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Dec 10 2012

More evidence of the decline of religion in the US

Via Machines Like Us, I learned of a new survey that Gallup released last week that found that the number of Americans who self-identify as ‘nonreligious’ is an astounding 31%. This is much larger than what a Pew survey three months ago reported of 20% for self-identified ‘nones’ and that caused such consternation in religious circles.

The latest Gallup survey was massive, involving a sample size of over 320,000 (taken from January 2 to November 30, 2012) which should have a sampling error of less than 0.2%, though for some reason the report says it is 1%, which is still small.

Oddly enough, in the face of this data Frank Newport, Gallup Editor-in-Chief, argues in a new book God Is Alive and Well that religion poised for a resurgence. He seems to be basing his argument on the fact that older people are more religious than younger and that as the population ages, it will thus get more religious. But while that particular fact is true, his inference is false. Longitudinal studies have shown that while old people are more religious than young at any given time, shifts in religious attitudes as individuals age are small and that people tend to retain the religious beliefs that they have in their young adulthood. If anything, the data suggest that people shift slightly away from religion as they age.

I suspect that this extraordinarily rapid rise in recent times in the numbers of people who call themselves nonreligious is largely due to people becoming more comfortable revealing that they are not religious, not that there has been a huge shift from belief to nonbelief in individuals.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    unbound

    Actually, I would blame the rapid rise to the internet in general. Although I had a great number of questions in my journey to rejecting religion, it really wasn’t until the internet was in full bloom (early 2000s) that I could find answers (and further questions) easily.

    I’m honestly still not in a position to declare my lack of belief publicly (my mother knows, my father suspects, and outside of my wife and kids, it is not known)…there are still professional impacts to not being religious (christian is most beneficial, but even being a muslim would be less of an issue than being an atheist).

  2. 2
    slc1

    Nonreligious does not necessarily mean atheistic (or agnostic). It could include folks who have a somewhat vague belief in god but don’t think about it much or belong to a religious organization.

  3. 3
    RW Ahrens

    I’ve been pushing that point for some years now, although I believe what unbound noted is more accurate. I think that as more people who have always been “not religious” in various degrees come out and make their views known publicly, this encourages others to both come out on their own or to examine their own beliefs and doubts, often resulting in that slide into non-belief.

    It is nice to see what I’ve been saying for years (as to the percentages of the US population) get acknowledged at last.

  4. 4
    Marcus Ranum

    Political analysts in Washington, take note.

    Republican party, playing to your crazier religious wing, take note.

  5. 5
    Paul W.

    Mano:

    Via Machines Like Us, I learned of a new survey that Gallup released last week that found that the number of Americans who self-identify as ‘nonreligious’ is an astounding 31%. This is much larger than what a Pew survey three months ago reported of 20% for self-identified ‘nones’ and that caused such consternation in religious circles.]

    No, the Gallup survey does not measure self-identification as religious or nonreligious, and its results are consistent with the Pew numbers. They say “More than three-fourths (77%) of American adults in 2012 identify with a Christian religion, including Protestantism, Catholicism, other Christian religions, and Mormonism.” So only 23 percent don’t identify themselves as some kind of Christian, and at least 8 percent are people who do self-identify as Christian but Gallup calls “nonreligious.”

    Many of the people it calls “nonreligious” are religious believers but don’t practice it a lot.

    Nonreligious does not necessarily mean atheistic (or agnostic). It could include folks who have a somewhat vague belief in god but don’t think about it much or belong to a religious organization.

    Right, and it’s worse than that—the Gallup survey only asked about frequency of church attendance and whether religion is “important” in people’s daily lives. It did not ask about actual beliefs. (Or specify what counts as “important” in somebody’s “daily life.”)

    The 31 percent figure includes religious believers who don’t go to church often and don’t think a lot about religion most days. Many of those people do believe in God—and some in Jesus and the whole shebang—but don’t think God requires them to obsess about God.

  6. 6
    RW Ahrens

    Go take a look at this site:

    http://www.religioustolerance.org/rel_rate.htm

    The upshot of what they’ve found is that in polls like Gallup’s, as many as half of respondents lie on the poll, telling the pollster what they think they SHOULD be reporting, and not what the truth is. This means that in areas where religion is popular, like the American South, being religious is almost mandatory, and virtually nobody is going to admit to not believing. The most they may say is “I’m not religious”, and leave it at that. Believe me, I grew up down there, and in many places, admitting to non belief is tantamount to being socially rejected completely, as well as even losing your job. Admitting to being Christian on a poll is a small price to pay to stay safe.

    Gallup has a well known bias towards conservatism.

  7. 7
    jamessweet

    He seems to be basing his argument on the fact that older people are more religious than younger and that as the population ages, it will thus get more religious.

    Wow, that’s a facepalm of the highest order. Has there ever been a demographic metric where you could say “old people are more X than young people” and then X subsequently grew? I guess “old people are more old than young people” might fit the bill….

  8. 8
    Mano Singham

    Thanks for that link. It has some really interesting results of studies thatI will write about in the future.

  9. 9
    RW Ahrens

    You’re welcome! I’ve been linking to that one for a while now. A lot of folks don’t know that.

  10. 10
    Nick Gotts

    Interesting comparison: the 2011 census results for England and Wales are out (Scotland and Northern Ireland run separate censuses at the same time, no results out yet), and the census, unlike this Gallup poll, looks at self-identification. Christians are down from 72% to 59% since 2001, “no religion” up from 15% to 25%, and Muslims from 3% to 5% (there was a box to tick for “no religion” and a campaign to get people to tick it; very few bothered to write in “atheist”). The only other category above 1% (just) are Hindus. Christian leaders, natch, are desperately coming up with excuses for their religion’s precipitous decline.

  11. 11
    Nick Gotts

    Sorry, I’m wrong: Northern Ireland results are out, showing a decline from 53% to 48% of those who are Protestant or were brought up Protestant*, and an increase from 44% to 45% of those who are Catholic or brought up Catholic.

    *I’d guess that the odd question results from the fact (and I have it from an atheist brought up in NI that it really is a fact) that if you declare yourself an atheist, you’re likely to be asked whether you;re a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist – Protestant/Catholic is a badge of identity before it’s an actual belief.

  12. 12
    Marcus Ranum

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9736609/Number-of-Christians-in-England-and-Wales-falls-by-more-than-4-million.html

    By Steven Swinford

    10:41AM GMT 11 Dec 2012

    More than 14m people, equivalent to one in four of the population, said they did not have any religion at all. It is an increase of six million on 2001 and follows a campaign by the British Humanist Association encouraging non-religious people to tick the “no religion” box on the census form.

    The number of Christians has fallen from 37m to 33m, while the number of Muslims has risen significantly from 1.5m to 2.7m.

    The only voluntary question in the census related to religion and allowed people to declare themselves to be Christian (all denominations), Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, of no religion or to list themselves as belonging to any other faith.

  13. 13
    PeteO

    My wife would fall into the category of a “none”. She rarely attends church and then it is only to listen to the music. Her sense of religion is vague at best and is more something that is “feel good” and a residual effect of her upbringing.

    Are children have always had the option to go to church if they wanted but there has been no pressure at all to attend. Even though we live in the South and there is peer pressure (a lot less, however than you would imagine. My daughter has commented several times how religion seems to have become much less important to her peer group) they rarely choose to go. Sleeping in is much more fulfilling.

    My point is that children who are raised in a “none” household just do not get the indoctrination needed to set them on a path to religion. There is no way that this type of home life can produce adults who are receptive to religion. You couple that with the internet, which for the first time in history has given atheism a wide audience, and I think that the demise of religion as a dominant political and social factor is possible within my lifetime.

  14. 14
    Mano Singham

    I totally agree. I think that religious leaders know this which is why they view the rise of ‘nones’ with alarm.

  15. 15
    baal

    Religion is a little like smoking. If you don’t get them young, you won’t get them when they are old. A tiny small number do smoke or convert as adults but it’s far far below replenishment rate. I suspect this is why both churches and tobacco companies consistently target children. Or that they did. The tobacco companies are still powerful but much reduced with laws that stop them from targeting kids as much and the churches have had to back off on children due to the whole rape and cover up thing. hmm, these parallels are a little too easy to make. -1 to me for being facile.

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