By David Niose
America continues to trend secular. According to a recently released Pew study, almost one in four Americans, 23 percent, now identify as religiously unaffiliated, up from just 16 percent in 2007. This continues a shift that began in the early 1990s, when the percentage of religiously unaffiliated was in single digits. The rise of these “Nones” comes mainly at the expense of Christianity, which saw a drop from about 78 percent to 70 percent in the last eight years.
In trying to explain the swing toward secularity, the most common hypothesis is one that links the trend to politics, particularly the high-visibility political engagement of the religious right. A New York Times article about the Pew survey, for example, cited “the politicization of religion by American conservatives” as a key reason for the decline in Christian affiliation. Similarly, in an NPR interview in 2013, Harvard professor Robert Putnam explained the rise of Nones as a political reflex: “These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”
No matter what you think of this “political” explanation of the Nones, it’s interesting that it ignores the most obvious reason for abandoning a religion. That is, isn’t it quite possible that many are leaving Christianity simply because they don’t really believe it anymore?
In analyzing shifts in religious demographics, pundits and experts sometimes overlook the obvious: people usually identify with a religion because they accept its doctrines. To be sure, cultural factors also have great weight (people tend to believe and identify with the religion of their families, for example), but those who attribute the growth of religious disaffiliation to politics, without considering the basic notion of belief, are missing the elephant in the room.
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