BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA: The last decades, more and more Americans have started identifying themselves as having no religion when asked what religion they belong to. Historically, the share of «nones» has been stable at about seven to eight percent. But in 2000, 14 percent answered that they do not belong to any religion. Seven years later, in 2007, the number had risen to 15,3 percent. Five more years along, in 2012, the percentage had risen once again, to 19,6 percent.
That means one in five Americans citizens state that they do not belong to any religion when asked.
Does this imply that they’re all atheists or agnostics? No. Only 5,7 percent of the US population identified as such in 2012 (up two percentage points from 2007). That means atheists and agnostics make out around 30 percent of the «non-affiliated», something that fits well with another finding; 68 percent of the non-affiliated state that they believe in God.
Two thirds of the non-affiliated can thereby be said to be believers, despite the fact that they don’t feel attached to any religion.
What is the explanation for this?
Liberals protesting against conservatives
Claude Fischer is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2002, Fisher was one of two researchers responsible for identifying the strong growth of the «nones» in an article for American Sociological Review – an article he wrote with Michael Hout.
He doesn’t believe Americans have gotten less religious. He sees the growth of the «nones» as a significant social trend, but states that it is better interpreted as a political statement than a change in the real personal religious sentiments of the people.
«What has happened is that people who never felt strongly religious in the first place have started distancing themselves from religion as a concept. Earlier, they stated a belonging to the religion of their families, or the religion they were «born in to.» But now they have started to distance themselves from religion altogether,» Fischer says.
He interprets the move as a liberal political protest against reactionary and religious conservatism.
«When people with liberal political leanings distance themselves from the term «religion», it’s really conservative politics they refrain from associating themselves with. It’s a reaction against the growing tendency to link religion with a conservative political agenda. The un-affiliated are obviously less religious than average, but they have been like that all the time. The fact that they now are less inclined to declare a religion doesn’t mean that they are less religious than they used to be on a personal level,» he says.
Fischer recognizes the increase in the number of atheists and agnostics and that the share who «believe without doubt» has been reduced from 88% in 2002 to 80% in 2012. Even so, he thinks these are small movements compared to the growth of the «nones», or the un-affiliated.
«There have been some changes when it comes to personal religiosity. It’s possible to say that religion has become «kinder.» Faith in hell and condemnation are reduced. Jesus is no longer perceived to be a strict judge, but more of a forgiving character who represents love. But all of this is something that happens separately and independently from the rise of the «nones,» Fischer states.
He underlines that the US-population is still strongly religious compared to the rest of the western world (more about this later on), and he cannot find any clear tendencies that show that this is about to change.
«I disagree with those who claim that the US is experiencing a process of secularization. The changes we see are too weak to be labelled as such,» he says.
Atheism is not as provocative as atheists seem to believe
There’s a lot of reference in the American humanist and atheist movement to atheists being the most hated minority in the country. Claude Fischer doesn’t believe it’s as bad as the atheists portray it to be. He believes American’s attitudes toward atheism is mainly characterized by indifference.
«Most Americans feel it’s weird not to believe in God. Religious faith is so thoroughly entrenched in the American way of thinking that people struggle to take in the very concept of atheism. But they don’t get angered or provoked by it, like the atheists seem to believe. They just feel it’s weird», he says.
Fischer explains that for an average American, atheism might feel like having a neighbor who doesn’t have a Christmas tree. You might think it is weird, and maybe you get a little suspicious and wonder what kind of person this is. But basically you don’t care.
«Right now, there are no open atheist representatives in Congress. Do you think James Woods who runs for Congress in Arizona for the November election, and openly says he is an atheist, might have a chance?»
«It is hardly an advantage to run as an open atheist. People like to vote for representatives similar to themselves. That said, it all depends on the constituency. Here in liberal Berkeley, people will have shrugged their shoulders at such information about a candidate. In the countryside in Arkansas it might have been a different story. So it depends on the constituency. I would definitely not say that he has no chance just because he’s an atheist», Fischer replies.
«They enjoy being obnoxious»
When Fritanke.no asks what Claude Fischer thinks about the new atheists, we get a clear message in return.
«They enjoy being obnoxious. The look upon themselves as very smart, but in reality they portray a simplistic and misunderstood image of religion», he states.
«Is it the form or the content of what they’re saying that provokes you the most?»
«Both. They’re having a good time at annoying people, which of course is annoying, but also what they say is wrong. They attack a caricature of religion. They pretend that religion exclusively is about literal readings of the Bible and a stern belief that «God exists». In addition, they convey absurd claims about religion causing wars, suffering and bloodshed.
«So you don’t believe the religious are being provoked because their dogmas are being challenged by the irrefutable arguments of the atheists?»
«Definitely not! I don’t doubt that the atheists perceive it that way, but they’re wrong. Their arguments are irritating because they’re so simplistic. Nothing else. The new atheists believe they have discovered something new, but this is 150-year old news. The religious themselves have a far much more sophisticated understanding of the nature of religion, its role in society and its philosophical and theological basis, Fisher emphasizes.
He interprets new atheism as a response to the rise of the religious right in the US.
«This way, new atheism and the rise of the «nones» are related. They are both a reaction to the religious right», he states.
The religious market of the US is bottom-up
There are vast differences between the US and Europe when it comes to religion. Why does religion still stand so strong in the US, while Europe the last decades has experienced a substantial decline in religiosity?
Fischer, who has written an entire book about American mentality and culture, outlines some of the most common explanations.
The first deals with the fact that the USA has never been dominated by a large, state-aligned church, like most European countries.
«In the USA there has never been a religious authority closely linked to the state, like in many European countries. Because of this, religion has never been associated with state power in the US. In Europe, being critical of state authority and religion has been seen as two sides of the same coin. Not so in the US. Here, religion to a far greater extent stems from the people», Fischer explains.
Another point is that the USA historically has had a free religious market, where different religious communities have competed. This has resulted in a multitude of religious communities that have emerged from below and been shaped naturally by people’s religious preferences.
«Religious life in the USA is bottom-up, not top-down. Americans aren’t really concerned a lot with theology. It’s more important to find a congregation with an appealing message and where they find a community they fit into. This is the basis on which they choose where to belong. This so-called «church shopping» has resulted in a multifaceted religious life that stems directly from the people itself, without the large authoritarian and centralized church structures of Europe», Fischer says.
A third explanation Fischer points to, is that US culture has always valued the individual, and that the strong, historically-rooted communities of Europe have been more or less absent. In this situation, it has to a large extent been the role of religious communities to build binding communities. In this way, churches were central to building social life in America and they remain so today.
«These are of course secular, sociological explanations on the role of faith communities in US society, compared to Europe. The religious dimension is something else. When it comes to this, Europe is really the big exception. USA is more like the rest of the world, where religion still stands strong, Fischer underlines.
Translation from the Norwegian version: Even Gran