WASHINGTON — An increase in the number of people who claim no religious affiliation in the U.S. does not necessarily mean that the country is growing significantly more secular, according to some experts.
Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup, explained during a panel discussion held by the Pew Research Center in Washington that the data indicating the rise in self-described “nones” reveals simply the “already unreligious who are just changing the way they label themselves.”
Claude Fischer, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley, added that, despite these changes, “Americans have long been, and still remain, the most religious people among the peoples of the Western nations, both in faith and in practice.”
Also speaking at the Aug. 8 panel event were Michael Hout, sociology professor at New York University, and Greg Smith, director of U.S. religion surveys for Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project.
Panelists discussed a 2002 article based on data from the "General Social Survey" and a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center showing rises in the number of U.S. adults who do not affiliate with any religious tradition, also known as “nones.”
Fischer explained that the two studies should be taken in the context of U.S. history, adding that “church membership and religious activity have waxed and waned and cycled over American history, but over the long run, over two centuries, both membership and activity have in net increased.”
He noted that, even with the downward trend in religious involvement from its peak in the 1950s, “religious involvement is still higher than it was a century ago” and is a part of life and community in the United States.
ʻNonesʼ Reflect Changes in Politics
Recent changes in identification are “changes in politics rather than changes in faith,” Fischer said, suggesting that shift may be attributed not to deep theological changes, but to “liberals and moderates declaring no religious preference as a way of rejecting the growing connection between churches and conservative politics.”
Hout reinforced Fischer’s hypothesis, pointing to research showing an increasing gap over the past several decades between people claiming no religious affiliation in different political ideologies.
“There’s still not much of a trend toward no religion among people who describe themselves as politically conservative,” Hout explained, “whereas for those who describe themselves as politically liberal, it is continuing upward and is in the neighborhood of 40% now.”
He also noticed that, within age cohorts, the number of people claiming or rejecting religious affiliations has been relatively steady. It is between age groups that large gaps in religious identification are found, with “60% of the overall trend away from organized religion” found in adults born between 1966 and 1995.
Within these age groups, the shift away from religious affiliation is occurring among persons who already do not participate actively in a religious community, Newport explained.
He suggested that “what we’re seeing here is a change in labeling, rather than a change in underlying religiosity,” pointing to an increase of 3.2% in self-identified “nones” from 2008 to 2012 without a corresponding decrease in other religiosity indicators such as church attendance.
Inactive Catholics Least Likely to Go ʻNoneʼ
Newport also observed that among those who do not actively participate in their religion, Catholics are the least likely to give up their affiliation and religious identity.
“Catholics — it’s more of an ascribed characteristic, as I’ve talked about, for Catholics, than it is for Protestants,” he explained, adding that Protestants switch affiliations more regularly. He speculated that among non-observant persons, “it may be easier, the hypothesis would go, for somebody who is a Protestant to change to a ‘none’ than a Catholic.”
Smith’s comments supported Newport’s findings. He explained that two-thirds of everyone who was raised Catholic is still Catholic, a higher percentage than those who were raised “nones” and are still “nones.”
Furthermore, while the group distancing itself from religious identity is large and continues to grow as younger generations come of age and older ones disappear, Smith explained that this trend is not “necessarily an indicator of secularization.”
The “religious ‘nones’ are not uniformly secular, and to equate them with nonbelievers would be a real mistake,” he stated.
He noted that more than 70% of the “nones” do not identify as atheists or agnostic and that four in 10 “nones” reported praying at least once a month.
However, these individuals do not necessarily identify as a group searching for particular religious practices, Smith warned, cautioning pastors against thinking that the “nones” are “just searching, just waiting, just looking for the religious organization or religious community that’s right for them.”
At the same time, he said, this “trend toward disaffiliation could have serious consequences for religious institutions and for the way that religion is practiced in the United States,” even if Americans as a whole maintain steady levels of religious practice and belief.
A full transcript of the discussion can be found here.