Despite, or perhaps because of, all the religious lunacy sweeping our political system, there trend towards secularization - particularly among younger generations - continues unabated. Note that being secular or non-affiliated is not the same as being an atheist: many nonreligious people also identify as deists, spiritualists, or even Christians without a denomination.
The rapid rise of Nones — including atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe “nothing in particular” — defies the usually glacial rate of change in spiritual identity.
Barry Kosmin, co-author of three American Religious Identification Surveys, theorizes why None has become the “default category.” He says, “Young people are resistant to the authority of institutional religion, older people are turned off by the politicization of religion, and people are simply less into theology than ever before.”
Kosmin’s surveys were the first to brand the Nones in 1990 when they were 6% of U.S. adults. By 2008 survey, Nones were up to 15%. By 2010, another survey, the bi-annual General Social Survey, bumped the number to 18%.
Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church, the nation’s largest religious denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, Methodists and Lutherans, all show membership flat or inching downward, according to the2012 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.
There’s some concern as to whether this trend will continue at this relatively rapid pace.
Two forces could hold Nones’ numbers down. First, they are disproportionately young, often single, and highly educated — all groups with a low birth rate. Second, the number of believers who immigrate to the USA from particularly religious nations, such as Catholics from Mexico, fluctuates with government policies and economic issues, Chaves says.
But the chief way the category grows is by “switchers.” A 2009 Pew Forum look at “switching” found more than 10% of American adults became Nones after growing up within a religious group.
Indeed, with some exceptions, most of the world’s most secular societies have among the lowest birthrates. Is secularism, which is usually (though not always) correlated with greater individuality and women’s rights, doomed to extinction because of its own progressivism?
Not quite. The silver-lining to this data is that it actually reveals the strength of our movement, which relies less on mere birth rates and more on the merits of its own arguments. Instead of relegating women to the role of “believer factories” in order to win the demographically, we rely on the moral and intellectual persuasion of our position to win people over.
In a similar vein, polls have shown that many people (again, the youth in particular) leave organized religion precisely because of the intolerance, intrusiveness, and irrationality that grips many of these institutions (even evangelical pollsters like the Barna Group have admitted to these finding). Much of this trend is driven by self-emancipation and individual initiative, which I think is far more preferable to popping out children and indoctrinating them.
Either way, the efforts to advocate and engage on behalf of secularism seems to be paying off. We must continue campaigns to make non-religious positions more public and acceptable, whether by “coming out” as irreligious or discussing it more in the open with others.