A new report from the University of California News Center describes data on American religiosity from the “General Social Survey” (GSS), a project that has been following American social attitudes since 1972. The project is in turn run by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) here at the University of Chicago.
You can download the GSS report here, and its title tells the tale: “More Americans have no religious preference.”
There are only a few results of interest, to me at least. The first is the continuing increase in the percentage of Americans lacking a religious preference. The question asked by GSS was this: “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?”
As the figure below shows, those answering “no religion” increased steadily from 5% in 1972 to 20% in 2012:
The lack of preference is, as expected, more prevalent in younger than in older Americans.
One might think that this decline in religious affiliation is mirrored by an decline in religious belief itself, but that’s not the case. The proportion of Americans who believe in God iremains steady, and the percentage of those believing in a “higher power” has actually increased significantly in the last two decades (see table below). Further, atheism and agnosticism (the first two lines in the table) have held steady, with no significant change since 1991:
One other salient result: if you ask which faith is losing adherents most quickly, it’s Catholicism. While the percentage of American Catholics has stayed constant over the last 50 years (about 25%), the report notes that this proportion should be actually be rising. That’s because Catholics hold a “demographic advantage” of higher relative fertility (a kind of natural selection among faiths), and selective immigration to the U.S. from Catholic countries. Taking this into account, the proportion of Catholics should have risen 11% in the last generation. This tells us what we—and the Vatican—already know: the Catholic church is weakening rapidly.
Oh, and only 1.5% of those surveyed (a random selection of Americans, pretty carefully chosen) were Jewish. That is, there are twice as many outright atheists as religious Jews.
There are more detailed results in the survey, but what I’ve given are probably the things you most want to know. The data support the idea that although there are more “nones” in America now than in the last generation, these people without religious preference aren’t becoming atheists. Rather, they’re becoming either believers who don’t prefer an established church, or those who express their religiosity as belief in a higher power.
Nevertheless, I see this as the first step to a less religious America—on our inexorable march to the secularism of northern Europe. Before one loses religion, one loses formal religion.
Finally, the increased numbers of “nones” in this survey clearly means that fewer Americans go to church, or even belong to a church, than ever before. And that’s relevant to the claim that atheists must suggest replacements for religion if we’re going to make any headway in eliminating superstition. The fact that religious affiliation has been declining for 40 years means that if such “replacements” really are necessary, they don’t involve the social benefits of belonging to or attending church. Rather, they would have to be purely psychological benefits—the solace of believing in a god or “higher power.” And psychological benefits are harder to replace. Alain de Botton should consider this when he pushes the idea of secular churches, priests, and temples.
Hout, M., C. S. Fischer, and M. A. Chaves. 2013. More Americans have no religion. Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, Berkeley, CA. (13 pp.)