The two streams of American irreligiosity

By Razib Khan | February 26, 2008 1:10 am

Despite the fact that the mainstream media likes to write a lot of stories how religious revival in the United States one of the great unreported facts of the last 15 years is the rise of the proportion of Americans who are not affiliating with any religion. The reason this isn’t reported much is that it won’t sell that much copy; the irreligious by their nature don’t get that excited by irreligion. In contrast religious people want to read about how religion is on the rise. There will always be stories about how religion & science dovetail in the media because that sells magazines; the fact that 9 out of 10 National Academy of Science members are atheists or agnostics won’t sell magazines, and might even make scientists a little worried about the funding pipeline.

The US Religious Landscape Survey by Pew doesn’t come burdened by the need to satisfy the consumer market. From chapter 2:

The biggest gains due to changes in religious affiliation have been among those who say they are not affiliated with any particular religious group or tradition. Overall, 7.3% of the adult population says they were unaffiliated with any particular religion as a child. Today, however, 16.1% of adults say they are unaffiliated, a net increase of 8.8 percentage points. Sizeable numbers of those raised in all religions – from Catholicism to Protestantism to Judaism – are currently unaffiliated with any particular religion.

The unaffiliated group provides a good example of the high degree of religious movement that has taken place in the U.S. Overall, 3.9% of the adult population reports being raised without any particular religious affiliation but later affiliating with a religious group. However, more than three times as many people (12.7% of the adult population overall) were raised in a particular faith but have since become unaffiliated with any religious group.

Here are some breakdowns:

Percentage of Adults Entering and Leaving Each Group
  Childhood Religion Entering Group Leaving Group Current Group
Atheist 0.5 +1.4 -0.3 1.6
Agnostic <0.3 +2.3 -<0.3 2.4
Nothing in particular 6.6 +9.6 -4.1 12.1

But do note that not all unaffiliated people are atheists are agnostics, in fact, the majority are not. The Pew study notes that this unaffiliated group is divided between those who are secular (religious sentiments are not important) and those who are believers of some sort, if not affiliated (one could term these the “spiritual” segment). Below are some tables of interest from the Pew study.

Age Distribution
  18-29 30-49 50-64 65+
All unaffiliated 31 40 20 8
Atheist 37 36 16 12
Agnostic 34 34 22 9
Secular unaffiliated 29 41 21 8
Religious unaffiliated 30 43 20 7
  Less than High School High School Some College College Graduate School
All Americans 13 36 23 16 11
All unaffiliated 13 34 24 16 13
Atheist 8 28 23 21 21
Agnostic 5 22 29 23 20
Secular unaffiliated 10 35 24 17 13
Religious unaffiliated 21 40 22 11 6
  < $30 K $30 – $50 K $50 – $100 K > $100 K
All Americans 31 22 30 18
All unaffiliated 29 23 29 19
Atheist 21 20 31 28
Agnostic 18 22 35 25
Secular unaffiliated 25 24 30 21
Religious unaffiliated 40 24 25 12
  Male Female
All Americans 48 52
All unaffiliated 59 41
Atheist 70 30
Agnostic 64 36
Secular unaffiliated 60 40
Religious unaffiliated 52 48
Marital Status
  Married Partner Divorced/Separated Widowed Never Married
All Americans 54 6 12 8 19
All unaffiliated 46 10 12 3 28
Atheist 39 11 10 3 37
Agnostic 41 10 10 3 36
Secular unaffiliated 49 11 11 3 26
Religious unaffiliated 47 10 13 4 25
Number of children under age 18 living at home
  0 1 2 3+
All Americans 65 13 13 9
All unaffiliated 67 13 13 7
Atheist 75 11 10 5
Agnostic 75 11 9 4
Secular unaffiliated 67 15 13 5
Religious unaffiliated 60 14 14 12

Notice a trend? There is a spectrum of in terms of the clustering of demographic profiles, atheist & agnostics are at one end, and the “religious” unaffiliated at the other. In fact, in many ways the non-religious Americans who still exhibit a spiritual orientation are more like the typical American than they are like atheists or agnostics (with the secular, but still theist, group in the middle). In some characteristics, such as income and education, the spiritual segment is very different from the atheist & agnostic group, because attainment or level is below the American median for the former but above for the latter. What’s the explanation? I think it probably has do with an alienation from bourgeois orientation of American religion on the part of some lower and working class sectors. Think the mullet/wife-beater/Ricki Lake demographic. Religion and god are actually different things on a fundamental level, and atheists & agnostics reject the latter, which as a necessity usually implies rejection of the former, but many Americans who reject the former do not turn away from the latter.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. Secularization is happening in the United States, just a few generations after Europe, so the European model, where the proportion of atheists and non-affiliated theists increases over time is probably a good trend to bet on. And as I’ve noted before, though Europe is post-Christian it is not atheist.

  • BGC

    I’m glad you mention the ‘spiritual seekers’ which are a large and growing group on the landscape – as noted by the surveys and cohort studies of Wade Clark Roof – eg. The Spiritual Marketplace.
    Spiritual Seekers are more commonly known as New Age. This is another American invention which has spread all around the world.

  • razib

    well, i avoided the term ‘seeker’ or ‘new age’ because i don’t know if that is really accurate for ‘religious unaffiliated.’ they’re somewhat downscale and the new age group is often upscale. i would bet seekers are actually amalgamated in the ‘other faiths’ category in the pew survey, and they seem a bit more upscale than the unaffiliated category as a whole.

  • Kevin C.

    What caught my eye first was the distinct sex differences, with the unaffiiated being more male than female, particularly amongst the atheists and agnostics. Has anyone proposed an explanation for this?

  • razib

    What caught my eye first was the distinct sex differences, with the unaffiiated being more male than female, particularly amongst the atheists and agnostics. Has anyone proposed an explanation for this?
    males are more likely to be individualist & nonconformist? anyone who has been activist in atheist circles is well aware of the shlong-excess. same in libertarian circles, or all sorts of bizarro/embarrassing hobbyist groups.
    re: religion, the sex difference is pretty robust across cultures. in some roman catholic societies men even to some extent render to women the role of church-goer (i.e., they don’t have to go cuz their wife goes). in east asian societies females, especially older ones, tend to keep the temples going. but in south korea i’ve seen data which shows the same exact sex ratio imbalance between men and women for both buddhists and christians. i think the main exception here is the islamic world, where men often exclude women in large part from the public religious practice. but i’m not sure if this means men necessarily are more orthodox in belief.

  • Danny

    Why isn’t organized religion a bizarro/embarrassing hobbyist group? What is really the difference? [I don’t mean this as an attack, just wondering]
    How about cults like Scientology, Hare Krishna, etc., I wonder what the sexual balance is in places like that.

  • Levi

    Danny: Because I’d bet razib was using “bizarro/embarassing hobbyist group” to indicate radical deviation from the norm as opposed indicating some sort of value judgment.

  • Dan S.

    Atheist 70 30
    Agnostic 64 36

    Well, that has some interesting implications . . .
    What caught my eye first was the distinct sex differences, with the unaffiiated being more male than female, particularly amongst the atheists and agnostics. Has anyone proposed an explanation for this?
    One (contributing) factor that suggests itself is education – presumably we can try to test this?
    Do we know if this also works for non-‘world religions’?

  • manju

    Any idea about the male/female representation among the atheists and the agnostics of Europe?

  • Ingo Bading

    We know: traditional religiosity enhances birth rate worldwide. Atheism does not.
    Is there any group known in literature that shows that MODERN religiosity (the often mentioned “religion of A. Einstein”) is able to enhance birth rate? At least “in priniciple”?
    Here are some data for this possibility: The “anthroposophic lifestyle” as a group evolutionary strategy?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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