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According to new data from the General Social Survey, America is increasingly divided between the very religious and the “Nones,” while the number of people in-between the two extremes—those with a weak religious affiliation, who consider themselves only somewhat religious—is declining.

In recent years, sociologists have focused on the so-called “rise of the Nones,” a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. According to most surveys, roughly one-fifth of Americans now belong in this category—a remarkable increase since the 1990s. Among young Americans, the figure is even higher: Roughly one-third are Nones. Sociologists attribute this rise to several factors, including demographic changes and the sexual revolution (many Nones say they reject organized religion because of its retrograde attitudes about sexuality, especially homosexuality and gender identity). The rise of the Nones is often considered a confirmation of the so-called secularization thesis, according to which America—like other Western liberal democracies—will inevitably become less and less religious over time until religion withers away.  

Last month, the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago released its biannual report on Americans’ attitudes and practices. Some of the facts in its 2018 report support the secularization thesis, but some do not. On one hand, the number of Nones has continued to grow. The 2018 survey reveals that 23 percent of Americans now give their religious affiliation as “No religion.” When one examines the GSS data for the past thirty years, an unmistakable trend appears. “No religion” has grown steadily since the early 1990s, with a slight and temporary reversal around the year 2001. (Perhaps 9/11 drove some Nones back to church, at least for a while.) If one looks only at the data on the Nones, therefore, the 2018 report suggests that Americans are steadily turning our backs on religion, just as the secularization thesis would predict.

But when one digs deeper, the 2018 report complicates the story. Consider, for example, the percentage of Americans who report that their religious affiliation is “Strong.” This percentage has fluctuated a bit over the decades, but the most recent survey puts it at 34 percent, a number that has remained basically unchanged since 1975, when 35 percent of Americans reported a strong religious affiliation. Apparently, the rise of the Nones is not attributable to a decline in religious enthusiasm among the most strongly committed.

By contrast, the decline in the percentage of Americans who say their religious affiliation is only “Somewhat strong” appears steadier, particularly in recent years. In 2006, about 12 percent of Americans told the GSS surveyors that their affiliation was “Somewhat Strong.” In the most recent survey, that percentage has fallen to only 4 percent. That is a significant drop.

This data suggests that the rise of the Nones is not due to a general societal decline in religious fervor, but to a decline in religious affiliation among people whose identification was weak to begin with. People whose attachment to religion was already somewhat tenuous have gradually left and become Nones (or died and not been replaced), while people whose attachment to religion was strong have maintained their identities (or have been replaced by new people with similarly strong commitments). In American religion, as in our politics and economics, the middle seems to be dropping out in favor of the extremes on either end.

Other data in the 2018 report supports this interpretation. For example, 48 percent of Americans say they believe the Bible is the “Inspired word” (presumably of God), almost exactly the same figure as in 1984. The percentages of Americans who attend religious services on a regular basis—nearly every week, two to three times a month, or once a month—have remained more or less constant over the decades (though the number of people who attend religious services every week has declined, from almost 30 percent in 1972 to about 17 percent today). The percentage of people who say that they pray every day has remained almost the same since 1983—about 30 percent.

Confirmation bias is always a problem when one looks at data like this. Still, the 2018 report suggests that Americans are becoming deeply divided in our attitudes toward religion, a subject about which I’ve written elsewhere. That division has begun to influence American politics. The Republican Party has become the home of the religiously committed. According to a recent Pew survey, about 70 percent of Republicans and people who lean Republican believe in the God of the Bible. By contrast, only 45 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaners say the same. In fact, Nones now make up the largest “religious” group in the Democratic Party—about 30 percent, according to another Pew study. If Republicans are the religious party, the Democrats are the party of secularism, notwithstanding occasional talk about the religious left.

Perhaps American society will be able to manage these religious, and partisan, divisions in a productive way. But the historical record of societies that polarize along religious lines is not especially hopeful—especially when polarization begins to affect politics. Overcoming our divisions will require good will and exceptional prudence, on both sides. 

Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion.

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