Why the “nones” leave religion: US and UK getting less religious

The Pew organization, which certainly has no bias that I can detect against religion, had reanalyzed some data from its 2014 U.S. “Religious landscape study,” asking people who said they were both “nones” (those not affiliated with a church) and also had formerly been raised as church members but later abandoned that membership. The results are described here, and the methodology (apparently a phone survey of 5,000 people) here.

What they did, as you can see in the chart below, is divide those who abandoned their childhood faith into five groups based on the reasons for their apostasy. To wit: don’t believe in religious claims, dislike organized religion in general, those who are “spiritual” or “seekers” and are classified as “religiously unsure/undecided”, and those who still believe but are too busy to do the church thing. Each of these five, given as a percentage of the total, is in bold in the first column below, and then within each group the reasons are further subdivided (still first column):

FT_16.08.23_religNones_table

Right off the bat you can see a problem: these reasons are overlapping, so how did they group people into categories? Further, the numbers in bold in the first column don’t add up to 100%, as they should (they add up to a bit more than 103%).

Well, okay, there are some problems, and there are also problems of self-report. That said, we can still get something out of the data above. The main lesson, which probably isn’t an artifact of self-report, is that 49% of people say they left their childhood faith simply because they no longer believed in the claims of that faith.

Pew also gives a table of quoted reasons for people falling into each of the five categories (below), and add this in the report:

About half of current religious “nones” who were raised in a religion (49%) indicate that a lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many respondents who mention “science” as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said “I’m a scientist now, and I don’t believe in miracles.” Others reference “common sense,” “logic” or a “lack of evidence” – or simply say they do not believe in God.

Those who claim there’s no conflict between religion and science now must tell us why learning science drives people away from religion, and I don’t see how they can do it except by accepting my thesis in Faith Versus Fact: science and religion both make statements about how the cosmos is, but only science has a way to test those claims. And by instilling the habit of doubt as part of its toolkit of understanding the Universe, science automatically leads to weakening religious belief, which, after all, rests on no evidence at all but is simply fabricated wish-fulfillment and a means of social control.

Here are some representative quotes. At the FFRF meetings in Pittsburgh I’ll talk about why evolution in particular tends to turn people into nonbelievers.

FT_16.08.23_religNones_examples

Finally, they divided members of each of the five classes as to whether they considered themselves atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular”. Again this is a problematic classification if based on self-identification, but does show strong associations with reasons they left the church.

As Pew says:

Religious “nones” are by no means monolithic. They can be broken down into three broad subgroups: self-identified atheists, those who call themselves agnostic and people who describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” Given these different outlooks, it is not surprising that there are major gaps among these three groups when it comes to why they left their childhood religion behind. An overwhelming majority of atheists who were raised in a religion (82%) say they simply do not believe, but this is true of a smaller share of agnostics (63%) and only 37% of those in the “nothing in particular” category.

In fact, while this latter group certainly includes many nonbelievers, it also has substantial shares of people who, alternatively, are opposed to organized religion (22%) or who could be described as religiously unsure or undecided (22%). And more than one-in-ten people with the “nothing in particular” label (14%) say they are either non-practicing or too busy to engage in religious practices, compared with zero atheists in the survey and only 3% of agnostics.

*********

More heartening news, this time from Britain. In an article in the “This sceptic isle” section of the Economist, the always anonymous writer argues that “Britain is unusually irreligious, and becoming more so. That calls for a national debate.”  First, the heartening facts—to nonbelievers, that is:

Last year the church reported a “sharp upturn” in such disposals [churches getting sold off because there aren’t enough parishioners to support them]. That hints at a milestone that Britain reached in January, when figures for weekly church attendance fell below 1m for the first time, as well as one passed in 2009, when the proportion of Britons saying they had no religion (49% in the latest data, for 2015) overtook that saying they were Christian (43% in 2015) in NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey. Other figures also point to this spiritual sorpasso: since 2004 church baptisms are down by 12%, church marriages are down by 19% and church funerals by 29%. A 65-country study by WIN/Gallup last year found a lower proportion of people are religious in Britain than in all but six other countries.

The country is littered with evidence of the change. Everywhere deconsecrated churches are reopening as bars and restaurants. Five hundred churches were turned into luxury homes over five years in London alone. Shrinking congregations and growing repair bills are typically the fatal combination: about a quarter of Sunday services are attended by fewer than 16 parishioners. The Church of England is doing its best to manage this trend. Christmas-only parishes, catering to the once-a-year crowd, are one avenue. A new app enables cashless millennials to chip in to a virtual collection plate.

All this despite the fact that the percentage of Brits who describe themselves as “religious” remains pretty constant: about 80%. But it’s clear that they’re religious in a different way—a way verging on nonbelief. Britain is in fact is becoming very secular very fast, and faster than the U.S.

Sadly, the article then devolves into a soul-searching discussion of “how can we possibly replace religion?” The author tortures herself with thoughts like “What will we do with the Bishops in the House of Lords?”;  “Who will give us a place for moral guidance and communion?”

The Economist fails to consider that we don’t really have to worry about these matters. The lesson of other secularized societies, including France, Sweden, and Denmark, is that religion gets replaced by a natural social evolution that somehow meets the needs of former believers. In fact, as society improves and becomes more empathic towards its most deprived and despised, the need for religion largely vanishes. All the Economist‘s soul-searching, and its claims that Britain must “lead the way” in helping the world secularize, is just so much hot air.

32 Comments

  1. Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I have never understood those who claim there is nothing incompatible between science and religion. EVERYTHING about them is incompatible. What they say about the world. How they see the world. How they go about testing if what they see about the world is valid. Though one hardly need become a scientist to question religion, I’ve always wondered at those scientists who are religious in the traditional sense.

    As Jerry mentioned above, “science and religion both make statements about how the cosmos is, but only science has a way to test those claims. And by instilling the habit of doubt as part of its toolkit of understanding the Universe, science automatically leads to weakening religious belief, which, after all, rests on no evidence at all but is simply fabricated wish-fulfillment and a means of social control.”

    Indeed.

    Carl Kruse

    • jimroberts
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      sub

  2. Tumara Baap
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    “how can we possibly replace religion?” The author tortures herself …

    Close your eyes shut, kneel, shed your conceit, and ponder pithily “O what would Spock do?”

    One thing the author and I probably agree on: those who think nothing good can come out of beseeching the wisdom of a fictional character just don’t know what they are talking about.

  3. nwalsh
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    According to Wikipedia (2011)British Columbia was 44 percent irreligious. Yea!

    • Glenda from Kelowna
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      I was not aware of this.THNX.You made my day.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      My atheist friends keep telling me to move out there!

      • rickflick
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 5:36 am | Permalink

        If you do go they make you swear allegiance on a copy of Darwin. 😎

      • Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t atheism strong in Canada?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

          Yes but not strong enough. Religion is considered a private thing and religion in the state is frowned upon but we have historical hang ups like the public funding of Catholic schools in several provinces and prayers before public meetings in several local governments. Our last PM notoriously said “God bless Canada” al, the time which freaked out most Canadians.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

            Very like us (NZ) except no mainstream politician would say, “God Bless NZ.” Everyone would think he or she had lost their mind. We have religious political parties, but they’ve never got enough votes to get anywhere near parliament.

            • rickflick
              Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

              “Everyone would think he or she had lost their mind.”

              In the US: “some day over the rainbow…”. I’d have to say you’ve got some pretty nice people in NZ. Can we haz sum?

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

                Our biggest population growth is as a result of immigration – I think a lot of your nicest people must be moving here and improving our average!

    • Grania Devine
      Posted August 29, 2016 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      As a BC atheist, I have to say this is unexpected and wonderful news.

  4. Derek Freyberg
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to copy in a comment from an anonymous commenter to the Economist article because I think it makes a significant point:

    “Another example of journalists who don’t understand the changing nature of religion in the UK. The focus in the article is mostly on the C of E, which has seen decline in attendance between the 60’s and 2000’s, but the decline has slowed to being broadly static in recent years. However, the general pattern of UK church attendance remains broadly level in England, while slightly declining in Wales and Scotland. This is mainly due to growth in non-mainstream churches, e.g. Pentecostal, Free Churches, Fresh Expressions churches, etc. While the article cites average weekly attendance falling below 1 million, this is only for the C of E. All denominations in all parts of the UK have roughly 6 million adults attending once a month or more. Note that combined political party membership, even after the Corbyn surge, is only around 1 million, of whom 90% just pay their annual subs but don’t really get involved. Joining a political party costs around £25 per year, voluntary giving per adult to the C of E averages around £360 per member per year. Religion is far, far more active and vibrant than party politics in the UK.
    By only looking at the big, historic denominations (who are more likely to publish membership statistics than the newer, more informal denominations) most articles in the press completely miss this changing nature of church attendance.
    Research by the peerless Peter Brierley has shown that Britain had 49,727 churches in 2008 and 50,660 in 2013. This includes a decrease in Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterians, but these are more than compensated by the opening of new Pentecostal, smaller denomination and New Church denominations.
    And a final point – Christianity is not the only religion in Britain. Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism, etc. are also holding up quite well.”

    Mainstream UK religion (CofE) may be declining, religiosity isn’t necessarily. Also, the decline is in the more liberal religions, the gains seem likely to be in the less liberal ones.
    And I’m not sure this isn’t so in the US too.

  5. Loic
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    82% of Atheists don’t believe… ???

    So 18% believe in something? 😉 I must miss something here.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    … those who still believe but are too busy to do the church thing.

    That’s probably an invalid category. It would probably be more accurate to label them “those who don’t believe, but don’t think about it much.”

    If they actually accepted the creedal dictates of any of the world’s major religions on a meaningful level, it would be impossible for them to be so blasé about religious observance. After all, is anybody ever really “too busy” to save their immortal soul from eternal torment?

    (I’m assuming here that most respondents in this category aren’t nonchalant Buddhists or halfhearted devotees of another religion that eschews the existence of heaven and hell.)

    • rickflick
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      When I read these polls and lists of categories, I often think there are a lot of people who don’t really give a damn. They are too busy worrying about their job, keeping their lawn green, or who’s going to take the Word Series. Whether they attend church or not, they likely are just there out of habit or to keep the family happy, or to show off their new get-up. Once the service is over, they might chat with a friend about the weather or fishing lures. That’s worth coming out for, isn’t it? Belief is something these people espouse like they might say they like steak medium rare. Answering poll questions they probably just give a careless answer which can be quite misleading.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        I’m afraid you’re sadly mistaken, Rick — lots of people actually do care that their steaks not be overcooked. 🙂

        • rickflick
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

          Now your cookin’.

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Learned about evolution when I went away to college. Next question, why didn’t you get there from evolution in high school? Never mind – either you didn’t get it in high school or that was covered one day and you were sick and missed out.

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I don’t like that combo of disenchanted/don’t believe. Disenchanted implies that you still think god exists but you’re just really disappointed in him. That’s very different from believing there is no god.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Agree, and the land of disenchantment would be religion or Disneyland.

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      I think that modern religions, unlike ancient ones, do not leave space for obedience to evil deities. So, as soon as one realizes that God is an unpleasant character, I think the transition to “unpleasant fictional character” is smooth.

      A T. Pratchett character once said: “Yes, I know that gods exist. But I refuse to believe in them, because I don’t want to encourage them!”

  9. GBJames
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    What a nice Saturday post!

  10. Posted August 27, 2016 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Pray to the great polywaffle that next Saturdays post is just as good.

  11. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    since 2004 church baptisms are down by 12%, church marriages are down by 19% and church funerals by 29%.

    Hmmm, interesting that the march from the start of life, through taxation, to the inevitability of death, is accompanied by a DECREASE in visible religious observance.
    I’m sure that the purveyors of the “no atheists in a foxhole” lie would find that counter-intuitive and disturbing. “If the approach of death won’t scare them into the pews” (Pews? Ed.), “then what tactic can we use to terrorise them back into slack-jawed acceptance of drivel from on high.”
    Cue drumming up the spectre of illegal immigrant terrorist baby-eaters.

    [churches getting sold off because there aren’t enough parishioners to support them].

    Hmmm, in this cathedral city of somewhat under 10,000, there are at least two abandoned (“disposed”) churches. And probably more – I haven’t any reason to conduct a street-by-street search. One has been up for sale, I’m told, for about 8 years (still no sale – listed building) while the other just seems to be abandoned and completely neglected. Quoth Shaddup, “Oh dear. What a pity. Never. Mind.”

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      I wonder, how is our potential going to church expected to scare away – or reform – illegal immigrant terrorist baby-eaters?

  12. nicky
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    I think these categories are very much overlapping, surprised they only got to 103%.
    I don’t believe *and* I don’t need religion *and* my views evolved *and* religion causes conflict, etc. And all of these were reasons to become an atheist.

    Also, you can be an atheist *and* an agnostic.
    Atheist in the sense that you know that whatever deities religions have on offer is BS, but agnostic in the sense that you do not really know what is. There just might be some ‘higher power’, eg. an organising principle or *very* advanced aliens that we don’t know about (not that I think it is probable, but we can’t exclude).
    In other words, if you are 6.99 (as I consider myself) on Richard’s 7 point atheism scale, you are still ‘agnostic’ too.

  13. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    “how can we possibly replace religion?”

    One much overlooked possibility (in any decision making) is ‘do nothing’. Indeed you could argue that there is too much wailing and gnashing of teeth about “we need to do something” when laws already exist or alternatives already exist and so on. Particularly when “we need to do something else” the following week.

    And sometimes ‘doing something’ generates resistance.

  14. Posted August 28, 2016 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    “What will we do with the Bishops in the House of Lords?”

    Good question.

    Time to shut down that lark.

  15. Posted August 29, 2016 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    “the proportion of Britons saying they had no religion (49% …)”

    … but …

    “the percentage of Brits who describe themselves as ‘religious’ remains pretty constant: about 80%”

    Where does the latter figure come from, Jerry?

    /@ / Adelaide

  16. Glandu
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    Or how to defend a church vowed to destruction(they couldn’t pay the rent) : by punching random by-passers. Bonus points if the target is black.


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