Is the Fever Abating?

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.”


  1. The zealots can’t be gone soon enough for me. Politically they are like ticks; they find a host (republican senator or congressman or state rep), they bite them, the host gets the fever, the ticks hang on and keep sucking until the host is delusional.

    The “nones” need to get themselves to the polls and express themselves.

  2. I have been during my life been around the Bible Thumpers. The End of Times, Apocalypse and the Rapture are always just around the corner according to them. They point to all these Bible Verses that support their beliefs.

    Although, I am a Baby-Boomer I have been a none for decades.

  3. It’s good marketing for the religion industry to conflate their product and spirituality. It sells like hot cakes to those who crave moral leadership. The Universe to tell them the rules.

    Of course if the Universe is silent that can be sold as selective communication. Only the few hear the rules and would be glad to share them for a small if eternal donation.

    But perhaps the silence portends something else? No rules are forthcoming. There are none. Will chaos ensue?

    The truth is that our senses are the only path to our brain and we each see the rules portrayed every day by observing those who we judge to be like us. Culture.

    As culture, like physical evolution, tries random change we have to have a means to sort out what anthropologists call differential reproductive success. Which changes are beneficial and earn the right to grow and which fail to thrive.

    That’s the reason for reason.

    ‘Tis the season for reason.

    Media fills our senses with false culture. Reason sorts the rice from the maggots. But only if it’s been developed and exercised and is free.

    Use it or lose it.

  4. Gen-X none here. It seems to me that although you get the occasional true-believer Talibanesque politician (ahem, Pence), the real role of religion is to convince the rubes to be loyal to their masters. This has been the case throughout human history, and it is no different now. The fear of death and its normal expressions – tribalism, intolerance, aggression – make it easy for right wing politicians to induce the behaviors they desire, including voting. I truly believe that the decline in religiosity is the result of better public education and the greater availability of information — we are raising fewer rubes because we know more and the ability to think critically is becoming more common. The future is bright and secular.

  5. Sheila, your observations of students can be applied to many of us that are also decades older – “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.”

    I became completely disgusted and disillusioned with religious doctrine a long time ago.

  6. Baby boomer none here after years of struggling to understand the Catholic society/religion. Too many hypocrisies for me to stomach anymore. And the child abuse scandal was the last straw for me. It wasn’t that they knew about it and moved the priest to another district, but they denied it for decades.

    I agree with the gen Xers that this world would be much nicer without the far right, be they jews, christians, muslims or christian scientists, etc. Nothing against those that were taught their religion as a child, I agree with them about the ‘golden rule’; it’s the bible thumping hardliners (doesn’t matter which bible) that believe their bible laws should rule the rest of us. The ISIS group is a hardliner right wing terrorist murdering group.

    Yep, I’m pro choice, pro same sex marriage, tree hugger, environmentalists (I know redundant) and I believe in socialism to redistribute the wealth. Oh and while we’re at it, please lets legalize marijuana for goodness sake. We need to pardon all of those that are serving prison terms for smoking a joint. We’ve lost the drug war as well as the one in Iraq and the other one I can’t spell, Afghanistan.

    Please keep your religion away from our laws.

  7. When I say I am a Christian; I am of the “…do unto others…”, “…let him who is without sin cast the first stone…” variety. No Bible thumper here but I do keep it handy as I do my copy of the Constitution and Amendents – for reference purposes only after reading some of the many questionable posts on line and to TRY to understand how current politicians come up with their views…on everything. I have long been aware that the majority of quotes used as “proof of fact” and basis to pass laws that deny civil and human rights come from the Old Testament which is not Christian. I am also aware that the many quotes of Jesus being used make me wonder if these law makers are aware that Jesus was a Jew, and a Rabbi. Those who profess Christianity seem to be those who need confirmation of and reason for their existance, their worthiness and their beliefs. Science doesn’t provide this emotional support based on faith; they believe this means they must deny science and evolution based on fact which disputes their very meaning of life. Faith promises life everlasting; science and evolution dispute that premis with undisputed facts and undeniable proof.

    I am reading “When Men Become Gods”; the story of Warren Jeffs and his twisted, unethical, brainwashing, abusive leadership of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) which is based on his total control of all members and sexual abuse in which all females are raised to “remain sweet” and to procreate. The late former Prophet, Rulon Jeffs, had 40 wives and 75 chldren. It was some of the women under his son Warren’s rule; accelerated by him with his takeover, who broke away; leading to Jeffs being on the FBI “Most Wanted” list for 3 years before his capture. There are still thousands who believe he is the one and only Prophet with the only direct contact with God, even as he sits in prison. His cult is compared to the Taliban and White Supremist groups by authorities and former followers; followers were born into the early beginning of this cult and have “begat’ generations and it continues to grow in some areas due to the multiple marriages resulting in numerous children. Many of their practices are against the law where they exist but many member of law enforcement agencies in Utah, Nevada and Arisona are members. This is an example of how drastic views of Christianity can develop…it is based on fear to maintain control. Also; never lose sight of Waco, Branch Davidians and Ruby Ridge if you doubt the possibility of this happening in other parts of the country. Especially under the current powerful Republican control; we must also fear looming war with Iran due to their recent actions.

    Is this country headed in that direction of total religious control and rule? Look to SCOTUS for possible answers to that question; how far will they carry their “Hobby Lobby” rule of thumb?

  8. The great tragedy emerges when we consider all the good religion could have done. To remove oneself, in thought, to the myriad mysteries of the Dark Ages, it can be understood just how threatening life must have been. Even today, we can show that the mysteries of the mind cannot be excluded when the mysteries of the world are evaluated, i.e. the placebo effect. Yet, the story has not been told. We may yet come a time and place where we use our many gifts for the good of all, i.e. the planet.

  9. Religion was a comfort and source of strength to our grandparent’s generation and beyond. Today it is wielded as a weapon by politicians and used as a source for laws which deny many basic rights in the name of religion.

  10. I firmly support the public’s right to be informed about various institutions, including churches. Unfortunately, the reasonable moderates in any organization or culture are not the ones the media will cover. If all we knew about America is what we heard on the news, we’d conclude that no one here is safe from crime, fires, accidents, corruption, and natural disasters. Who in their right mind would want to live in such a place? At some level, most of us understand that media reports are not an accurate or representative picture of society or institutions as a whole.

    While some churches and clergy are corrupt, judgmental, and/or extreme, religion and spirituality do provide a moral compass that is helpful to institutions, civic-mindedness, and the rule of law. The non-religious who have cited the golden rule here prove the point.

    It pains me deeply when extremists like the KKK and jihadists hijack religion for their own highly questionable and even murderous reasons. They give others in their own and other religions an erroneous bad name.

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