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Jan 06 2013

The Nones, Like the Poor, Are Always With Us

This is a couple weeks old but worth linking to. Molly Worthen, a history professor from the University of North Carolina, points out that there may not really be any more “nones” — those with no professed religion — than at other times in history, but they may be “coming out” more and getting more attention for it.

Nevertheless, America’s rates of church affiliation have long been higher than those of Europe — perhaps because of the First Amendment, which permitted a religious “free market” that encouraged innovation and competition between spiritual entrepreneurs. Yet membership, as every exasperated parson knows, is not the same as showing up on Sunday morning. Rates of church attendance have never been as sterling as the Christian Right’s fable of national decline suggests. Before the Civil War, regular attendance probably never exceeded 30 percent, rising to a high of 40 percent around 1965 and declining to under 30 percent in recent years — even as 77 percent still identify as Christians and 69 percent say they are “very” or “moderately” religious, according to a 2012 Gallup survey.

We know, then, that the good old days were not so good after all, even in God’s New Israel. Today’s spiritual independents are not unprecedented. What is new is their increasing visibility.

I do find it fascinating that religion, and Christianity in particular, has thrived in the United States without any official church, while it has little influence in many nations of Europe that have nominally established churches. But I also think that Worthen is right to note that Christianity is popular here more as a general identity than as an actual force in people’s lives. Christianity operates in most people’s lives more as a background cultural assumption than as an active belief system, comprising a very basic civic religion without a lot of particular doctrines or dogmas.

Unfortunately, that cultural assumption has given Christian leaders far too much influence over policy throughout our history. And at every turn, it was the institutional church that was the primary impediment to social progress from the earliest days. The opposition to separation of church and state, particularly the ending of religious tests for office, came pretty much exclusively from conservative Christian leaders and churches. Same for the fight to end slavery, to give women the right to vote, to end the legacy of oppression of blacks in the South (and the North, to a lesser degree), and now to gain equality for the LGBT community.

But as more and more people come out of the closet as non-believers, that cultural assumption becomes less and less influential. It becomes safer for those who are Christian only because they use it as a shorthand for “I’m a good person” to leave that assumption behind. I suspect it is largely those people who have moved from the “Christian” category to the “none” category.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    Michael Heath

    My reading of history has me concluding that the erosion of power by state-sanctioned denominations probably did lead to a higher rate of religiosity. However other conditions existed in the mid- to late-18th century which drove this result and set the framework for the future. To ignore those other factors would have us overly attributing a freer marketplace of ideas as the sole cause. The other factors I think of off the top of my head:

    1) We are a nation of immigrants, most of whom did not benefit from the classocracy when living in their originating nation. They were largely populists and adventuress ones at that. So these people shared some of the defective qualities populists are prone towards which don’t inflict the elites as much. I would think a populist group which would, “go for it”, and risk much moving to another country were probably more prone to perceiving faith as a redeeming virtue rather than a juvenile character defect; and therefore disproportionately prone toattribute their success to God rather than the actual conditions that made such immigration from other countries to the Americas advantageous.

    So you have the faithful gambling and winning, which provides an amplifying feedback towards even more devoutness. Such success reinforces the idea of a providential god.

    2) Because government political power resided in Europe, there were less available avenues for ambitious people and elites who strived for political power. The local churches provided such opportunities.

    For example, the George Washington biographies I’ve read reveals him to have been a leader in the commonwealth of Virginia’s sanctioned Anglican/Episcopalian church; in spite of his lack of devoutness (Vestryman and Church Warden). Those biographers concluded his activity at church squared with his being an officer in the British provincial militia, the Continental Army, and the United States Army. Both the church and the military provided opportunities to rise in power.

    3) In addition the churches provided one of the few forums for intellectuals, particularly in their colleges. It’s ironic though wholly unsurprising that during the founding we find some of the best thinkers in the churches or their universities while today’s churches are dominated by delusional bigoted idiots.

  2. 2
    atheist

    While raising my sister and I, my parents were quite secular, and at times explicitly atheist. After we grew up, they divorced and then both of them returned to the Catholic Church of their own childhood, each in their own manner. In my upbringing I associated religion with suffering, while I think their feelings toward it were more mixed. In considering my parents youthful rejection of religion, along with their return to the Church in middle age, I feel I am seeing a common cultural script playing out. The difference between these two eras is more one of mood than a profound change of belief.

  3. 3
    raven

    The out of the closets might be part of the rise of Nones.

    But I doubt it is all of it.

    There is data on this. According to the xians own numbers, they are losing members from their rolls and the amount of loot they take in is going down, steadily year after year.

    The number of people actively involved enough to have their name on the membership list and toss in money is decreasing.

  4. 4
    Nick Gotts

    I do find it fascinating that religion, and Christianity in particular, has thrived in the United States without any official church, while it has little influence in many nations of Europe that have nominally established churches. – Ed Brayton

    Oh no, not this tosh again. As an academic hypothesis, the notion that the USA is more religious than Europe because of the absence of an established church and the supposedly consequent greater level of competition between denominations is chiefly associated with the right-wing evangelical Christian sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, who calls it the “supply side” theory, but it simply isn’t supported by the evidence. First, the existence of established churches has not prevented competition between denominations in western Europe at least since religious freedom was established, in the 19th century in most countries. The decline in religion in Europe has taken place almost entirely since 1900, and largely post-WWII, while established churches have existed in most European countries for centuries. What hasn’t is a functioning welfare state – which began in the late 19th century, and greatly expanded post-WWII. Moreover France, which has been officially secularist since the establishment of the Third Republic in 1971 (with a brief hiatus during the Vichy regime) has one of the highest levels of self-identified “nones” anywhere. Australia and New Zealand, which do not have established churches, but do have (or in the case of NZ, had until recently) a European-style welfare state, also follow the European rather than the American pattern, and I think the same is true of Canada.

  5. 5
    Nick Gotts

    Sorry, France’s Third Republic was of course established in 1871, not 1971.

  6. 6
    left0ver1under

    One could liken this to people becoming publicly proud of their ancestry instead of hiding it in self-defense.

    In the past, some people hid their family tree to avoid being grouped with those regularly facing discrimination (re: “one drop” laws in the US, Nazi Germany’s classification of who was or wasn’t jewish). Today, people no longer (or rarely) do that because social attitudes have changed. Many people and celebrities are now seen as role models and leaders but could never have been in the past.

    The same could be said of atheists: people are more open to talk about it because it won’t (or shouldn’t) expose them to discrimination and violence. Society is more enlightened. But just as with people of certain or mixed ancestries, there will always be single cases of bigots willing to be violent thugs.

  7. 7
    wscott

    I wonder how much of the loss of followers in state-sanctioned churches, particularly in Europe in the last half century or so, is a result of overall lack of trust in government and institutions in general? When you tie the church to the state, declining attitudes towards one may be more likely to affect attitudes towards the other. Whereas here in the US we have set up the church(es) as almost an alternative to government – losing your faith/trust in one doesn’t necessarily have to spill over onto the other.

  8. 8
    tomh

    @ #7
    Whereas here in the US we have set up the church(es) as almost an alternative to government

    It’s more like we have integrated the churches into the government. The amount of religous privilege that is written into US law , in the form of exceptions to laws that apply to everyone except religious organizations, is only equalled in true theocracies. There is scarcely a single area of law that religion has no exemptions written in, in some way, shape, or form. Separation of church and state has become an illusion in the US.

  9. 9
    anubisprime

    wscott @ 8

    I wonder how much of the loss of followers in state-sanctioned churches, particularly in Europe in the last half century or so, is a result of overall lack of trust in government and institutions in general?

    Possibly to some extent but that is not the whole story I would think.

    Education is a major factor here.
    Certainly the last decade has seen Uni places filled to overflowing in Blighty, and exchange of ideas cannot be controlled or regulated by the conventional theist overlords.
    The recent UK census is somewhat devastating to the religious authorities, they have not dared utter a squeak of protest in case it draws attention to the figures, they have as yet not even managed to mumble the slightest hint of an excuse as to why that is so, although ‘bias calculation’ was a early attempt at deflection but that red herring has simply melted away and silence on the matter reigns.
    Considering the last census 10 yrs back painted a different theist heaven.

    And the job market which is mercurial and demands some travel these days.
    So cohesion and domiciled in a geographic location of parents and extended family is a thing of the past.
    This has meant that communities which before were rather static and settled in membership is now a loose if not in flux situation.
    Where before everyone knew everyone else and consequently everyone’s business was common currency, in Europe that has changed somewhat.
    Offspring have moved out the area, families are dispersed, and neighbours, are of the nodding kind on the stairs when passing.

    Communities are far looser in ties and community spirit extends only to behaving in a social context.

    It can be a rather lonely experience if you move to a big city, and maybe a few sought solace in the religious houses but more often then not the night life of bacchanalia tends to take prominence in life style, but mostly work can and sometimes does take precedence.
    That does sound rather grim, although folks do eventually adjust, but it can be tough, but the plus side is that in the main religious affiliation is shattered.

    I have often considered that religiosity was always a monkey see monkey do state of affairs and one must be seen kowtowing to the norm.
    Mattered not a jot whether you personally agreed or even believed the gumph the point was you did not stand out as a different kind.
    I rather think that the same rules apply today…I have a vague fantasy of some polling institution revealing one day that over 60% of church goers in the smaller urban areas declaring that they are not in the slightest bit religious but it was the done thing to attend Church.
    I live in hope for society suddenly finding a tad more integrity…

    Considering the recent pollster revelations maybe I might have to up the percentage to 70% to stay on the side of optimistic ;-)

    I think when people realize they might be in a situation where are not being judged or no one cares if they go to church or not, or there is no imperative from close family or ‘friends’ to attend church, and like what the more jeebus soaked associations don’t know don’t hurt kind of thing, then the averages of non-aligned will see a dramatic if not meteoric rise in numbers.

    I do expect that the sea change in non-aligned numbers to approach deluge in a not to distant future from this not so modest, although spectacular, flow we see at the moment.

  10. 10
    abb3w

    Sir Charles Lyell, “A second visit to North America”, circa 1849:

    Having been informed by one of my friends that about a fifth of all the New Englanders were "Nothingarians," I tried, but with little success, to discover the strict meaning of the term. Nothing seems more vague and indefinite than the manner of its application. I fancied at first that it might signify deists or infidels, or persons careless about any religious faith, or who were not church-goers; but, although it may sometimes signify one or all of these, I found it was usually quite otherwise. The term latitudinarian, used in a good sense, appeared most commonly to convey the meaning; for a Nothingarian, I was informed, was indifferent whether he attended a Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Congregationalist church, and was often equally inclined to contribute money liberally to any one or all of them. A Methodist writer of some eminence remarked to me, that the range of doctrines embraced by these denominations, was not greater, if so great, as that which comprehended within the same pale a high tractarian and a low churchman, and that he who would indifferently subscribe to these two forms of episcopalianism, might with equal propriety be styled a Nothingarian. In other cases I ascertained that the term Nothingarian was simply used for persons who, though they attended worship regularly in some church, had never been communicants. One of the latter, an Episcopalian, once said to me, "I have never joined any church;" and then in explanation added, "it would be hard at my age to renounce society, dancing, and public amusements."

    I think there’s signs of ebb and flow over the years. However, the current tide appears a high-water mark, at least since the days of Ingersoll, and possibly even before.

  11. 11
    peterw

    “The amount of religous privilege that is written into US law , in the form of exceptions to laws that apply to everyone except religious organizations, is only equalled in true theocracies. There is scarcely a single area of law that religion has no exemptions written in, in some way, shape, or form. Separation of church and state has become an illusion in the US.”

    No; that’s ridiculous. Much of Europe has levels of church/state integration that Americans would find appalling. The German government collects a “church tax” (Kirchensteuer) on the national income tax and teaches religion in its public schools. (You can opt out of both). The queen is, famously, the head of the Church of England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is appointed by the PM in her name.

    Despite this, of course, the actual level of religiousity in these countries is quite low, and public figures rarely speak about religion at all.

  12. 12
    PatrickG

    The German government collects a “church tax” (Kirchensteuer) on the national income tax and teaches religion in its public schools. (You can opt out of both).

    Whereas we (Americans) do faith-based programs, enormous tax subsidies via exemptions (not even requiring demonstration of social contribution, see e.g. the FFRA suit), and religious institutions asserting their right to deny rights, health care, and social equality because of religion, and given great deference in doing so by the state.

    We also have endless rounds of school boards (yes, PUBLIC school boards) revising textbooks, prohibiting evidence-based sexual education, constantly trying to discredit evolution, and so forth. At least Germany lets you opt out of the religious propaganda — try doing that in Oklahoma or Texas.

    The means differ, but to say that:

    Much of Europe has levels of church/state integration that Americans would find appalling.

    is simply not true. Much of America has levels of church/state integration at or above the levels found in much of Europe, and much of America seems to be quite ok with it. The appalled reactions seem limited to sites like this.

  13. 13
    PatrickG

    I should add that I don’t think the United States has theocracy-level integration — but some states certainly make it hard to say that. Here in Kentucky, after all, our security and comfort are afforded only through the grace of almighty God..

    We can thank inhibition under secular law from preventing people actually being jailed for disputing that, but here we have a state government threatening jail time for casting aspersions on the deity of choice. I’d say “theocracy” is a quite appropriate word.

  14. 14
    atheist

    It seems like comparing the laws of the USA vs. European nations sheds little light on why the US has more religiosity. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the difference must be more one of culture than strictly one of laws.

  15. 15
    richardelguru

    Purely anecdotal I know, but growing up in the ’50s-’60s in the UK, with morning (C-of-E-ish) assembly and Religious Instruction in school, left me with the distinct impression that that’s the best way to make lots of Nothings and Atheists.
    That and, of course, a fair repertoire of what are technically known as contrafacta of hymns.
    “While shepherds washed their socks by night/All seated on the ground,/The arsehole of the Lord came down/And made a farty sound.”
    Ahhh! Fond memories…

  16. 16
    anubisprime

    atheist @ 14

    It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the difference must be more one of culture than strictly one of laws.

    Seems that the laws appear to reflect the culture.

    I suppose it is really an historical association.
    The first settlers were, by and large, extremely religious in their outlook and were on the lam from Europe where they, as most xtians love to boast, were subject of intolerance and repression.
    I am not sure if that was the whole reason for the mass exodus from Europe, might have been a original point but other factors seem to creep in quite quickly like trade, business and opportunity a little later when the logistics of travel and destination were mostly overcome.

    Early settlements were, by and large, somewhat isolated from neighbouring settlements by distance and terrain.
    And seeing as there was naff all else to do of any practicality on a wet Sunday religion predominated and was the early governance of such enclaves.

    A country which had that previous as a template for society might well be stuck with it as the pattern in later generations.

    Remember 250 yrs ago technology and communications was still extremely rudimentary and education was, by & large, still 17th century in content, if a settlement was lucky enough to own a schoolmistress or master capable.

    So historically the die was cast for a rather biased acceptance of xtianity as the default.
    That hangover still throbs today in the mid-west and the South!

    Then the scam merchants saw the potential of dollars a-plenty…the rest is history literally.
    In fact it seems the financial agenda of most of the scams depends on shoving jeebus so far up the ass of the electorate they can clean their teeth from the inside!
    Money is indeed the root of all evil…and the greed of religion apparently knows no boundaries.

  17. 17
    seivadthe

    Europe is much to varied to draw simple contrasts based on legal situations. The Dutch republic disestablished religion in its later years during the 1700s already (it only became a monarchy in 1815), but the decline in religiosity didn’t occur until the 20th century.
    England is the only part of the UK to have an established religion, Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland do not have established religion, and afaik, Scotland disestablished religion centuries ago.

    I think I’d agree with comment #4 that it is more to do with a combination of secular welfare options and the huge social changes that came after WWII.

    One thing parts of Europe didn’t have until recently, was seperate evangicalist TV stations. Where religious programming existed, it was mostly done on public broadcasting stations, and somewhat subdued. Its only recently with cheap cable and digital tv, that the number of channels has exploded to include the kind of religious TV stations that have been around in the US for some time. I’ve often wondered if this plays a role.

  18. 18
    tacitus

    Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland do not have established religion, and afaik, Scotland disestablished religion centuries ago.

    Official “establishment” is only part of the story, though. When I grew up in Scotland in the 70s, I attended a secular state school, and we had a Church of Scotland-based assembly (hymn, prayer, benediction, Bible reading) every single day of the school year for the whole time I was there. This was not atypical of Scottish schools (which also funded Catholic schools too).

    Funnily enough, the only time you got to miss assembly was when science was first on the day’s timetable — because it was in a building at the other end of campus.

  19. 19
    tomh

    @ #14
    It seems like comparing the laws of the USA vs. European nations sheds little light on why the US has more religiosity.

    Do some European nations, (I know they must differ), exempt religious organizations from many secular laws, the way the US does? For example, besides the enormous tax exemptions and other privileges listed by PatrickG in #12, in the US, believers are exempt from many provisions of child abuse laws, (providing health care for children, for instance), zoning laws, (federal law provides tools for churches to avoid local zoning laws), copyright laws, (church services pay no royalties for music), work-related civil rights laws, (employment, pension plans, and more), health and safety laws (most states exempt church day-care centers, for instance, from health and safety inspections), and much, much more. These few just scratch the surface of religious exemptions to US laws.

    I know little of European law, but I wonder if any countries have comparable integration of religious privilege into supposedly secular laws.

  20. 20
    tacitus

    Yes — there has been rising resentment in Italy over the way the Catholic Church uses tax-exemptions to avoid paying property taxes on secular properties like shopping malls. Donations to French religious organizations are tax-free and church buildings built before 1905 are maintained at the state’s expense (and can be used for free by the owning religious organization). Swedish tax payers have to check a box on their annual tax form to prevent a portion of their taxes being paid directly to religious organizations. In the UK, 26 bishops and archbishops are still granted automatic seats in the House of Lords and thus can directly influence the law of the land. Until very recently, the Catholic church in nations like Spain and Ireland had a great deal of power to set the political agenda. Unwinding such privileges takes time.

    I think you will find that most European nations have a wide variety of laws that privilege religious organizations in general and established (or near-established churches in particular). You tend not to hear about them as much because of the much smaller number of religious adherents. In the UK, most religious organizations are more worried about how they will survive the decade as opposed to lobbying for the next tax break.

  21. 21
    tomh

    @ #20

    Thanks.

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