The Political Influence of ‘Nones’


The Public Religion Research Service has created a graph that shows the religious makeup of the groups that voted for Obama and Romney in the recent election. What it shows is that the “nones” — those who don’t affiliate with any religion, though not necessarily atheist — are an important demographic, especially among younger voters, and that Obama unsurprisingly got the overwhelming majority of them.

Mark Silk discusses those numbers:

White Christians–evangelicals, mainliners, and Catholics–made up fully seventy-five of Romney’s coalition but only 38 percent of Obama’s. It’s the age distribution, however, that tells the deeper story.

Romney’s coalition most closely matches the over-65 crowd, only older. It’s whiter and less religiously diverse than seniors are. Call it your great-grandfather’s Oldsmobile…

What’s most striking is how evangelicals and Nones change places through the four age cohorts. From old to young, the evangelicals go 30-25-18-9, while the Nones go 9-14-19-32. Romney’s coalition was composed of 37 percent evangelicals and eight percent Nones. Obama’s coalition had 9 percent evangelicals and 23 percent Nones.

All of the attention has gone to demographic groups like Hispanic voters, but with the number of nones growing rapidly, especially among younger voters, secular-minded Americans should soon be an electoral force to be reckoned with. That is likely to create a powerful incentive for politicians who, up to this point, have entirely ignored us. Even those allegedly anti-religious Democrats generally go way out of their way to pander to religious voters, treating Christianity as a de facto national religion. But there is a tipping point, and it’s probably not more than a couple election cycles away, when that will no longer be a viable strategy.

Comments

  1. Synfandel says

    Can we assume that the young non-affiliated will remain non-affiliated as they age, or is there a tendency for people to become more religious (or at least more active in organized religion) as they get older, settle down, raise children, etc.? I have no data; just wondering.

  2. Michael Heath says

    I suggest closely studying this graph. Precisely because it reveals how those voting for the Republican presidential candidate break-out by age versus those for the Democratic candidate. Using this information alone, which I don’t advise, seems to conclude the future is solidly for the Democrats. It does suggest a brighter future for Democrats and a grimmer future for conservative Christians. Also, the rows where the developer of this graph placed Obama and Romneys’ respective break-out data is not random relative to the rows describing age-groups. Obama’s results are in the sweet-spot while Romney’s results bode ill for the GOP.

    Caution is suggested since this information raises an important question. How do people’s religious and political ideology change as they age? And does the advent of fragmented media and a far more information-rich environment given the Internet affect the rate of this change relative to historical trends? I think it does and largely favors liberals, but this a mere notion of mine.

    This data also reveals how prudent Republicans are in their efforts to squeeze Democrats into a minimal number of voting districts and suppress the vote.

  3. says

    @1 I’m sure there is a tendency, but I’m not sure if it is as strong as people think it is. I know it’s completely anecdotal, but I have more friends how have gone from the religious camp to the none came than the other way around.

    Higgs Bisons

  4. says

    Can we assume that the young non-affiliated will remain non-affiliated as they age

    Yes, that is very like to happen. And here’s the evidence (the first chart on the page):

    http://www.pewforum.org/age/religion-among-the-millennials.aspx

    Surveys of older generations throughout the last 50 years have shown a remarkable stability in the number of unaffiliated in each generation as they get older. The number of unaffiliated in the Millennial generation is still rising, but that’s because we’re still in the process of creating it. Once the “post-millennial” generation begins that trend line will almost certainly level off and remain stable for the next 50 years.

    And given that the number of non-religious people is reaching critical mass, we can look forward to a new generation (Millennial children) that is even more secular than the last. I fully expect the proportion of unaffiliated 20-somethings to pass 50% by the end of the decade.

  5. wscott says

    I read soemthing awhile back (which I can’t find now) saying that in past generations Americans in general have gotten more religious as they get older. However, the same article pointed out that today’s Nones are still an order of magnitude larger than in their grandparents’ generation; so even if they become more religious at the same rate as their grandparents, the much larger starting numbers will still result in more older Nones down the road. (As opposed to older nuns, which is a totally different conversation.) The article also asserted there were indications that today’s None were becoming more religious at a much slower rate than their grandparents, tho that was more speculative. So today’s teens will probably be more religious 40 years from now than they are today, but they’ll likely still be far less religious than today’s seniors.

    There you have it: second-hand facts from an annonymous forum poster with no citations. I hope that settles it.

  6. says

    I’m sure there is a tendency, but I’m not sure if it is as strong as people think it is. I know it’s completely anecdotal, but I have more friends how have gone from the religious camp to the none came than the other way around.

    It’s certainly true that amongst my friends (now in their 40s and early 50s) there was a large uptick in church attendance when they started having families — I cringe at the number of small kids being packed off to Bible Summer Camp — but I suspect that in many cases, their non-attendance in their early adulthood didn’t make them unaffiliated. I’m sure most of them considered themselves to be Christians, just not very observant ones. And I guess that could be the case for your friends too.

    The stability of the lines on the chart I reference my previous comment is hard to argue with. On an individual level, there will always be some to-ing and fro-ing between faith and non-faith, but when looked at from a generational level, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.

    BTW: I suspect there will be a lot less “going to church for the sake of the kids” in future. It used to happen a lot in the UK back in the 70s when I was growing up too, but very few parents bother these days. Kids are all too aware when their parents’ beliefs are not terribly deep, and many will not want to insincerely inflict church upon their own children when the time comes.

  7. wscott says

    @ tactitus #4: Ah, you beat me to linkeage – well done! But I note the following paragraph from your article:

    Yet in other ways, Millennials remain fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices. Pew Research Center surveys show, for instance, that young adults’ beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today. Though young adults pray less often than their elders do today, the number of young adults who say they pray every day rivals the portion of young people who said the same in prior decades. And though belief in God is lower among young adults than among older adults, Millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty at rates similar to those seen among Gen Xers a decade ago. This suggests that some of the religious differences between younger and older Americans today are not entirely generational but result in part from people’s tendency to place greater emphasis on religion as they age.

    So some of it is generational, and some of it is just age, but how much? Either way, the much-higher starting point bodes well for the future.

    Your point about reaching critical mass is spot on. Maybe we have to go through a generation of people who kinda-sorts still believe but don’t really think about it much, before we get to a generation that thinks it’s all ridiculous. That seems (AFAICT) to have been the progression in Europe over the last few generations.

  8. says

    The key trend is the inter-generational one, and that one has been accelerating away from religious belief for the last 50 years. And there is currently no reason to believe that the trend is going to reverse or even slow down any time soon.

    Some conservative commentators, like Ralph Reed, have attempted to claim that the unaffiliated contains many people who are strong Bible-believing Christians but who are disaffected by “institutionalized religion.” However, if you study the answers the millennials given to the questions in the Pew survey, it’s clear that there are almost none of that type of people lurking there. At best, it could be said that a large number of young people still harbor some vague sense of spiritual or religious feeling, but that should be of no comfort to people like Reed since the thoroughly reject his ideology.

  9. cswella says

    @Synfandel: Pretty sure there used to be a tendency for young people to ‘settle down’ into a religion. But with progress and the internet nowadays, I’d be surprised if this were still the case.

  10. says

    So some of it is generational, and some of it is just age, but how much? Either way, the much-higher starting point bodes well for the future.

    Your point about reaching critical mass is spot on. Maybe we have to go through a generation of people who kinda-sorts still believe but don’t really think about it much, before we get to a generation that thinks it’s all ridiculous. That seems (AFAICT) to have been the progression in Europe over the last few generations.

    I tend to get into an argument with Michael Heath when this particular topic comes up since we differ on how far we see the trend away from religion going. :)

    I grew up in the UK and still visit there several weeks a year, so I like to compare and contrast the fortunes of religion between the UK and US. Clearly the UK is further down the path than the US. Church attendance in Britain has already fallen through the floor, and most of the remaining congregations are aging rapidly.

    But…

    The UK is still fairly evenly divided between non-believers and believers, and many who don’t believe in God still adhere to a belief that the Universe and/or their lives have some kind of purpose to them outside of what they make of it–i.e. some kind of spiritual belief.

    Michael believes in the long run that a large majority will become full-blown atheists and cast off all religious feelings and spiritualism. I tend to doubt that will happen–human psychology would seem to be working against it. But either way, the practical results will be almost the same — the ending of the power of the religious fundamentalists to rule the lives of others.

  11. davidct says

    The results of the recent election would have been interesting here in Texas if Obama had been white. It is hard to understand what motivates voters but just listening to people talk, it was clear that many people had a problem with voting for a black man regardless of the other issues. Without the largely unspoken issue of race, the effect of the “nones” might have been much more dramatic.

  12. says

    Pretty sure there used to be a tendency for young people to ‘settle down’ into a religion. But with progress and the internet nowadays, I’d be surprised if this were still the case.

    If that is true, then secularism wins almost every time just from the sheer volume of secular material on the web compared with the religious (which itself is splintered into many conflicting factions).

    YouTube is a great indicator for what young people are paying attention to these days (my teenage nieces watch far more YouTube than TV these days, and my brother says that their entire neighborhood internet slows down at the end of the school day with the volume of streaming going on) and one look at the content of the most popular channels and trending videos shows just how high a mountain any religious voices have to climb.

  13. grumpyoldfart says

    Christianity will recover its influence during the next few years.

    Remember the 1960s when the catch-cry was “God is dead”. As soon as that idea started taking hold, the Jesus Freaks retaliated with their fundamentalist propaganda – and Christianity was back in control in less than a decade.

  14. hjhornbeck says

    grumpyoldfart @14:

    Remember the 1960s when the catch-cry was “God is dead”. As soon as that idea started taking hold, the Jesus Freaks retaliated with their fundamentalist propaganda – and Christianity was back in control in less than a decade.

    True, but that’s a lot easier to do when there are fewer “nones” around, plus less opportunity to learn of their political goals and snip them in the bud. The stars aren’t lining up for lightning to strike twice.

  15. BinJabreel says

    @14, grumpyoldfart

    I don’t think so. A lot of what we saw in the 60’s through 80’s was a religious backlash against what they felt was the secularization of American society. Yeah, they succeeded in exploiting that backlash to gain control of a wing of the Republican party, but that same action that “got them back in control” is quite likely to destroy them and the Republicans.

    And it’s not like America didn’t just keep getting more secular the whole time they were screaming about the Moral Majority.

  16. Paul W., OM says

    Synfandel, grumpyoldfart,

    If you look at secularization in Western Europe over the last 50 years, you don’t see a big trend of less religious people becoming more religious as they age. Each age cohort has been significantly less religious than the preceding one, and people don’t get much more religious as they age. (A little, I think, on average, but not much, and not nearly enough to counter the secularization trend.)

    The secularizing trend in the US hasn’t been going on as long, or at least not clearly and to the same extent, but if we are following the European pattern—as I suspect we are—we are in for more secularization, not a return to higher religiosity.

    The secularization trend in the US has only been evident for 20 or 30 years, and hasn’t reached nearly the same levels as in Europe, but the conventional wisdom in sociology is changing. It used to be thought that the slow decline in religiosity (and increasing irreligion among young people) was mostly a cyclic variation and the pendulum would swing the other way, with young people becoming more religious as they aged.

    That appears so far to be mostly untrue. We appear to be following the European-style path, a few decades later, but it’s too early to know for sure.

    I suspect that one reason that Europe secularized sooner than the US is that the US’s form of democracy tends to reduce the size of the Overton window of publicly acceptable points of view—both parties have historically tended to be fairly centrist, and “extreme” views have been marginalized and gone mostly unheard.

    In Europe you tend to have a broader political discourse that includes more extreme points of view, because minor parties can be important parts of ruling coalitions. That means that relatively centrist parties can’t afford to bash somewhat more extreme parties on their end of the spectrum, and a wider range of opinions gets heard.

    In the US, the diversity of viewpoints getting a hearing has obviously increased with the internet becoming popular, but I think the trend started before that in the mass/mainstream media, with the rise of cable systems and the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine for the networks. You got Fox News on the right, but you also got more liberal views expressed during prime time on premium cable channels, and increasingly on the big 3 or 4 broadcast networks, which had to compete with the premium cable channels. So you got more gay characters, people who don’t even pay lip service to religion, and all that other stuff the fundies hate.

    As I understand it, the increase in secularization among young people in the US dates back to about that (pre-internet) timeframe, and I suspect they’re not unrelated. It has continued in the internet era, and I don’t think that’s unrelated either.

    I don’t think the pendulum will swing back, or not much and not for long; I think it’s mostly a positive feedback situation, which the negative feedbacks can’t erase, and in a few decades we’ll look a lot like Western Europe now, religion-wise. (But with a larger minority of fundies who are completely freaked out about the culture inexorably moving away from them.)

    I hope I’m right.

  17. laurentweppe says

    All of the attention has gone to demographic groups like Hispanic voters, but with the number of nones growing rapidly, especially among younger voters, secular-minded Americans should soon be an electoral force to be reckoned with

    I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that even the religious Obama voters where secular-minded considering that they, you know, ignored the order givens by the self-proclaimed keepers of Godly Virtue(©).

    *

    That is likely to create a powerful incentive for politicians who, up to this point, have entirely ignored us

    It could also lead conservative politicians to consider that pro secularism voters are a lost cause and decide to double down on the religious extremism to keep the base happy while figuring new ways to cheat their way into office.
    On the long term, it’s probable that what happened in Europe will happen in the US as well: that is the weakening of the religious right will not lead toward a solid dominance of the secular left but the arrival of an areligious right as tribalistic as its predecessor

  18. says

    there is a tipping point, and it’s probably not more than a couple election cycles away, when that will no longer be a viable strategy.

    Sounds almost like wishful thinking, but the demographics are pointing that way and I really really hope that you’re right about this.

  19. abb3w says

    @1, Synfandel

    Can we assume that the young non-affiliated will remain non-affiliated as they age, or is there a tendency for people to become more religious (or at least more active in organized religion) as they get older, settle down, raise children, etc.?

    I think it was Pew’s latest (Oct 2012) “Nones” on the Rise report that noted that the historical trend is for cohorts to be rather (ir)religiously stable. (Individuals change, but some change one way and some the other.) Poking the General Social Survey data indicates particular generational cohorts oscillate a little bit over time, but that may be response to politics. There’s more of a trend for the “not very” religious to become stronger in their religiosity, as opposed to the “none of the above” becoming churchy.

    Their latest data shows some slight shift in even older cohorts towards irreligion, so we may be in an era analogous to the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s, with the rise of the Secular Left. If so, that pendulum may swing back slightly in a few decades, as the cohorts return to their respective norms. However, those 2-7% changes seem much less significant than the long-term demographic shift that’s finally reaching tidal wave (30% and climbing) proportions — and been building for a LONG time.

    @2, Michael Heath:

    Using this information alone, which I don’t advise, seems to conclude the future is solidly for the Democrats.

    Neglects how popular third party voting is for the Nones.

    @2, Michael Heath:

    How do people’s religious and political ideology change as they age?

    Historically on average: negligibly on the former, slight slow drift to relative conservatism on the latter.

    @2, Michael Heath:

    And does the advent of fragmented media and a far more information-rich environment given the Internet affect the rate of this change relative to historical trends?

    That IS a good question. Up until lately, the demographic shift has been pretty slow and steady; irreligion on a logistic curve with birth year, with some noise. However, the last couple (~5) years have seen a bump beyond that — seeming much more recent that the rise of the WWW. Possibly Facebook, or the “New Atheists”? I dunno.

    @4, tacitus

    I fully expect the proportion of unaffiliated 20-somethings to pass 50% by the end of the decade.

    That’s a little optimistic. The logistic curve midpoint in the GSS trend looked to be circa the 2007 cohort; they’ll hit 25 in 2032. The current Secularist Revival looks to be worth a couple percent, so that might get the 50% mark by 2025. Unlikely much before that.

    @4, tacitus:

    And given that the number of non-religious people is reaching critical mass,

    Competing epidemics gives a better math model than nuclear reaction, I think.

    @14, grumpyoldfart:

    Christianity will recover its influence during the next few years. Remember the 1960s when the catch-cry was “God is dead”. As soon as that idea started taking hold, the Jesus Freaks retaliated with their fundamentalist propaganda – and Christianity was back in control in less than a decade.

    You can see the tail of that in the GSS. Most of that wave was of young people being “not very religious” rather than “none”. The younger cohorts still ended up less religious than their elders. The current wave of “nones” is a bit larger in the Millennial cohort.

  20. seivadthe says

    Its worth noting that European countries are in general ‘older’ (if we look at population pyramids), than the US, and despite this are more secular/none-ish for the most part. So the generational factor can’t be that strong.

  21. Freeman says

    BinJabreel #16: And it’s not like America didn’t just keep getting more secular the whole time they were screaming about the Moral Majority.

    Indeed, I recall my fundie mother transitioning from skirts to pants and opting for birth control pills — both controversial if not outright taboo subjects in our church in the preceding years and to a lesser extent at the time — back in the early to mid-70’s. It’s not just that America continued to secularize despite their efforts, it’s also that they secularized right along with society while simultaneously condemning secularization and pretending they were above it all. The hypocrisy was not lost on me as I entered my teen years and learned to think for myself and question the rigidity of much of what I had been taught about religion.

  22. abb3w says

    seivadthe:

    European countries are in general ‘older’ (if we look at population pyramids), than the US, and despite this are more secular/none-ish for the most part. So the generational factor can’t be that strong.

    The ONLY stronger factor in the US is religious upbringing – what religion you were raised in. Depression babies are roughly 10% irreligious; Millennials are about 30+ percent irreligious.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply