Atheists Are Still Small in Number, But Organized Religion is On the Decline

Recent survey data analyzed by sociologists from UC Berkeley and Duke University has revealed a decrease in Americans who identify with a specific religion. The data, gleaned from the General Social Survey poll by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, shows “a trend of Americans disavowing a specific religious affiliation that has accelerated greatly since 1990.” Rather than a definitive lack of belief in a deity, however, the data shows a lack of desire to commit to a particular religion.

The study states that 20% of Americans polled do not have a religious preference. This is a marked change from samples taken in 1990, when only 8% of respondents did not identify with a religion. The 20% in the sample are considered to be “unchurched,” which can mean either atheist or “no religion” — a difference that is stressed in the study.

Atheists make up 3% of the NORC study, having grown by only 2% since 1962. As the poll suggests, however, atheism in America has not reached the heights of many European counterparts. When compared in a 2012 RedC Opinion poll, the 5% of Americans who stated that they consider themselves to be atheist in outlook does not come close to Western European nations such as France (29%) and Germany (15%). This also means that a large portion of the “unchurched” figure are unaffiliated, sometimes referred to as “Nones.”

Explanations have been offered for this increase. Jerome Baggett, of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union has articulated his theory that “religious authority has shifted from outside authority to the self” in the post-war period. He also cited the diminishing credibility of religious institutions, and societal factors such as neighbourhoods with a mix of religious beliefs. Combined with the fact that only 8% of respondents reported that they had not been raised with a religious background, this would point to the idea that there are institutional factors dissuading “Nones.”

Another explanation for this could lie in the age difference of those polled. According to the authors, over a third of 18 to 24-year-olds responded by answering “no religion,” while only 7% of subjects 75 and older made the same claim. This would appear to corroborate the idea that there is a distinct generational shift toward this lack of identification. While not entirely surprising, it does point to the idea that this trend will continue unabated. A 2012 research by Pew also suggests that lack of religious affiliation is increasing by generation.

While there does not appear to be a particular rush to disavow all religion, we can see a definite trend away from the traditional organized model. Whether this is an institutional issue that can be fixed, or simply a generational trend, the transition looks set to continue.