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.”


Rise of the Nones

Surveys from Pew and Gallup and other respected pollsters have identified sharp declines in Americans’ religiosity, especially among the young.  Some twenty percent of Americans currently report no religious affiliation;  among younger cohorts, the percentage is much higher.

The other day, I had a conversation with someone who viewed this rejection of traditional religion with alarm, and wondered what might have caused it. (Video games? Bad parenting? The ACLU, with its insistence on obeying the First Amendment?)

I have a different perspective.

I talk to a lot of students, and what I hear from them is that they are repelled by ostentatious piety displayed by high-profile people who are being hateful or judgmental. They are contemptuous of the fundamentalists’ war on science. They are impatient with people who want to use government to impose their own religious beliefs on others–who want to deny women access to birth control, and who refuse to support equal treatment of their GLBT friends. They roll their eyes when people like Bill O’Reilly or Sarah Palin whine about a “War on Christmas.”

As impatient as they are with rampant hypocrisy, however, the rise of the nones is not simply a reaction to Christians (and Jews and Muslims) behaving badly. The young Americans I know take issues of social justice and ethical behavior very seriously, and a growing number of them have concluded that any morality worthy of the name must be a product of reason rather than blind obedience to dogma.

They are examining all beliefs–secular and religious–and they are testing outcomes. If a belief system promises to improve society, if it promotes equal human dignity and compassionate and loving behavior, it passes the test. If it generates power struggles, if it requires women to be “submissive” and consigns GLBT folks to second-class status–if it marginalizes or denigrates those who are different– it fails.

Works for me.