FOR ANYONE who studies Americans and their beliefs, the most startling phenomenon of recent times has been the rise of the religious “nones”. About a quarter of the total population, and about a third of those who became adults in the new millennium, identify with no creed. Some new figures suggest the flight from organised religion is even quicker than previously thought.
The share of Americans who acknowledge being members of a religious group is falling much faster than the proportion who, perhaps loosely, hew to one faith tradition or another. Comparing 2016-2018 with the last three years of the 20th century, declared participants in organised religion have plunged by nearly 20 points to 52%. And among millennials, signing up to a church is a minority (42%) pursuit, according to Gallup, a venerable pollster.
Membership of any faith is plummeting much faster among Democrats (71% to 48%) than among Republicans (77% to 69%) and it is not hard to imagine why. The closer the embrace between church and the Republican Party, the less appealing faith becomes to those on the left. But religion-watchers see a vast generational change which transcends political loyalty and will eventually embrace politically conservative youngsters too.
A change towards what, exactly? According to Mike Hout, a sociology professor at New York University, what Americans are rejecting is not the transcendent but simply structures and organisation. Younger Americans are more atomised and provisional in everything they do, from work to relationships, and that affects religious behaviour. He finds it telling that some polls suggest a steady to slightly rising belief in an afterlife, but declining faith in a Christian heaven: people often prefer things to be vague.
Americans in their 20s have long been less devout than their seniors, but in the old days, they eventually married and brought their children to church. Many of today’s young parents were raised without a faith so they have none to go back to, notes Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, an independent study centre.
On the face of things, the United States is now on a path towards secularism that is already far advanced in western Europe, while other rich democracies like Canada are somewhere in between. Gallup’s numbers suggest Democrats are now about as religious as Britons are. “America is not such an outlier any more,” says Mark Silk, a religion professor at Trinity College in Connecticut.