Tuesday, January 25, 2011

American Grace and the ‘Nones’

I’m reading American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. It’s an interesting and statistics-laden study of US religion over the past 50 years.

The book discusses a huge number of issues, trends, and cross-currents, and makes for thought-provoking reading. A topic which I find particularly interesting is the recent growth in the portion of Americans with no religious affiliation (sometimes referred to as the “nones”), and I was curious how the authors analyze the phenomenon.

The percentage of nones in the authors’ 2006 “Faith Matters Survey” of 3,108 Americans was 17%. This is very close to the 2007 (released 2008) Pew US Religious Landscape Survey (a sample of over 35,000), which put the percentage at 16.1%. Putnam and Campbell take note of the growth of category in recent years. Using longer-term data from the General Social Survey, they note that the percentage of nones hovered at about 7% during the 70’s and 80’s, but then began a steady march toward 17% beginning in the 90’s. The trend is particularly acute among younger people: the increase in the 18-29 year-old cohort over this period went from just over 10% to over 25% (the Pew survey also pegged the 2007 percentage of 18-29 nones at 25%). To be clear on this point, younger Americans have always been less religiously inclined than older ones, but the recent generational cohorts are much less religious so than previous cohorts of young people.

Putnam and Campbell construct a plausible narrative which explains (at least in part) some of the biggest trends in the last 50 years, including increased religious polarization and the recent rise of the nones. Here’s a one paragraph distillation from the first chapter:

“The nation’s religious polarization has not been an inexorable process of smoothly unfolding change. Rather, it has resulted from three seismic societal shocks, the first of which was the sexually libertine 1960’s. This tumultuous period then produced a prudish aftershock of growth in conservative religion, especially evangelicalism, and an even more pronounced cultural presence for American evangelicals, most noticeably in the political arena. As theological and political conservatism began to converge, religiously inflected issues emerged on the national political agenda, and “religion” became increasingly associated with the Republican Party. The first aftershock was followed by an opposite reaction, a second aftershock, which is still reverberating. A growing number of Americans, especially young people, have come to disavow religion. For many, their aversion to religion is rooted in unease with the association between religion and conservative politics. If religion equals Republican, then they have decided that religion is not for them. (p.3)”

I think this story makes pretty good sense, although clearly (and as the authors frequently say) there exist a huge number of caveats and cross-currents within the larger trends. They do support their highlighting of sexual concerns as a key factor using survey data: opinions about pre-marital sex provided one of the most dramatic demarcations between the 1960’s coming-of-age boomers and previous generations, while opinions about homosexuality provide one of the clearest demarcations between the highly religious and the nones today.

Is this a good explanation of the rise of the nones? I would like to hear from those who disagree with this narrative to test my own level of confidence in it (none of the book reviews I’ve read so far – NYT, WSJ, WaPo, CS Monitor-- took issue with the broad outline). The idea that the expression of values in the political domain could drive religious affiliation (rather than the other way around) was something I hadn’t thought much about before.

I’m interested in looking more closely at the nones as a group, and there’s a fair amount of data available. American Grace has some additional discussion, while the Pew surveys asked a large number of questions which shed light on their opinions and beliefs. There was also a survey called the American Religious Identification Survey in 2008 which spun off a report (pdf) on the nones.

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