Aug 30, 2011
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.