After writing my previous piece, I ran across some interesting ideas from research from PRRI.
In their discussion of the religiously unaffiliated, they identify three sub-groups from the unaffiliated. They have labeled them Rejectionists, Apatheists (clever that!) and Unattached Believers. Here is the breakdown of the proportions as identified by PRRI.
In my own experience, I think these categories are probably pretty sound. Unfortunately, although they broke out the groups by education, the did not break it out by age groups. My guess is that there is a significant generational difference in non-believers.
People of my generation (born in 1960) came into a country where the vast majority of people claimed one religion or another. So, even if our parents were not serious observers of religion, there was at least some. Therefore, most people of my generation, when becoming unaffiliated, had to escape from one religion or another. This was an active process and often left families divided, with some believing and some not.
As the country takes religion less seriously, it is easy to see where the apatheists might be coming from. If they come from a family where religion is not very important, maybe going to church a few times a year “with grandma.” making the final break is no big deal. Church, religion and god are just not important enough to think about.
Rejectionists, such as myself, are the kind of people who are going to self identify as “atheist.” We had a religious identity and changed it to another identity. Even after escaping, religion still has a pull on our lives. We like to commiserate with fellow escapees and like to read and hear about how awful religion is. Even for most “critical thinkers” confirmation bias is a comfortable place to hang our hats. These are the people going to conferences and meetings and who think of atheism as a “movement.”
I think the apatheists are much less likely to identify as “atheist.” “Atheist” seems like it is against religion, but they are not really against it. They think of religion like most Americans think about kimchee. It is not that they are avoiding eating it, there is just no occasion where they would. My presumption is that these folks do not go to meetings or read atheist books. I would think to them, our meetings would actually seem like preaching. Preaching about something they don’t really care about or think about.
The last group, “Jesus is my friend, but I don’t like church” is obviously not going to join in our atheist meetings. However, we should keep an eye on this group as they are obviously most likely to drift back into churches as they get older.
It seems to me that the latter two groups, apatheists and unaffiliated believers probably represent the younger generations. So, those groups will continue to grow.
As for us “rejectionists,” we have choices ahead. I am guessing that our percentage of the unaffiliated will begin to fall as more apatheists come of age, and we ourselves send forth a generation of apatheists. Our kids and grandkids probably won’t care about religion one way or the other. For now, our actual numbers will probably be steady — there is still plenty of religion to escape from. But we may become a minority of the unaffiliated — and it may happen pretty soon.
We can certainly continue our anti-religion outlook and take our place as the vocal sub-group of the unaffiliated. Or we can try and find common ground with the other unaffiliateds, probably through some form of secularism. This would possibly increase our political footprint, but it might not be as fun.
Let me know what you think in the comments!