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Thanks, Christian Right

A new article and book by two political scientists, David Campbell and Robert Putnam, looks at the recent uptick in the number of Americans, especially young people, keeping their distance from traditional Christianity and remaining outside the church. And as Peter Berger points out in a review of their work, it appears that much of that growth is due to the actions of the Christian right.

At the core of the article is a phenomenon that has drawn considerable attention for a while—the sharp rise in the number of Americans who declare themselves in surveys as being without religious affiliation. People who study religious statistics, and who also have a sense of humor (the two qualities are not necessarily contradictory), call this demographic “the nones”. In the 1960s the “nones” comprised 5-7% of the population; by the mid-1990s they had grown to 12%; in 2011 the percentage was 19%. According to the invaluable data on religion ongoingly posted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the incidence of “nones” is highest in the age group 30-49. A possible explanation, of course, could be that younger people have always been less religious than their elders (the so-called “life cycle effect”). The authors reject this explanation: Today 33% of young people are religiously unaffiliated, as compared with 12% in the 1970s. In other words: Youth as such is not the only factor in making individuals flee the churches. What is more, this flight of the young is rapidly accelerating: In surveys conducted by the authors all “nones” grew by about 18% between 2006 and 2011, but young “nones” grew by about 90%–a truly remarkable difference.

Campbell and Putnam have a convincing political explanation of this development: The growth of the “nones”, and especially of their young constituent, is a reaction against the Religious Right. According to their data, between 2006 and 2011 Democrats and progressives were more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than Republicans and conservatives. These data are supported by those of the Pew Forum: “Nones” are 23% of those who say they are Republicans or leaning toward the Republican party, but 55% of Democrats and those leaning toward that party. There is an even higher discrepancy among younger “nones”. They associate Republicanism with intolerance and homophobia. And they don’t like this. We know from many other sources that the young are much more liberal on issues of gender and sexuality. On empirical grounds, one may conclude that, whatever else has happened in America in recent decades, the sexual revolution has achieved victory on most fronts. If one wants to use this hackneyed phrase, those who take a stand against this development find themselves on “the wrong side of history”.

It’s important to note that “nones” are not synonymous with atheists. In fact, the Pew study found only 22% of the nones say they don’t believe in a god, with 60% saying they do. But they don’t really live as though they do. They tend to reason and act without looking at the Bible or to Christian doctrine. Here’s where Berger goes completely off the tracks:

There is very likely a number (in America a relatively small one) of “nones” who are really without religion—agnostics or (even fewer) outright atheists. The latter have been encouraged by the advocates of the so-called “new atheism”—which is not new at all, but rather a reiteration of a tired 19th-century rationalism, pushed by a handful of writers who have been misrepresented as an important cultural movement.

He doesn’t bother making any sort of argument for why he thinks rationalism is “tired” or, as he implies, outdated, as though it had been disproven somewhere along the way. It’s just a sniff, a sneer, with no substantive argument offered to back it up. And if he thinks this is not an important culture movement, I think he should have been at the Reason Rally.

Comments

  1. raven says

    Worked for me.

    Thanks to the fundies I went from being a xian to being an anti-right wing fundie xian extremists.

    A lot of fundieism just seems to be right wing extremist politics with a few god stickers stuck on.

    When you tie your religion to politics, there is always the danger that people who don’t like those politics aren’t going to want to join that religion either.

  2. Thorne says

    This is, in my opinion, the obvious death knell of religion in America. The young are fleeing the churches despite massive efforts to keep them there. Like water seeping through a dam, it starts as a trickle, but it slowly and inevitably erodes through the churches until it becomes a torrent. All that will be left will be the old “sticks-in-the-mud” who cannot, or will not, admit that they’ve wasted their lives believing con artists.

    This is not to say that churches will disappear. I think they will always have some followers who are weak and gullible enough to believe. But they are gradually losing their privilege and power, and the loss of their children is a major drain on that power.

    Good riddance to them.

  3. raven says

    There is very likely a number (in America a relatively small one) of “nones” who are really without religion—agnostics or (even fewer) outright atheists.

    This is false.

    The main religious trend in the 20th century has been the rise of the nones.

    It went from near zero to 1 billion people worldwide. Making the Nones the third largest religion if they were a religion.

    There is a lot of data that the trend is still in place. Retention of young people in the SBC is 30% and so on.

  4. says

    “by the advocates of the so-called “new atheism”—which is not new at all, but rather a reiteration of a tired 19th-century rationalism, pushed by a handful of writers who have been misrepresented as an important cultural movement.”

    I don’t think he or anyone else gets to “decide” what constitutes an “important cultural movement”. He is perfectly free to say that he WISHES it weren’t an important cultural movemen,. plus, his blithe dismissal of it insults ME. I have been changed profoundly by the people and ideas behind the “New” atheism, which BTW is a term I actually like…It IS different than before…There are stakes.

  5. raven says

    “by the advocates of the so-called “new atheism”—which is not new at all, but rather a reiteration of a tired 19th-century rationalism, pushed by a handful of writers who have been misrepresented as an important cultural movement.”

    He is so wrong here.

    Rationalism is much older than the 19th century. It is part of the Enlightenment and the basis for our modern 21st century civilization. The science part of it has taken us from the stone age to the space age.

    What is tired is religions, especially the primitive superstitious ones. According to the fundies, the earth is 6,000 years old, we are surrounded by invisible demons and angels having huge battles, satanists kidnap children by the millions for their messy rituals, and UFO’s are piloted by beings from hell. God the abusive moron lets satan run around doing whatever he wants because he is a malevolent being. The all powerful creator of the universe is deeply concerned with your sex life, especially if you touch yourself, you know, down there.

    Carl Sagan said it long ago. They still live in the demon haunted darkness. Rick Santorum would make a good Dark Ages Pope in chief of the USA.

  6. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    The latter have been encouraged by the advocates of the so-called “new atheism”—which is not new at all, but rather a reiteration of a tired 19th-century rationalism, pushed by a handful of writers who have been misrepresented as an important cultural movement.

    For the record, I self-identified as an atheist long before I’d heard of any New Atheist other than Dawkins and Hitchens. I’d read The Blind Watchmaker and whatever that awful anti-Clinton screed of Hitchens’ was called, but that’s it. Neither played a prominent role in the development of my atheism. Nor, for that matter, did any sense of New Atheism as “an important cultural movement.” I’m an atheist because it seems to me the correct intellectual position, not because it’s cool.

  7. d cwilson says

    If one wants to use this hackneyed phrase, those who take a stand against this development find themselves on “the wrong side of history”.

    Must be a real bitch to wake up one morning and realize that your beliefs are heading to the same dustbin as slavery and the divine right of kings.

  8. Who Knows? says

    With tactics like this, it is no wonder intelligent young people are rejecting them.

    “The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks — two key Democratic constituencies,” another memo states. “Find, equip, energize and connect African-American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots. No politician wants to take up and push an issue that splits the base of the party.”

    Group sought wedge between blacks, gays to fight same-sex marriage

  9. Sastra says

    The latter have been encouraged by the advocates of the so-called “new atheism”—which is not new at all, but rather a reiteration of a tired 19th-century rationalism, pushed by a handful of writers who have been misrepresented as an important cultural movement.

    I’m always curious as to what the gnu atheist critics mean when they refer to “tired 19th-century rationalism” and from what I can tell from the few times they’ve actually bothered to spell it out, tired 19th century rationalism basically comes down to: approaching religious claims the way you would approach any fact claim. Using reason on God. That is so old hat. We figured that out, way back when.

    Figured what out? And how did they figure it out? I think that what they figured out when the first devastating critiques of religious belief came out is that they better not keep trying to insist that science and history and evidence supported religious beliefs. Or, rather, they can keep claiming that only if they also keep pushing the idea that FAITH is a get-out-of-difficulties-free card for the fact claims AND that religious fact claims are therefore to be treated like meaning claims. Plus, everything is a meaning claim and a matter of faith: believing that Jesus is the son of God is no different than believing that the sun is hot because logical positivism is itself unfalsifiable. Or something like that.

    “Tired 19th century rationalism” is out-of-date because it was knocked out by the new and improved idea that religion is about having faith … and so is everything else, sorta. At least, that’s what it always seems to boil down to from what I casn make out.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    Berger: We know from many other sources that the young are much more liberal on issues of gender and sexuality.

    Don’t be so sure about that either, PB.

    The anti-abortion movement features a lot of younger people, and polling shows the pro-choice contingent getting collectively older.

    As memories of back-alley abortions fade, and billboards with cute-baby pics and misleading factoids proliferate (with a much smaller counter-narrative in the media), the mushy-middle – comprised mostly of those who haven’t given the issue enough attention to firm up their opinions, primarily the young – continues to slide towards the sentimental argument and away from realistic consideration of actual consequences.

  11. Gregory in Seattle says

    In my observations, Talibangelicals and fanatics from other religions help make a very solid case for atheism.

  12. Doug Little says

    I think access to information plays a big part in the movement away from religion as well, but let’s face it the fundies aren’t doing themselves any favors.

  13. busterggi says

    I’d bet further study will show a correllation between the rise in % of ‘nones’ and the rise in % of not-stamp-collectors.

  14. abb3w says

    I’m unconvinced on the causation claim. The demographic curve shift looks mostly like a continuation of one that was already ongoing in the early 1970s; blaming the religious right looks too much post hoc ergo propter hoc. (Similarly, the New Atheists look to be at least as much effect of the ongoing shift as contributing cause.)

    @3, raven

    This is false. The main religious trend in the 20th century has been the rise of the nones.

    True, but (as Ed reminds) not all “Nones” are atheists/agnostics. The GSS indicates the breakdown within the Nones is about 12% Atheist, 20% agnostic, 26% deist, 20% doubting or intermittently theist, and 21% solidly theist. (And that’s by theological position, not self-identification.) Furthermore, this composition within the Nones does not seem to have shifted significantly over the last two decades, nor differ much across generations.

  15. raven says

    True, but (as Ed reminds) not all “Nones” are atheists/agnostics. The GSS indicates the breakdown within the Nones is about 12% Atheist, 20% agnostic, 26% deist, 20% doubting or intermittently theist, and 21% solidly theist. (And that’s by theological position, not self-identification.)

    That is true. But it doesn’t matter. The Nones have far more in common with each other than they do with the fundie xians. And you left out apathetics. A lot of people just don’t care anymore.

    I don’t think “atheist” will ever catch on in the USA. The word has picked up too much baggage. But people will act like it just the same.

  16. Sastra says

    A lot of the “Nones” would probably fall (or place themselves) under the label “Spiritual but not Religious.”

    That category runs all over the place, containing everything from poetic humanist atheists to woo-soaked New Age neo-pagans to deeply devout traditionalists disenchanted with the local churches. Sometimes the SBNR have no problems with atheists. Sometimes they really, really do. It depends.

  17. gingerbaker says

    “…younger “nones”…associate Republicanism with intolerance and homophobia. And they don’t like this. We know from many other sources that the young are much more liberal on issues of gender and sexuality. On empirical grounds, one may conclude that, whatever else has happened in America in recent decades, the sexual revolution has achieved victory on most fronts.

    Can today’s atheist movement learn something valuable from this and apply it to their own marketing efforts? Gays went from being viewed as subhuman child molesters to avatars of social justice in just a few decades which is pretty amazing.

    Why, exactly, have the young ‘nones’ embraced the message of the gay rights movement? Is it a new appreciation for social justice? Is it really a reaction against “intolerance” and “homophobia”, or is it merely a reaction against religious fanaticism – blowback from 9/11? Or is it simply a realization that the alleged evils of homosexuality are belied by the gay folks they actually know, and that they know a lot more gay folks because gay folks have made an effort to be more visible? Likely , it is a mixture of all these, and other elements.

    Perhaps we might be able to draw some tentative conclusions:

    1) Being proudly visible and confrontational worked for the gay rights effort. We should resist, therefore, efforts to marginalize the movement and ‘just shut up’.

    2) We should emphasize and illuminate the intolerance and bigotry leveled against atheists with the same language and tactics used by the gay rights movement. “Religious bigotry” and “Religious liberation” might be phrases we should use in public a lot more, for example.

    3) Atheism should stress the social justice aspects of religious oppression and marginalization. Atheism is a rights issue,not just a philosophical position, and we should demand the same privileges and seats at the table as are bestowed to religious viewpoints. There should never be a panel that has a religious representative but lacks an atheist representative, for example.

    The recent refusal to allow advertising as innocuous as the single word “Atheists” on public buses, should be seen as a huge opportunity for a major confrontation, for example, instead of being shrugged off as yet another unfortunate symptom of society’s hatred of us. We should be salivating over and instigating this sort of thing, not minimizing it.

    Can you imagine the reaction of Bill Donohue if an advertisement composed of the word “Catholicism” was rejected? We need a strong and strident “Bill Donohue” wing of our own. Yesterday.

  18. says

    There have been lots of articles like this, and there are always those who bend over backwards to reassure us that the growth of the “nones” isn’t about abandoning religion. Sorry, but it is. While a large fraction of “nones” are still nominal believers (though one questions whether they really are), unbelievers are still growing rapidly. This is a case of a broad shift away from religion at all levels, not some small slice of church-goers deciding not to affiliate with an organized religion but still maintaining the same beliefs.

  19. The Lorax says

    When I was young, I probably believed in God. None of the dogma made sense (Seriously? Noah’s Ark?), but there was that whole, “Science can’t explain it, but we can.” Answers were nice, even if I didn’t understand the answers. So I guess I was a deist, at best (I used to think that God was tinkering to evolve us; trying to resolve the two worldviews as best as my young mind could). As I grew up though, I realized that those answers were false, and my rationalization was completely irrational. So I rejected God and accepted ignorance, because I’d rather lack the truth than accept those lies.

    I stayed away from politics though, because it was a nasty forum, as nasty as religion. Eventually I found out about things, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, that show Bullshit, Tim Minchin, and others. That was the trickle in the dam. When I learned about James Randi, the dam burst. My agnosticism turned into full-blown practicing atheism, because it was then that I realized that these people were not fools; they knew damn well what they were doing, and they were doing it to hurt people. Liars, cheats, and charlatans. Woo-peddlers and con artists. It was because of those people and the light upon them that Randi shined that I came here and have been slowly wandering through this new, bright world.

    Thank you, religious right, for unabashedly being exactly what you are. And thank you, everyone who points to them and says, “Look.”

  20. michaelgaribaldi says

    I’ve always said that all it would take would be for everyone else to get to know the religious as intimately as gay people do. You TRY to explain to them, why it was you felt that Jerry Falwell neeeded desperately to be put against a wall and people just looked at you funny. Suggest that Billy Graham needed thorazine and shock therapy, and they think that you’re a walking hate crime. Suggest that the pope was at best an anachronistic freak and you never get invited round to people’s houses for Christmas ever again. And wow with the Catholic Church being revealed as a nest of pepophiles in the back pocket of the GOP. And they’ve joined with evangelicals to wage an all out war against women and the idea of sex in general. These are giddy times for me!

  21. abb3w says

    @16, raven:

    The Nones have far more in common with each other than they do with the fundie xians.

    Nevertheless, the point remains: less than half of the Nones are in fact atheist or agnostic. Thus, it is in fact True that they are “a relatively small” fraction, compared to the (more than half) fraction of Nones who are deist, uncertain, or theist.

    And, the data does not yet show that changing much over time.

    @16, raven:

    And you left out apathetics. A lot of people just don’t care anymore.

    Not really an option, in the case of the GSS variable in question. Don’t know and non-response make up about 3% of the whole sample, fractionally down-shifting the others if included.

    Linky.

    If you want to start looking to the relatively apathetic, then that involves a category far broader than the Nones. GSS variable there would be RELITEN; 4 is “nones”, 2 the “not very” religious. At that point, you’re looking at a slight majority of the US — but for at least 40 years it’s been wavering at the 50-50 split line.

    @16, raven:

    I don’t think “atheist” will ever catch on in the USA.

    It will take a while, for certain. We’re looking at about 40 years before “None” is the US majority, at which point atheist/agnostic will (with current trends) only total circa 10%. I’d guess it more likely that a yet-to-arise strain of atheist philosophy will develop a brand name and catch on. Atheism includes everything from Randite Capitalism to Sino-Soviet Communism, making it hard to build a growing identity around. (Not that “Brights” was exactly the best marketing ploy….)

    @17, Sastra:

    A lot of the “Nones” would probably fall (or place themselves) under the label “Spiritual but not Religious.”

    In the vague vicinity of half, depending on what exact questions are used. See GSS variables RELSPRT, RELPERSN, SPRTPRSN, which got asked in a couple years.

  22. uncephalized says

    “It’s important to note that “nones” are not synonymous with atheists. In fact, the Pew study found only 22% of the nones say they don’t believe in a god, with 60% saying they do. But they don’t really live as though they do. They tend to reason and act without looking at the Bible or to Christian doctrine. Here’s where Berger goes completely off the tracks:”

    Ed, I think it’s important in this kind of discussion to distinguish between the idea of the Christian God and the general, non-specific belief in a “higher power” or “something that started it all”, or the general belief in life after death, the continuation of the consciousness, etc. that is incredibly common in most people even in the absence of formal religion. I know quite a few young people (being one myself), and the most common attitude among my friends and acquaintances is a belief in some kind of higher power, coupled with apathy or open disdain for religious dogma and bigotry. Most people just want to hold on to comforting beliefs in a universal life force or whatever without following the dumbass rules. This goes even for a lot of the people I know who DO affiliate with churches and such–they go because it’s how they were brought up and it’s their society, not necessarily because they are religious in the dogmatic sense.

  23. John Hinkle says

    I’m guessing groups like NOM, the AFA, all the nasty religious right organizations that make boku bucks, are smart enough to look at the research and see the trends. And so rather than react by being a compassionate role model to their dwindling enrollment, they turn up the fear knob from “hate them” to “demonize them.”

    Gays don’t just have an unholy lifestyle, they want to recruit your children. Muslims don’t just have the wrong religion, they want to make the US part of their caliphate and kill the nonconforming infidels. Liberals/democrats/elites aren’t just naive utopians with misguided ideas, they are actively trying to destroy the country. Immigrants aren’t just here illegally. They’re trying to deposit anchor babies so they can suck the money out of all the good Christians.

    And atheists? I don’t know if much has changed there. Atheists have always been against god, pretty much the equivalent of demon worshipers.

    So maybe there is something to Berger’s conclusions from the data. When you continue to demonize whole demographics, you should expect some rejection from regular, everyday decent folks.

  24. fastlane says

    This is not to say that churches will disappear. I think they will always have some followers who are weak and gullible enough to believe. But they are gradually losing their privilege and power, and the loss of their children is a major drain on that power.

    I disagree. While I would like to see religion disappear altogether, I suspect in terms of numbers, it will only be a slow, gradual dwindling, to some relative equilibrium, similar to what is occurring in much of Europe.

    I do agree that they are losing their privilege and power, and I suspect that much of the believers will be drawn to more socially liberal churches that don’t get too involved in politics. And that’s ok. Keep it personal and private, help the community, that’s what religion should do. (If it is going to exist, and it’s a pipe dream to think it will go away completely.)

  25. Doug Little says

    If it is going to exist, and it’s a pipe dream to think it will go away completely

    Why, how many people believe in Greek Mythology anymore? Sure religion’s have been constantly replaced over the years but why couldn’t it be replaced with humanism or something along that line in the future.

  26. Sastra says

    Doug Little #27 wrote:

    Sure religion’s have been constantly replaced over the years but why couldn’t it be replaced with humanism or something along that line in the future.

    I don’t ever see a total replacement because religious thinking is sloppy thinking — and not being sloppy takes work.

    Spirituality pulls from intuitive human tendencies towards dualism, agency, magic, teleology, and essences. I suspect that, no matter how scientific, rational, and humanistic a society is and no matter how many traditional religions have gone out of favor, there will always be a subset of people who think that their instinct that there is Something Out There and a Reason for Everything shows a depth of sensitivity and special understanding above the norm. These people will gather together in groups, feed off each others’ fantasies, and concoct some sort of supernaturalism they think explains everything and which sets them apart. That’s religion, whatever name it goes by in the future.

    We’re never going to be able to eliminate all violence, either. That doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as improvement, or no reason to try to improve.

    If paganism suddenly got a lot of funding, power, and a serious ad campaign and promotion — watch for a rise in people who believe the Greek gods are real. They will all say it’s because of what they, personally, have experienced.

  27. KG says

    While I would like to see religion disappear altogether, I suspect in terms of numbers, it will only be a slow, gradual dwindling, to some relative equilibrium, similar to what is occurring in much of Europe. – fastlane

    Religion is not in “relative equilibrium” in Europe, but continuing to decline at a fairly steady rate (there may have been a blip in eastern and northern Europe in the 1990s, but if so, the downward trend has resumed).

  28. says

    Having grown up in the UK in the 1970s, this all sounds very familiar to me. My parent’s generation dragged most of us kids to church because it was still seen as the right thing to do — i.e. to give us a religious education. Many of those parents would never have bothered with church for their own benefit.

    Today, parents of my generation, having been dragged to church themselves by insincere parents, don’t want do that to their kids, so they just don’t bother. So many of the Sunday schools that were still full of kids when I was young are now almost completely empty — my own parent’s church hasn’t had a Sunday school class in almost a decade.

    Here in the USA, I see the same thing happening, just a generation behind the UK. Many of my friends who never set foot in church before they had kids, started going when they started their family. The one couple whose kids are now in college (and no longer go to church) stopped taking them after they were confirmed. Now. the generation of kids who were dragged to church by apathetic parents are beginning to reach adulthood and will soon start having kids of their own, and many of them will not bother to do what their parents did, which means the number of “nones” will continue to rise.

    As for atheism, well, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. The numbers are still pretty low in the UK — probably in the low teens (not including agnostics) but I believe that’s more to do with the finality that atheism implies — that there is no chance of an afterlife — which can be very hard for many to accept. Thus I suspect that most “nones” will continue to adhere to a hope that there is some kind of existence beyond this life. However, in practical terms, they still lead very secular lives and their growing numbers still represents a major setback for the religious right.

    (Note: Britain still has plenty of non-religious conservatives — its just that the conservative political parties no longer try to appeal to people’s religious sensibilities quite so much — something the Republican Party has yet to learn how to do.)

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