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The impact of the rise of irreligion in the United States

The “Nones” are on the rise in America. “Nones” have no religious affiliation, and as of 2014 (some of the last really good survey data is from 2014) about 22% of Americans said they had no religious affiliation. This is not necessarily a paradigm shift in American religious history. There have always been vast numbers of Americans uninterested in religion. Historian of religion David Hall points out that these “horse-shed” Christians (called that because they tended to hang out and chat in the stables rather than participate in religious services) have been a part of our country since the founding.

But there are a few significant things to consider about the rising number of people who are openly unaffiliated. First, throughout American history, most people were at least nominally religious. But now, at least 7% are atheist and agnostic, and a further 15% are unwilling to affiliate with organized religion. That’s a big chunk of people who are entirely separate from the social and political influence of churches.

Politically active atheists are celebrating this change. Noting that most irreligious vote Democrat, this atheist blogger hopes that the non-religious will begin to cancel out the staunchly Republican evangelical bloc. That may or may not happen, but we can certainly expect to see partisanship increase as the number of outright atheists (currently around 3% of Americans) increase and become more politically active.

Second, the very way we think about religion is starting to change. In a recent post, I explained that Americans often tend to conflate religion with belief (or faith). While that makes some sense for Protestantism, it doesn’t work so well for other religions. There’s a famous scholarly article, for example, that argues that religious rituals don’t even require meaninglet alone faith. That’s a bit extreme for the point I’m making. What I’m trying to convey rather, is that if we’re going to understand how religion is evolving during the next fifty or so years, we are going to have to rethink what we consider religious. And to do that, we’re going to need a much more sophisticated understanding of what religion is and why we understand it the way that we do.

Finally, the rise of the religiously unaffiliated might have a broader political impact than simply voting blocs. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, for example, advocates for the separation of church and state, and frequently offers legal support for those wishing to end mandatory school prayer groups and other religious actions, practices, or items mixing in with government. As more Americans leave the church, and as church-goers push back, we can expect to see more contests over this issue.

More about religion.

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