It’s a clear contradiction of the political narrative that’s been presented by faith-based hacks in the Democratic and Republican Party. Even as they have been claiming that the United States is growing more religious, the just-released Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey shows the opposite. “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,”, the report on the survey’s results says.
The Pew study contains a category of Americans it calls “unaffiliated”. Included in this group are those Americans who call themselves atheists or agnostics, and those Americans who respond that their religious affiliation is “nothing in particular”. Of this “nothing in particular” group, a little more than half are non-religious (called “secular”), and a little less than half are vaguely religious but not affiliated with any religion.
In a lot of areas of the report, the Pew Forum seems to edge away from reporting on atheists, agnostics and the secular unaffiliated. It’s as if the people at the Pew Forum don’t really know what to make of this group, given that they’re dedicated to examining “religion and public life” – not people who are apart from religion.
Some things are clear, however. Christians are older than the population in general, with fewer adherents of Christianity in the newest generation of adults. Atheists, agnostics, and secular unaffiliated Americans, on the other hand, are more abundant in the new generation of American adults.
In the general population, 20 percent of people are in the age range of 18-29 year-olds. 37 percent of atheists, however, are aged 18-29. 34 percent of agnostics are in that age range, and 29 percent of secular unaffiliated Americans are. No religious group shows anything like that high percentage of representation by the young.
That this age dynamic is a generational shift, and not the reflection of some kind of permanent dynamic in which young people start out as non-religious and then become religious later in life, is indicated by the relatively low percentage of adults leaving the religiously unaffiliated groups.
This is one area in which the Pew Forum does not differentiate between secular and religious unaffiliated. I’m sorry that I can’t fully describe these numbers. Call the Pew Forum to complain. What I can say, based upon their statistics, is that more far people become atheists as adults than leave their atheist identity behind. The same is true for agnostics, and for people who say that their religious affiliation is “nothing in particular”.
The number of people who currently say they were atheists as children is only a third of the number of people who currenly say that they are atheists as adults. Agnostics show a doubling of numbers in the move from childhood to adulthood, and generally unaffiliated Americans show a tripling in numbers. Catholics and Protestants, on the other hand, tend to lose some adherents as they age.
So, it seems that non-religious identity is something that Americans tend to mature into, and Christian identity is something that Americans tend to mature out of – although some members of all groups retain their identity lifelong.
This trend in maturation, combined with the disproportionately young character of non-religious Americans, suggests that the new generation is distinctly more non-religious than previous generations, and that this generation will probably remain more non-religious than its predecessors.
This trend ought to serve as a wakeup call for politicians to pull back on the kind of religious pandering we’ve seen so much of during the 2008 presidential election so far. Atheists, agnostics and non-religious secular Americans make up 10.3 percent of the population.
That means that non-religious Americans are a larger group than Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Unitarians, New Agers, Quakers, Pagans, Wiccans, and religiously-active members of Judaism and Native American tribes combined.
There are almost as many non-religious Americans as there are evangelical Baptists. Episcopals are puny in number compared to non-religious Americans. So are Methodists, Congregationalists, Orthodox Christians, Presbyterians, and Seventh Day Adventists.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both spent a lot of time courting the support of what are called “historically black churches” in the Pew Forum survey. However, non-religious Americans easily outnumber the people affiliated with those churches.
Catholics? Well, yes, Catholics outnumber non-religious Americans a little bit more than two-to-one. However, the Catholic portion of the population of the United States is in sharp decline, whereas the non-religious portion of the US population is strongly increasing.
Pay attention, politicians – non-religious Americans are on the rise. The days when our right to equal protection under the law can be ignored are numbered.