Some Theories About Root Causes of the Rise of the Unaffiliated
Navigate this page:
Theory No. 1: Political Backlash
Several leading scholars contend that young adults, in particular, have turned away from organized religion because they perceive it as deeply entangled with conservative politics and do not want to have any association with it. University of California, Berkeley, sociologists Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer first suggested in 2002 that “part of the increase in ‘nones’ can be viewed as a symbolic statement against the Religious Right.”13 And in their recent book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” Robert Putnam of Harvard University and David Campbell of Notre Dame marshall evidence from various surveys that supports this thesis. From the 1970s through the 1990s, they argue, “[r]eligiosity and conservative politics became increasingly aligned, and abortion and gay rights became emblematic of the emergent culture wars.” The result, they write, was that many young Americans came to view religion as “judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.”14
The new Pew Research Center/Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly survey contains some data that can be seen as consistent with this hypothesis. The survey finds that the unaffiliated are concentrated among younger adults, political liberals and people who take liberal positions on same-sex marriage. In addition, two-thirds or more of the unaffiliated say that churches and other religious institutions are too concerned with money and power (70%) and too involved in politics (67%); these views are significantly more common among the unaffiliated than they are in the general public. Analysis of previous Pew Research Center surveys also shows that the unaffiliated are less likely than the affiliated to believe it is important to have a president with strong religious beliefs, and the unaffiliated are more likely than those with a religious affiliation to say that churches and other houses of worship should stay out of political matters.15 On the other hand, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated people has risen among Republican voters as well as among Democratic voters (though the increase is greater among Democrats).
Theory No. 2: Delays in Marriage
If there has been a political backlash, it may not be the only cause of the rise of the “nones.” As previously noted, the increase in the unaffiliated has taken place almost entirely among the segment of the population that seldom or never attends religious services. Some sociologists, such as Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University, have charted an overall decline in church attendance since the 1970s and attribute it to broader social and demographic trends, including the postponement of marriage and parenthood by growing numbers of young adults.16
Aggregated data from Pew Research Center polls also are consistent with this argument, showing that among adults under 30, married people are more likely to have a religious affiliation than are unmarried people. On the other hand, an analysis of religious affiliation patterns by generation, previously published by the Pew Forum, suggests that Americans do not generally become more affiliated as they move through the life cycle from young adulthood through marriage, parenting, middle age and retirement.17 Rather, the percentage of people in each generation who are religiously affiliated has remained stable, or decreased slightly, as that generation has aged.
Theory No. 3: Broad Social Disengagement
Yet another hypothesis loosely links the rise of the unaffiliated to what some observers contend has been a general decline in “social capital” – a tendency among Americans to live more separate lives and engage in fewer communal activities, famously summed up by Harvard’s Putnam as “bowling alone.”18 In this view, the growth of the religious “nones” is just one manifestation of much broader social disengagement.
Pew Research Center surveys offer limited evidence along these lines. For example, a survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that the 40% of Americans who describe themselves as “active” in religious organizations – a higher bar than affiliation with a religious group – are more likely than other Americans to be involved in all types of volunteer and community groups, from sports leagues to arts groups, hobby clubs and alumni associations.19 The new Pew Research Center/Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly survey also finds that religiously unaffiliated Americans are less inclined than Americans as a whole to feel that it is very important to belong to “a community of people who share your values and beliefs” (28% of the unaffiliated say this is very important to them, compared with 49% of the general public).
Theory No. 4: Secularization
The rise of the unaffiliated in the U.S. also has helped to breathe new life into theories that link economic development with secularization around the globe. Back in the 1960s, when secularization theories first achieved high visibility, they were sometimes accompanied by predictions that religion would wither away in the United States by the 21st century.20 The theories propounded by social scientists today tend to be more subtle – contending, for example, that societies in which people feel constant threats to their health and well-being are more religious, while religious beliefs and practices tend to be less strong in places where “existential security” is greater.21 In this view, gradual secularization is to be expected in a generally healthy, wealthy, orderly society.
Surveys conducted by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project have asked people in many countries about the importance of religion in their lives, how often they pray and whether they think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Throughout much of the world, there is an association between these measures of religiosity and a country’s national wealth: Publics in countries with a high gross domestic product (per capita) tend to be less religious, while publics in countries with a low GDP tend to be more religious. But as Pew Global Attitudes noted in a 2007 report, Americans are a major exception to the rule, because the U.S. has both high GDP per capita and high levels of religious commitment.22 Nonetheless, some theorists view the rise of the unaffiliated as a sign that secularization is advancing in America.23
13 Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review, vol. 67: 165-190. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3088891. (return to text)
14 Putnam, Robert D. and David E. Campbell. 2010. “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” Simon & Schuster, pages 120-121.(return to text)
15 See the Pew Research Center’s July 2012 report “Little Voter Discomfort with Romney’s Mormon Religion: Only About Half Identify Obama as Christian,” http://www.pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/Little-Voter-Discomfort-with-Romney%E2%80%99s-Mormon-Religion.aspx. Also see the Pew Research Center’s March 2012 report “More See ‘Too Much’ Religious Talk by Politicians: Santorum Voters Disagree,” http://www.pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/more-see-too-much-religious-talk-by-politicians.aspx. (return to text)
16 Wuthnow, Robert. 2007. “After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion.” Princeton University Press, pages 51-70. (return to text)
17 By contrast, some measures of religious commitment – such as frequency of prayer and the degree of importance that people assign to religion in their lives – do tend to rise with age. See the Pew Forum’s February 2010 report “Religion Among the Millennials,” http://www.pewforum.org/Age/Religion-Among-the-Millennials.aspx. (return to text)
18 Putnam, Robert D. 2000. “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Simon & Schuster. In “American Grace,” Putnam and Campbell also consider changing moral and social beliefs to be part of the mix. “American Grace,” page 127. (return to text)
19 See the December 2011 report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project “The civic and community engagement of religiously active Americans,” http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Social-side-of-religious/Overview.aspx. (return to text)
20 See, for example, The New York Times. 1968. “A Bleak Outlook is Seen for Religion.” Feb. 25, page 3. The article quotes sociologist Peter L. Berger predicting that by the 21st century, traditional religions would survive only in “small enclaves and pockets.” Berger has since renounced his earlier position. (return to text)
21 See Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart. 2004. “Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide.” Cambridge University Press, pages 216-217. They argue that “Societies where people’s daily lives are shaped by the threat of poverty, disease and premature death remain as religious today as centuries earlier. These same societies are also experiencing rapid population growth. In rich nations, by contrast, the evidence demonstrates that secularization has been proceeding since at least the mid-twentieth century (and probably earlier) – but at the same time fertility rates have fallen sharply, so that in recent years population growth has stagnated and their total population is starting to shrink. The result of these combined trends is that rich societies are becoming more secular but the world as a whole is becoming more religious.” Italics in original. Ibid, pages 216-217. (return to text)
22 See the 2007 report by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project “World Publics Welcome Global Trade — But Not Immigration,” http://www.pewglobal.org/2007/10/04/world-publics-welcome-global-trade-but-not-immigration/. (return to text)
23 Norris and Inglehart, Ibid, pages 89-95. They offer a number of possible explanations for America’s exceptional religiosity – asserting, in particular, that economic inequality and the perception of a porous social welfare net leave Americans feeling “greater anxieties” than citizens in other advanced industrial countries. They also mention “the fact that the United States was founded by religious refugees” and the continuing arrival of new immigrants who bring “relatively strong religiosity with them.” Ibid, pages 107-108 and 225-226. (return to text)