According to the General Social Survey (GSS), the number of people who identify themselves as having “no religion” has risen a staggering 266 percent since 1991. Those with no religion make up slightly less than a quarter of the population which puts them on equal footing with Catholics (23 percent) and Evangelicals (22.5 percent.)
What accounts for the dramatic rise in people with no religion?
Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University who analyzed the data, said that experts have several theories about why the number of ‘nones’ has risen so dramatically in recent decades.
‘One of them is that many people used to lie about what they were,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘Many people were (always) atheist or non-religious, but it was previously culturally unacceptable to not have a religion in America.’
In addition to a cultural climate that is more amenable to identifying as non-religious, Burge suggests that religious extremists have driven people away from identifying with religion.
‘Another (theory) is that the religious right kind of cleaved moderate Christianity and a lot of moderate Christians who were moderately attached said they didn’t want to defend Jerry Falwell … and all the anti-gay and anti- abortion religious rights leaders,’ Burge said. ‘So they said, ‘You know what? I’m out.’
Burge also says that America is on a trajectory to becoming less religious just like Europe and the Scandinavian countries. “The big questions is what next in terms of what religion is going to look like in America,” he said. “Secularization theory argues that as countries become more industrialized and prosperous then the throwing off of religion becomes more normalized.”
Pew Research offers another way at measure religiosity: on a continuum. Rather than simply measure what religion or lack of religion with which people connect, Pew measures the degree of religious practice and devotion.
The new typology sorts Americans into seven groups based on the religious and spiritual beliefs they share, how actively they practice their faith, the value they place on their religion, and the other sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives.
This difference might account for the trend we find in the GSS survey: the number of people who identify with a religion is not the same as the number of people expressing their faith and belief in that religion’s tenants. It’s possible that this growing number of “no religion” people were previously people who identified with a religion but were not actively engaged with it or actively shared said religious beliefs. It could be as Burge says, merely more culturally acceptable to have “no religion.”
The GSS survey is in line with Gallup’s recent survey on religion released Christmas 2018. Gallup found that 27 percent say religion is not very important to them. Gallup also found a decline in the number of people who believe that religion is losing its influence over public life, more than three-quarters say so.
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