Slowly but surely, America's godless heathens are multiplying. According to a new Pew poll, one in five Americans reports no affiliation with any established religion—so that covers agnostics, atheists, the "spiritual not religious" crowd, and just general IDKs. That's up from 8% just two decades ago.
Via the Washington Post:
Their numbers have increased dramatically over the past two decades, according to the study released Tuesday. About 19.6 percent of Americans say they are "nothing in particular," agnostic or atheist, up from about 8 percent in 1990. One-third of adults under 30 say the same. Pew offered people a list of more than a dozen possible affiliations, including "Protestant," "Catholic," "something else" and "nothing in particular."
For the first time, Pew also reported that the number of Americans identifying themselves as Protestant dipped below half, at 48 percent. But the United States is still very traditional when it comes to religion, with 79 percent of Americans identifying with an established faith group.
The Pew data also indicates that Americans' political affiliations are increasingly aligned with their religious beliefs. It used to be the case, the study says, that religious congregations were a mixed bag politically. Today, with white evangelicals making up much of the Republican base, and the aforementioned "nones" skewing 64% liberal, the study presents "a stark map of how political and religious polarization have merged in recent decades."
"We think it's mostly a reaction to the religious right," said Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who has written at length about the decline in religious affiliation. "The best predictor of which people have moved into this category over the last 20 years is how they feel about religion and politics" aligning, particularly conservative politics and opposition to gay civil rights.
As I wrote yesterday, I am not religious, but I certainly don't care if other people want to be. The only sticking point emerges when people want to use those religious beliefs (which, as far as my life is concerned, are superstitious fiction) to encroach upon people's legal rights. When religious conservatives attempt to dismantle the separation of church and state (making women's healthcare into a moral issue, for example; or denying gay couples the same legal rights that straight couples enjoy, because some ancient book says so), that's when I take issue with religion. When we start getting into conversations like this:
"Wait, why don't I get equal rights?"
"Because the Bible says so."
"But I don't believe in the Bible."
"Well, I do. So tough shit."
...that's when we have a problem. Love the sinner, hate the sin? Fine. I can respect your religion but hate what you do with it.
As the ranks of the "unaffiliated" grow, and the numbers aligned with religious establishments drop, the dwindling ranks of hardline religious folks seem to be becoming even more entrenched and fervent in their extremism. Is this the beginning of religious bigotry's massive death-flail? Wishful thinking, maybe:
As American religion is in full churn, experts often debate whether the country will go the way of Europe, with a more institutionalized secularism. But many note that religion has been a busy marketplace in the United States and continues to reinvent itself. Even if the structures and institutions and terms we know slip, Putnam said, it's unlikely that secularism will replace spirituality and faith in this country.
To be clear, I don't care if secularism replaces spirituality and faith—I know a lot of people who get a lot of comfort and guidance from the idea of a higher power. But it would do all of us a lot of good to eliminate the socially conservative, "oppress thy neighbor" veins of American religion. I'm sure kind-hearted, ordinary Christians are just as sick of being lumped in with Tea-Party maniacs as I am of trying to justify my humanity to bigots. Good riddance.