A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine–a deeply religious man–commented that he couldn’t wait for the “current Great Awakening” to pass. His reference, of course, was to the prior spikes in American religious fervor that historians have dubbed “Great Awakenings.”
His point was that the fanaticism and zealotry of the True Believer are both politically dangerous and religiously inauthentic.
I haven’t seen that colleague for a while, but he must be breathing a sigh of relief over current signs that the fever is abating, and precipitously: these days, 22% of Americans report no religious affiliation at all. And those “nones” are far less judgmental.
Nones tend to be more politically liberal — three-quarters favor same-sex marriage and legal abortion. They also have higher levels of education and income than other groups. While about one out of five Americans is unaffiliated, the number is much higher among young people: Pew research shows that a third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation. Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who studies religion, thinks the trend among younger people is part of their general lack of interest in community institutions and institutions in general.
Last year, the Washington Post ran an article citing research by Allen Downey, a professor of computer science at Massachusetts’ Olin College of Engineering, who claims that people become nones mainly for two reasons: lack of religious upbringing (OMG those hippie parents!) and… the Internet. According to Downey, as much as 20 percent of unaffiliation is attributable to Internet use. He found that between 1990 and 2010, the share of Americans claiming no religious affiliation grew from 8 percent to 18 percent while the number of Americans surfing the Web jumped from almost nothing to 80 percent. But he acknowledges, as his critics are quick to point out, that correlation does not causation make.
“Disinterest in community institutions” and internet use may be handy explanations, but if my students are at all typical, young Americans are very interested in community institutions (although very leery of government)—and of course, increased internet use correlates with every social trend.
My own observations suggest a different “culprit:” revulsion from the (mis)use of religion to justify discrimination and punitive social policies. My students are repelled by self-righteousness and cant, put off by efforts to divide the world into “good us and bad them,” and genuinely angry about religiously-justified attacks on science and environmentalism. They don’t see much difference between the Taliban and the Religious Right.
Politically, the rise of the “nones” presents the GOP with a real problem going forward, because the Republican base is largely composed of the religious warriors that the Millennials are rejecting. Perhaps that explains the frenzied attacks on voting rights.
In any event, most of us won’t miss that self-righteous, unreflective “old time religion.”