Pew has an important new report out, “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Here is the bottom line in terms of numbers: over the past generation the proportion of Americans who explicitly reject a religious affiliation has doubled, from ~10 percent, to ~20 percent. In addition, the, the proportion who hold to Christian fundamentalist religious views has also declined. The United States of America is still a very religious nation in the context of the Western world, but 1990-2012 has been as second period of secularization after the “pause” of the 1970s and 1980s (after the initial wave of defections in the 1960s).
And these numbers apply not just to those with no religion, but atheists & agnostics as well. There has always been a tendency for more people to hold to atheistic and agnostic positions than those who would admit to being atheists or agnostics. That gap is closing. Why? I have no idea, but I do think that people need to stop talking about how terrible the New Atheism is for secularists. I doubt this wave of secularization has anything to do with the New Atheism (it precedes it), but certainly the New Atheism has not turned people off to secularism. I also think data like these need to put into perspective stupid books like God is Back (the book is stupid because the authors don’t know much about what they’re talking about in depth; this is contrast to someone like Philip Jenkins).
There are a few tidbits within the full report which warrant some attention. First, there are some indications that religious practice is declining (e.g., attendance at church). I think this is illusory. There has long been evidence that Americans overstate their church attendance. As more people leave their nominal Christian affiliation, they are no longer lying. Second, it turns out that the irreligious are really no more superstitious than the Christian. Finally, as I predicted earlier this year, America is now less than 50 percent Protestant in official affiliation. I say official, because I think culturally American remains overwhelmingly Protestant, in that American Catholicism and Judaism both have a Protestant congregational flavor.