Stirring Up More Nones

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Sometimes the headlines miss the point. For instance: "Losing our religion: One in five Americans are now 'nones'"

It's a report on the latest survey by the Pew Research Center. In "Nones on the Rise," Pew says that almost 20 percent of Americans now say they are of no particular religion -- the so-called "nones." Which is an amazing jump of almost five percent in only five years.

So the headline isn't wrong. But I'd suggest a better headline would be: "Distilling our religion: Americans either doubling down or opting out." Because drilling down, it looks like more of the remaining Americans who say they are religious are very religious. While the folks who were nominally attached to some particular church have decided to give that up.

Imagine a bell curve. Now turn it upside down. So you have plenty on one side -- the regular church-goers. And plenty on the other -- the religious not-so-muchers. What's vanished is the middle.

Welcome to America 2012, where any kind of middle ground -- political, religious, cultural -- has evaporated like steam from a still. What's left is the distillate, true believers on each side.

Now, only a small fraction of the "nones" are atheists or even agnostics. Most say they believe in some higher power. Lots of them even pray. What they reject, however, is any formal religious affiliation.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your view of sociology and theology. If I were a leader in, say, the Southern Baptist Convention, where proselytizing that leads to baptisms and church membership (and thereby Eternal Salvation) is the point of the exercise, I might be a bit discouraged.

The report offers some theories about why the nominally religious have left so much faster in the past half-decade, with the sharpest uptick in the past two years. I'll give you my theory first. What's been the most public face of faith in American life the past couple of years? A campaign ad.

Take the faith-suffused presidential campaigns of Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann and Rich Santorum. Add the ongoing battle over gay marriage, where those who avow themselves conservative Christians are the vanguard of the opposition. Toss in the early evangelical public discomfort with Mitt Romney's Mormon faith. Stir with the stupid claims offered almost always by political and religious conservatives that President Obama is Muslim.

Add the arguments about all manner of reproductive rights -- from the right to an abortion to whether or not access to birth control should be included in health insurance. Which has often become a squabble about religious liberty.

If you've been sitting on the fence about faith, would you likely have been drawn to a church by any of that? Thinking not. And year by year, the cultural pressure has faded to be a member of some church, any church, just to be accepted in polite society.

So the people who remain in churches are more likely to more strongly believe the doctrines. And the folks who stayed even loosely attached simply because their friends were there and they wanted someplace to hold a wedding or a funeral are finding other ways to fill those cultural needs.

The political implications aren't any secret either. The more often one says one attends a religious service, the more likely one is to vote GOP. And vice versa for the Dems.

Pew's informed analysis includes some of what I've highlighted, noting however: "On the other hand, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated people has risen among Republican voters as well as among Democratic voters (though the increase is greater among Democrats)." They offer some other potential factors:

Later marriages are producing older first-child parents who are slower (and less likely) to re-link with churches. Generally speaking, fewer Americans are joining anything -- the "bowling alone" phenomenon. And American society is secularizing broadly, with less emphasis anyplace on faith.

The first sophisticated explanation I ever read to explain the rise of the "nones" was in an academic paper published ten years ago. "Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations" was written by University of California, Berkeley professors Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer and ran in the American Psychological Review.

With the benefit of a decade of hindsight, the paper holds up amazingly well. The researchers examined each of the same possible explanations advanced this week by Pew. And decided that all them had some merit, but the strongest case could be made that religiously and politically conservative Christians were turning off politically liberal, nominal Christians. Or as they put it:

"The disaffinity of liberals and moderates for the social agenda of the Religious Right led the ones who had weak religious attachments to disavow organized religion."

They ended with this:

"If the identification of religious affiliation with political conservatism strengthens, then liberals' alienation from organized religion may become, as it has in many other nations, fully institutionalized."

I pinged the authors to ask if the latest Pew numbers caused them to review their analysis from 2002.

Hout cautioned not to take the latest results as evidence of Americans turning from faith:

"The key is to think about the term 'organized religion.' To the extent to which Americans have a quarrel with religion, it is with the organized part. They increasingly put distance between themselves and denominations that assert certainty about hard-to-resolve questions. On the other hand, there is still very little evidence that Americans have any quarrel whatsoever with God. Belief remains high; identifying with a particular religion is down."

Fischer's take was that the Pew survey is basically reinforcing the poll results that they'd worked with a decade ago. And he offers this thought:

"One open question is when this becomes self reinforcing -- when the 'nones' raise no-religion children, when the cultural climate changes."

To me, the latest Pew survey brings to mind the chorus of an old union organizing song: "Which side are you on boys? Which side are you on?"

Political and religious pressure from the right is pushing folks who once would have been happy to sit in the middle to pick a side. And increasingly, the side they pick is away from religion.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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