America continues to trend secular. According to a recently released Pew study, almost one in four Americans, 23 percent, now identify as religiously unaffiliated, up from just 16 percent in 2007. This continues a shift that began in the early 1990s, when the percentage of religiously unaffiliated was in single digits. The rise of these “Nones” comes mainly at the expense of Christianity, which saw a drop from about 78 percent to 70 percent in the last eight years.
In trying to explain the swing toward secularity, the most common hypothesis is one that links the trend to politics, particularly the high-visibility political engagement of the religious right. A New York Times article about the Pew survey, for example, cited "the politicization of religion by American conservatives" as a key reason for the decline in Christian affiliation. Similarly, in an NPR interview in 2013, Harvard professor Robert Putnam explained the rise of Nones as a political reflex: “These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”
No matter what you think of this “political” explanation of the Nones, it’s interesting that it ignores the most obvious reason for abandoning a religion. That is, isn’t it quite possible that many are leaving Christianity simply because they don’t really believe it anymore?
In analyzing shifts in religious demographics, pundits and experts sometimes overlook the obvious: people usually identify with a religion because they accept its doctrines. To be sure, cultural factors also have great weight (people tend to believe and identify with the religion of their families, for example), but those who attribute the growth of religious disaffiliation to politics, without considering the basic notion of belief, are missing the elephant in the room.
In fact, the Pew numbers showing the decline in Christian identity are entirely consistent with a 2013 Harris survey of religious beliefs, which showed that most core Christian beliefs are also on the decline. Between 2007 and 2013, for example, belief in miracles decreased from 79 to 72 percent among American adults. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus dropped from 70 to 65 percent, with similar drops for beliefs in heaven, the divinity of Jesus, and other Christian concepts.
Now, it’s certainly possible that the political climate in America, including the emergence of the religious right, may have driven some people to rethink their religious beliefs, thus creating a link between politics and religious disbelief, but it would be oversimplified to explain the drift toward religious disaffiliation as political. Clearly, actual religious beliefs are shifting along with identities.
This is more understandable when we bear in mind that Christianity is not merely a belief that God exists, but rather is a lengthy and detailed set of beliefs. The implausible idea of revelation—that God, the creator of the universe, spoke to ancient men—is a foundational concept in Christianity, before even reaching other unlikely notions such as original sin, immaculate conception, virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and miracles. Though the image of Christianity is one of an enduring and almost timeless church, the fragility of its doctrines make it more vulnerable to advancing modernity than many realize. The theology is akin to a house of cards: if one rejects any of its numerous underlying concepts, the entire structure collapses.
Of course, as modernity has emerged in the last few hundred years, many have predicted the downfall of Christianity, only to see it endure. As a meme, Christianity has certainly shown impressive survival value. Just as importantly, however, the numerous memes of modernity—especially science, but others as well—show no sign of diminishing either. As communications become easier, information spreads, and modern values become embedded, more are moving away from doctrines proclaimed by ancient men. It is the strength of modernity that best explains the growth of the Nones and decline in Christian numbers.
As for the "political" angle, it’s not surprising that diminishing belief would cause cultural tensions that manifest themselves in politics. The rise of religious fundamentalism has often been described, and accurately so, as a reaction to modernity, and it isn't surprising that fundamentalism might express itself in politics. And just as predictably, those moving toward secularity will resist the fundamentalist efforts. Welcome to the culture wars.
Order David Niose’s Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason.