like them.” Again, we’re talking about the most religiously inactive people anyway. That’s one hypothesis for at least part of the trend.

It’s not the whole story because the trend was increasing before the 1990s. Another aspect of the trend is that there’s a big generational component, meaning younger people are more likely than older people to say they have no religion. And each successive generation seems a little more likely to say that than the one before. So it’s not just people who used to say they had some religion who stopped saying it; it’s that young people today are saying they have no religion at higher rates than young people before them. One reason is that people who are raised without religion are more likely than they used to be to stay without religion as adults, and more and more kids now grow up in religiously inactive households.

It’s also important to recognize that what we’re talking about here is the answer to a very specific question. What we’re talking about is an increase in the percentage of people who say “none” when asked what their religious preference is. So it’s really very specific. It is not asking people what they believe in general or whether they believe in God in particular. It is not asking them about whether they attend religious services. It is not asking them how important religion is in their lives. Indeed, in 2008, 22 percent of people who said they have no religion still said that they know God exists, and 5 percent said they attend religious services at least monthly. People’s answers to the religious preference question tell us nothing else directly about their religiosity—though such people are much less religious, on average, than the rest of the population. Their answers tell us only whether they identify enough with a religion to mention that religion to a pollster.

But all that said, over decades, more and more people are saying “none” when asked about their religious preference. It’s still a minority. It’s still under 20 percent. But it’s increasing.

Mark Chaves is a professor of sociology, religion, and divinity at Duke University and the author of the forthcoming book American Religion: Contemporary Trends.

Category: Q&A


7 Responses

  1. Snowbrush says:

    Let’s hope the trend continues.

  2. B says:

    History did not begin in the 1980s. The Christian Right was a reaction to increasingly anti-religious political and judicial decisions in the 1970’s such as prayer in school, obscenity and of course Roe v Wade.

    The anti religion sentiments of today are a continuation of the political movements that began on our college campuses in the 1960’s. The religious right is a reaction to increasing secularization in America.

    You have your history backwards. Remember, the horse comes BEFORE the cart .

  3. Aggie says:

    “I’m not that” fits my situation perfectly. 25 years ago I would have identified myself as a Christian. Then I began a period where, if directly asked, I would have answered “It all depends on what you mean by ‘Christian'”, because I had become so dismayed by the anti-reason, socially reactionary, exclusionary positions that were increasingly on the rise among self proclaimed Christians.

    Today, I would answer the specific poll question mentioned with “none”. If asked, “Are you a Christian?” I would answer, “I don’t know.”

  4. Pelagius says:

    Apparently history began in the 1970’s, B?

  5. Richard M. says:

    B wrote, “The anti religion sentiments of today are a continuation of the political movements that began on our college campuses in the 1960’s.” Really?! Funny, my lack of religious belief began long before I got to college in 1964. I have never found any connection between liberal politics and religious belief. Some of the most devout Christians I know are extremely liberal. The article made a good point. They also emphasized it was only one of several reasons for a rise in the “none” answer.

    Nonbeliever numbers are growing, certainly. But don’t panic. Believers still make up a minimum of 82% of the respondents.

  6. recovered says:

    I’m a non-religious person who attends church every week. I was fairly religious right up until 9/11 when religious terrorism started me thinking about the problems of religion. The fact that Evangelical Christians so strongly supported the use of torture under Bush/Cheney pretty much helped me make up my own mind that I no longer could do religion. It’s too dangerous and is used to manipulate and deceive the vulnerable into justifying one horrific act after another. I go to church because that is where my friends are but I’d be pleased to drop the pretense and get together at the local diner,pub, or library. My church? Mennonite.

  7. tag says:

    I think its a growing trend due to a variety of things. Since the beginning of the 20th century culture has changed dramatically due to improvements in general education, technology, and scientific discovery. These have many individual and interconnected effects.

    Education promotes introspective thought, a desire to learn, and open-mindedness.

    Add technology into the mix and the average person has greater access to more information, more opinions, and increased communication with others who might have similar or different views, education, and culture. The internet exploded out of the 90’s, as did all media. That could have a significant impact on your trends.

    Take those two and add in scientific understanding and now you have more educated people with greater access to information learning about science and its explanations of natural phenomena. Topics such as the origin of life, the tides, the stars, etc, once the territory of religious explanations now become explainable through regimented science, which avoids supernatural factors all together.

    These basic factors all snowball together. A growing population of people who find themselves without a need for religion to satisfy their intellectual/moral/philosophical/emotional needs leads to increased growth with each new generation. Education, technology, and science will only increase and improve with time, and so too will the “no religious preference” population, leading to a continuation of the trend you’ve been seeing.

    Those are my thoughts on the subject, although I can also see how the Religious Right’s increased vocalization and radicalization can also be contributing to these trends.

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