Demography and irreligion, one year on

by John Q on August 1, 2016

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted about a Pew study predicting that the proportion of the world population without a religious affiliation would decline sharply by 2050. The basic argument sounds plausible: an increase in the unaffiliated proportion of the population within countries will be more than offset by faster population growth in countries with higher rates of affiliation. But a closer look revealed a surprising prediction for the US, the projection that Christians would decline from 78.3 per cent of the US population in 2010 to 66.4 per cent in 2050 (emphasis added), while the unaffiliated would rise from 16 to 26 per cent. Given that more than 30 per cent of Millennials are already unaffiliated, that seemed like a surprisingly slow rate of change. However, judging by the comments threads, a lot of readers seemed to find the Pew projections fairly plausible.

A year on, Pew has undertaken a new survey focused on the US election. The headline results are for registered voters, but the results turn out to be the same as for the full sample. The big news: “The non-religious are now the country’s largest religious voting bloc, at 21 per cent of registered voters. The Christian groups reported by Pew add up to 66.7 per cent of the population (my calculation, and emphasis added). Other religions account for 11 per cent (according to the WP) leaving a small residual (maybe “declined to say”).

To sum up, the decline in US Christian affiliation that the Pew study predicted would occur by 2050, has already happened, as has half of the increase in the projected proportion of unaffiliated. I think the authors of the study should take another look at the data and consider publishing a correction.

Politically, the immediate implications are obvious, the longer term less so. White evangelicals overwhelmingly back the Republicans, while the unaffilated are equally strongly Democratic. So, the long run prospects for a white Christianist identity politics, the core of the current Republican party, don’t look great. On the other hand, similar tribalist parties have done well in Europe despite the collapse in religious belief there, partly by using a version of secularism to support anti-Islamic policies, and partly by treating Christian cultural identity as a part of tribal identification that can outlive actual religious belief or even affiliation.



Glen Tomkins 08.01.16 at 3:16 am

The religious voting bloc was bound to fall from its recent peak. Political activism under the banner of religion goes through cycles of boom and bust, at least in the US.

A revival sweeps the land. A large number of people become enthusiastic about ending the corruption of our politics (whose corruption never fails) through the healing power of religion. Then we have an era of self-appointed politico-religious leaders carrying on in a more worldly and corrupt manner than the most morally bankrupt secular politicians. Religion in politics is discredited for a generation or two, until people forget the last revival and are ready for another.


median 08.01.16 at 3:39 am

The European right-wing secular movement indicates that American right-wing Christianity is just window dressing for white nationalism. I think that’s already been demonstrated, as evangelicals have chosen the more virulently racist Donald “Two Corinthians” Trump over more traditionally God-bothering Ted Cruz. Look back at the history: the intertwining of Christianity with the KKK, the political rise of religious voters just around the time civil rights were being granted, the “Moral Majority” of Hollywood Ronald Reagan superceding the true help-thy-neighbor Christianity of Jimmy Carter.


Hindu Friend 08.01.16 at 3:51 am

Euros and Euro-Americans will re-embrace Vedic Gods, Hellenistic nude sports and dryads. Indo-Europeans (literally) will halt Muslim immigration, Crack down on Saudi Barbaria “preachers.” End goal–resote Kab’aa as Hindu Temple. Jai Hind!


Matt 08.01.16 at 3:56 am

Hindu Friend ….

With “friends” like these, I’m not sure the future looks so bright…


Donald A. Coffin 08.01.16 at 4:32 am

Glen Tomkins is absolutely correct about there being large, often quite rapid, swings in intensity and prevalence of religious belief, a pattern that, in the US goes back as far as the early 19th century (the Great Awakening, about which there is an immense literature).


faustusnotes 08.01.16 at 4:33 am

Are these estimates standardized? You can’t compare this kind of thing without standardization.


derrida derider 08.01.16 at 5:38 am

Hmm – Glen’s last paragraph could pretty much be applied word for word in the Middle East, just not about Christianity.


John Quiggin 08.01.16 at 6:08 am

” large, often quite rapid, swings in intensity and prevalence of religious belief”

1. “intensity and prevalence of religious belief” implies a cyclical prevalence of unbelief, as opposed to merely nominal adherence. What evidence is there for widespread atheism/agnosticism in US history before now?

2. The Wikipedia article on the Great Awakenings makes it appear that the entire 19th Century, was occupied by the Second and Third awakenings. Isn’t this a less than useful way of saying that the US was a highly religious country in C19


John Quiggin 08.01.16 at 6:09 am

@6 “Standardised?” If you are asking whether Pew selects and/or weights its samples to be representative of the US population in terms of standard demographic characteristics, I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. Otherwise you’ll have to explain further.


Birayn 08.01.16 at 8:05 am

This may be a silly question, but are the non-religious really a “bloc” in any meaningful sense? What i’m asking is why don’t all “christians” constitute a bloc? Or all “religious” for that matter?


James Wimberley 08.01.16 at 8:24 am

John Keegan’s fine attempt in “The Face of Battle” to write military history from the viewpoint of the common soldiers has an interesting fact on religion. The English/British soldiers at Agincourt and the Somme were pretty religious. But those at Waterloo were not. There may be very long cycles here.


Ronan(rf) 08.01.16 at 9:39 am

Eric Kauffman has written a book about this which comes to the opposite conclusion (afaik,ive only read bits)that a combination of decreasing fertility among the irreligious and moderate religious, and an increase among fundamentalists , will transform western politics over the next 50+ years (ie something similar to the changes occurring within Israel’s jewish pop )


Lee A. Arnold 08.01.16 at 9:55 am

May be correlated mostly with the explosion in psych med prescriptions e.g. anti-depressants?


Ebenezer Scrooge 08.01.16 at 10:45 am

A few points:
1. Not all conservative white religions are the same. The Mormons are communitarian, and seem to have a deep corporate distrust for Trump. There is still a strong quietistic streak in fundamentalist American Christianity.
2. There is a distinction between “religious” and “churchgoing”, and it might run both ways. Churches are a bedrock of US social services, especially childcare. I’m not sure that all megachurch members are all that Godly.


Placeholder 08.01.16 at 12:15 pm

…buuuuuuuut the most irreligious places in the USA after northern new England is the rocky mountain states. Despite being about the 10th most ‘no religion’ state’ Idaho has one the most restrictive abortion laws. Why isn’t this well known? Because on a political map they just as ruby red and just as antisecular as the Dakotas which are the most religious places outside the Deep South.

Evangelicals don’t care what Trump believes. If many of the new atheists are merely licentious islamophobes it will do the Democrats and secularism no good whatsoever. Needs more study.


Ronan(rf) 08.01.16 at 12:18 pm

(This is a better link to kauffmans argument )


Tabasco 08.01.16 at 12:37 pm

There’s nothing new here. In 1980 the evangelicals supported Ronald Reagan, who was not a church-goer, who had been divorced, and whose second wife was pregnant when he married her, against Jimmy Carter, who was a devout Christian, and a southern Baptist preacher at that.


bianca steele 08.01.16 at 3:18 pm

My (anecdotal) experience on the Internet has been that large numbers of self-proclaimed atheists retain all the old prejudices and unexamined assumptions of the religion they were raised among, except that they identify the people they were taught to hate differently. If they were antisemites or anticatholic for religious reasons, they’ll be antisemites or anticatholics for nonreligious reasons. I don’t think the effect on voting is going to be predictable, and anyway the average level of belief declining doesn’t mean the intensity of belief at the extremes will decline, so polarization could increase and make the issue actually more salient.


bianca steele 08.01.16 at 3:21 pm

Plus most immigrants are religious, and promoting the idea that white elites, or for that matter white liberals and leftists, are irreligious could assist anti-immigrant feeling.


bianca steele 08.01.16 at 3:26 pm

My take on the Great Awakening is that it was a burst of religious belief among people who felt that they needed religion and couldn’t find it in the recognized churches. It required a lot of people being or at least feeling alienated from mainstream churches, and a lot of missionaries and preachers convinced a priori that there was not enough religious feeling around.


b9n10nt 08.01.16 at 3:45 pm

Building on some of the comments from Bianca Steele and median, I’d like to muddy the analytical waters a bit:

‘Religion’ has proved a problematic category, difficult to define and difficult to translate into non-European languages. In this interview, Timothy Fitzgerald presents his critical deconstruction of religion as a powerful discourse and its parasitic relation to ‘secular’ categories such as politics and economics. Religion is not a stand-alone category, he argues; ‘religions’ are modern inventions which are made to appear ubiquitous and, by being removed to a marginal, privatised domain, serve to mystify the supposed natural rationality of the secular state and capital.


bianca steele 08.01.16 at 3:53 pm

‘Religion’ has proved a problematic category, difficult to define and difficult to translate into non-European languages.

The same is probably true of “secular”.


TheSophist 08.01.16 at 4:14 pm

Bianca Steele @17: Didn’t Hitchens describe himself as a “Church of England atheist”? He was self-aware enough (in this regard) to recognize that although he was an atheist he still carried with him much of the cultural baggage of his Anglican upbringing. This seems to support your anecdata (well, with one more anecdote.)


Glen Tomkins 08.01.16 at 4:14 pm

JQ @8,

1. The superficial answer is that we haven’t polled any questions going back very far. When did pollsters start asking about atheism? In this Dark Ages of Public Opinion Quantification we have only the scattered reports of scribes and chroniclers to guide us. Maybe there is some data on the at least claimed membership of at least some churches, but atheists would presumably not keep membership rolls, and the churches would not all keep such good records that we could add up their combined claimed membership and get any sort of residue we could think of as atheist plus believer-but-non-church plus whatever else keeps you off church membership rolls.

2. Before broadcast media, revivals were largely word of mouth, augmented by books. They were therefore local, sometimes taking years to get to the next county over, and decades to get to the next state or region of the US. Again, all we have are the chroniclers and incomplete church membership figures to guide us.

The less superficial answer is that atheism is inherently nebulous. A brief and nebulous history of atheism is in order.

Church people tend to label any sort of belief that doesn’t match their own as atheistic, but that tendency is usually tempered by their institutional interest in identifying the enemy as other sects, which leads to identifying the problem as wrong belief or heresy, not disbelief or atheism.

Go back to the time before the churchmen allowed the Bible to be translated into languages the laity actually could understand, and you have a state in which the beliefs of the vast majority of mankind were of no interest to these church people because they were thought incapable of rational or coherent thought on matters of faith, therefore not capable of right belief, heretical belief, or non-belief. The enemy in those days were limited to the few fellow literate persons in society, as these were the only people capable of any error beyond not listening to what their betters told them that the Bible told them to do. Since all education was religious, the only literate people had to have some belief, therefore the enemy was heresy, not atheism.

Atheism gets its big break when the Bible is opened to the masses, the masses learn to read, and education becomes progressively less religion-centered. The problem for churchmen is less and less that people have incorrect beliefs about religion, and more and more that they believe at least theology to be irrelevant. We have Agnostics, and Deists, and Socinians, etc., etc., as intellectual expressions of this tendency. But worse, we have churches more and more filled with a laity that keeps attending out of habit and inertia and because church is an expression of social standing (and Homo sapiens loves him some social standing), but who now have so many other, secular, outlets for their inertia and habit and pursuit of social standing, that religion is becoming less and less relevant. The focus for churchmen turns from burning heretics to these revivals, these efforts to make religion again central in the lives of the masses, like it was in the good old days of the Dark Ages when the laity would huddle in church if only because it was the only place around with a roof that didn’t leak, before damned progress gave everyone tile roofs. (And indoor plumbing! I could go on, but you see how these worldly comforts distract the masses from God, or at least God’s representatives on Earth.)

The enemy for revivalists is any sort of intellectual content outside the Bible, rather than the variant interpretations of the Bible that earlier church people lived to persecute. So they have decided that there is something called “secular humanism” that is the new Satan, because it is the great threat to the whole idea of going to any church. Secular humanism has given us indoor plumbing and Game of Thrones and everything else that is trying to push God to the margins. You can’t be openly against indoor plumbing (much less GoT!) and stay popular, so you have to invent a root cause, secular humanism, that has concrete existence in this world that allows it to do the work of destroying all that is good and decent in this world by denying God’s place in it.

If atheists didn’t exist, today’s church people would have been compelled to invent them. And, to continue in terms that Saint Paul seems to have plagiarized from me two millennia ago, the strength of Sin is the Law. The church people who blame atheistic secular humanism for all that is wrong with the world present such a hateful picture that of course we now have a fair number of people who would never have thought to be at all clear on God’s non-existence were it not for the impulse to be for whatever the hateful televangelists seem to be against. They’ve given their imagined enemy substance and strength by their own hatefulness. Atheism, Satanism, “radical Islam” — whatever these church people are against is bound to attract a following. Maybe they’ll go back to focusing Marx if we’re lucky.

I actually started my brief history of atheism in the middle. The first atheists were the Jews of around the time of Christ. Everybody else in the civilized world at the time who knew about them thought of them as atheists, fanatics who were unaccountably convinced that Jupiter and Zeus and lares and penates and Divus Augustus didn’t exist. They didn’t actually have any god they believed in instead, since their god had no theology or mythology or rituals (except something something that happened behind a veil once a year), and mostly teachers (rabbis) rather than the dwindling number and prestige of priests lately grown vestigial. Not that belief “instead of” rather than “along with” was understood as at all religious at that time. But their peculiar history of persecution by a Seleucid ruler who just wanted some cultural homogeneity to strengthen the state against the Roman threat led them to deny syncretism or state religions, and with them, any sort of religious practice.

The Jews were bad enough, but at least they limited their atheistic beliefs to their own tribe. What we now call Christianity made the atheism metastatic. The primitive Christians were not persecuted for odd or heterodox beliefs, they were persecuted for atheism, for non-belief, for not believing in anything. They eventually responded to persecution by going militant and taking over as the new state religion, a move which required them to take on beliefs in and about God. They became heresiarchs and heresy hunters, and then evolved into the bulwarks against atheism they are today, as reviewed above.

Hopefully the cycle is broken, and we won’t see a repeat play out in which we contemporary secular humanist atheists are persecuted, then take over as the new state religion centuries later. History mostly stays farcical, but that gets us into the Apocalyptic literature, and more than enough already for one day.


bianca steele 08.01.16 at 4:34 pm


This seems to be common in England. A.S. Byatt’s characters describe themselves as not having any religion, but baptize their children in the established church without agonizing over it even a little. Churchy people in England (I was recently watching a video about the carillon at York Minster) tend to use understated, almost secular language to describe religious institutions, unlike the strenuous efforts to prove one doesn’t believe the world is disenchanted, like you’d find in America. Of course, this “secularism” appears differently to members of religious minorities (but any church that calls itself “catholic” has to wish this fact away, one way or another).

The US has no established church; the churches that used to house the elites have been in decline for decades and never in any case managed to include the lower classes successfully, with rare exceptions; the churches that are most dominant (Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism, with about 1/4 of declared Christians each) define themselves by a feeling of embattledness; the same is true of the dominant elite secularizing cultures, like those that derive from Romanticism or Transcendentalism. It would be somewhat difficult to be “secular” in Hitchens’ sense in the US, and he ended up in an overly enthusiastic philo-semitism that was far from where he started.


Snarki, child of Loki 08.01.16 at 4:51 pm

The next “Great Awakening” will occur when all you people realize that Loki has been running the GOP this year.


Michael Furlan 08.01.16 at 4:53 pm

They have already arrived :

Christian identity rather the religion of love.


Jim Harrison 08.01.16 at 6:12 pm

If things go to hell, I expect traditional or traditional-style religion will make a comeback along with patriarchy. Irrational faith and male dominance are probably more adaptive than secularism and gender equality in conditions of violence, poverty, and disorder. No reason to think we’re traveling on a one-way street. As Rimbaud wrote (as I remember it), “Science marches on. Why shouldn’t it go back?”


b9n10nt 08.01.16 at 6:42 pm

Glen Tomkins:

Thanks for that…Your account of Jewish “atheists” is reinforced by Wiki on “religio”.

I would argue that there’s inevitably a state religion. It doesn’t even make sense to say a separation of state and religion, descriptively (rhetorically, that’s another matter).

Religion is three things: In the first sense, religion is ritual or practice, synonymous with culture, synonymous with human ethology. We may call ourselves atheistic but we can not be irreligious, in this sense. If I’m showing off my collection of jazz records with a member of the Yanomami, that’s a religious act.

Secondly, religion is a political (establishing or maintaining status) act of institutionalizing, designating, and studying religion-as-practice. Thus when I publically declare myself an “atheist”, that’s a religious act (also in the first sense: who among those not indoctrinated into individualism would go around telling others who/what they “were”).

Thirdly, religion is a subset of religious ritual undertaken to connect with the deathless. One who prays, meditates, dances, fasts, takes hallucinogens, etc…is being religious.

Why this typology?

Precisely so that we can see what is and is not true of the “irreligious” in each of these 3 dimensions. So that we can be amazed by and connected to our irrational and arational selves (why did I feel genuine grief intermittently after the Warriors lost the NBA Title this June?). Back to on-topic: So that contemporary atheists can get on with trying to take over the state, continue the indoctrinating, and realize their(our) need to affirm a Utopian vision for them(our)selves…a project that might necessitate some healthy soul searching.


mw 08.01.16 at 8:30 pm

“What evidence is there for widespread atheism/agnosticism in US history before now?”

Well, it was widespread enough in the late 19th century for Robert Ingersoll to become one of the country’s most famous orators in the nation and earn a living giving speeches challenging Christian belief and promoting humanism and free-thinking, so there’s that. Acceptance of atheism/agnosticism was not so widespread then, though, that he could be a viable candidate for governor in Illinois. But it appears we still have a ways to go before a candidate with the same opinions would be viable in the 21st century.


Omega Centauri 08.01.16 at 8:32 pm

I think the boundary between religious and irrelegious is a pretty fuzzy one. We have already noted that we have believers that don’t attend a relgious institution or perform riutuals, but they still have theistic beliefs to varying degrees. Then we have agnostics, and this can cover a broad spectrum, from I think there is a god, but I can’t proce it, to I am 99% certain there isn’t a god, but I can’t prove it.

We even have Budhism, which doesn’t believe in a transcendant being, but contains enough of the other qualities of a religion to qualify by most accounts. So even before conceding anything to b9n10n, the categories become pretty nebulous. That makes comparing the difference between two or more surveys problematic, as as tested how do we know that the boundaries between categories haven’t shifted.


b9n10nt 08.01.16 at 9:20 pm

Omega Centauri

the categories [between the religious and irreligious] become pretty nebulous

Well, if that’s conceded, then what?


Omega Centauri 08.01.16 at 9:31 pm

Well, if that’s conceded, then what?,
It depends on what you are trying to do.
If you are comparing different surveys to try to ascertain how things are changing, you would attempt to normalize the results.

But, in general many things about people are not nearly a binary as we think, and as our systems try to make them.


marcel proust 08.01.16 at 10:03 pm

Bianca Steele wrote:

It would be somewhat difficult to be “secular” in Hitchens’ sense in the US, and he ended up in an overly enthusiastic philo-semitism that was far from where he started.

In light of Hitchens’ Jewish ancestry* it is probably not correct to describe him as a philo-semite.

*Yet one more thing we Jews have to apologize for.


marcel proust 08.01.16 at 10:09 pm

Glen Tomkins on Jewish atheists.

An amusing tale that a friend related about the father of a friend of his, a prominent public figure of central European-Jewish roots.

Early in the 20th C. the friend-of-a-friend’s father’s country was invaded, and the invaders told people in the father’s town to stand in different areas according to their religion. The man told the CO he was an atheist; where was he supposed to stand. “Over there, with all the other Jews.”

Perhaps apocryphal, but the father survived the incident (so I was told).


reason 08.01.16 at 10:22 pm

Omega Centauri @32
“But, in general many things about people are not nearly a binary as we think, and as our systems try to make them.”

Don’t you really mean to say that people are not as integral and consistent as our systems try to make them.


b9n10nt 08.01.16 at 10:44 pm

If you are comparing different surveys to try to ascertain how things are changing, you would attempt to normalize the results.

Yes. But even in a seemingly more straightforward categorization -political party affiliation- a Democrat can vote for Reagan, a Republican can vote for Hillary. So the categories are unstable (people change) and non-predictive (people aren’t rational identity-maximizers).

What am I trying to do? One answer: trying to see if the social sciences can find a language that <a href="<integrates the science of self with claims about identities and behaviors.


b9n10nt 08.01.16 at 10:46 pm


Reason @ 35. You said it better anyway.


Faustusnotes 08.01.16 at 10:49 pm

John probability sample weighting and population standardization are t necessarily the same thing. Looking at the earlier pew report they seem pretty thorough but I can’t be bothered trying to find out how they used their survey weights.

Anyway, yay!


Yankee 08.01.16 at 11:59 pm

actual religious belief or even affiliation

Affiliators who don’t believe? Perhaps they are outnumbered by believers who don’t affiliate. Right now it’s somewhat difficult to be an evolutophile and a christian both; you get misrepresented by both sides. But as the fundamentalists back themselves into a denialist corner, some rocks may be left standing.


John Quiggin 08.02.16 at 8:55 am

All boundaries are nebulous, and that’s obviously true of religion vs irreligion. But that doesn’t signify anything in itself, unless it allows you to deny the existence of a well-defined group of nonbelievers, which I think is what is intended here.

In this context, I’m struck by (what I read as) the assumption that religious belief is a permanent default state rather than a pre-modern survival. That assumption obviously informs the Pew study mentioned in the OP, and seems to be fairly general in the US, reflecting current and historical conditions.

In thinking about why my intuition is the opposite, it occurred to me that I don’t know of a single person in my extended circle of acquaintance (which includes farmers, retirees and clerical workers) who is a regular churchgoer. I’m not saying there aren’t any, but the subject never comes up. I suspect this is true for lots of Australians.


Ronan(rf) 08.02.16 at 3:29 pm

(Response to no-one in particular) Afaict, the importance and strenght of religious identity is often dependant on how it can be tied to non religious identites. If you are looking at a significant and unexpected decline in religious identification over a relatively short period of time, then you’d need to look at what the political and social trends over that period were. In this case, again afaict and IMO, rather than a decline in religious identification leading to a changing in political identification, the reverse has happened; the Republican Party has been so enmeshed with the religious right, and the Dems in oppositon to it, that the decline in religious identification is probably more likely driven by the collapse of the Republican Party. What you might look at then is has there been a change in how many people say, for example, they believe in God, or pray regularly etc A decline in religious identification in a context where religous identity is heavily politicised does not neccesarily equal a decline in religiosity.


b9n10nt 08.02.16 at 3:57 pm

John Quiggin @ 40

I’m inspired by the observation of scholars that, were you to ask any pre-modern person anywhere, “what’s your religion?”, the question would’nt make sense. I suspect the default state is to engage in socially-constructed practices that have meaning beyond (and often surpassing) immediate physical needs. Religion = culture. That’s all.

Why play this game with “religious/irreligious”? As I stated above, to see ourselves more clearly, and to discomfort the irreligious whose confidence in rationalist progress may be unearned (or at least, premature).


J-D 08.03.16 at 8:17 am

b9n10nt 08.02.16 at 3:57 pm
John Quiggin @ 40

I’m inspired by the observation of scholars that, were you to ask any pre-modern person anywhere, “what’s your religion?”, the question would’nt make sense.

If you asked pre-modern people ‘what’s your nationality?’ the question wouldn’t make sense, but how is that relevant now?


SusanC 08.03.16 at 11:02 am

As you say, you can easily have an ethnic identity politics without much religious belief.

Over here in the UK, the “brexit” referendum brought out a fair amount of ethnic politics. but very little of it was explicitly religious.

e.g. Recent Polish immigrants to the UK are (I guess) mostly atheist or Catholic. (Previous WWII era immigration from Poland having a large Jewish component, for obvious reasons). but Nigel Farrage et al don’t cast this in religious or sectarian terms. As far as I can see. no-one is complaining that EU membership has led to an influx of Catholics, it’s just not a salient category in that debate. (Of course, in the Northern Ireland question religious sectarianism is very much in evidence, but it strikes me that Irish Republicanism has very little to do with any detail of Catholic religious doctrine).

Muslim immigration is typically framed in religious terms: possibly as an atheist west vs a Muslim east, rather than a Christian west vs a Muslim east. but this is possibly a coincidence; comparison with Poland suggests that were, for example, Algeria to be entirely atheist, we’d still have the same ethnic politics, just not framed in religious terms.


Nicole 08.03.16 at 1:31 pm

I like how stupid left wingers want to have control over the atheist minds. Atheists won’t follow you like sheeps. The religious right is almost gone in Europe and soon will be gone in the USA too. The new nationalist right is about to rise, we will get rid of religious extremists, and many atheists will follow us. This is the logic thing to do.


Glen Tomkins 08.03.16 at 5:08 pm

John Quiggin @41,

Affiliation is definitely the best handle on the question of religious belief or its lack that you can use if you’re trying to sample public opinion. It’s about the only handle you have that isn’t totally nebulous. A poll asking people to characterize their beliefs as theism vs agnosticism vs atheism would be a total mess because it would require people to think about their response, and once you do that the validity of your polling is gone. It would take me volumes to characterize my stance in that respect, and I suspect the same is your case. Imagine the case of people who mostly haven’t given the question much thought.

Affiliation is much more knee jerk, the respondents don’t have to think about it. It is, at least at the surface, at least somewhat objective. But because affiliation is the most superficial downstream consequence of belief vs non-belief, it is inherently unstable, subject to sudden shifts that have no clear relation to the deeper layers on which it rests.

Your circle of acquaintances may be universally unaffiliated in the sense that they either don’t go to church, or don’t share it with you if they do. But how they would answer a poll on the subject is at least somewhat subject to recent events. While religion and affiliation is back-burner politically, many people who aren’t churchgoers at all, will still answer to labels such as Catholic or Baptist or Evangelical or Jewish or Sikh, or some such, because they are ethnic or social identifiers. The whole point of these cyclic revivals is precisely that during these periods of relative religious quietism, most churchgoers are more or less uncommitted to any sort of belief. Then along comes Falwell et al, and people are forced to think about the implications of self-identifying with a belief system with consequences such as Jerry Falwell et al. Some might seek a response to the false religion promoted by Falwell et al in true religion, but some will also seek a response in anti-religion (which is pretty much my religion, thank you). Religion is no longer something you can afford to answer questions about unthinkingly, because it starts to be real to you why Voltaire would have said about the Catholic Church, “Ecrasez l’infame.”, and why that’s not an unreasonable response. So the number of people who will answer a poll as unaffiliated is going to rise during a period of religious revival. The closer the revivalists get to power, the stronger the reaction.

That was my point about the expected cyclic component to the rise in unaffiliated respondents to polls. Thank you, politically active fundies! Of course the existence of a cyclic component does not disprove the idea that maybe there is an underlying secular trend. But that possibility is really a much deeper question than anything you’re going to get anywhere near with polling.


John Quiggin 08.04.16 at 11:15 am

Glen Tomkins @47 National perspective matters here. In Australia, at least since the Census started asking the question in 1971, there hasn’t been anything resembling a cyclic component. Just a steady increase in “No religion” answers. And, having been around at the time, I’m sure that trend began earlier, stating from a base of nearly 100 per cent Christian affiliation


reason 08.07.16 at 2:36 pm

as an ex-pat Aussie, I think there are substantial cultural differences at play here. Australians as far as I can tell have always had an underlying scepticism (and perhaps even more importantly) irreverence. I don’t think this translates to other well.


Glen Tomkins 08.07.16 at 3:39 pm

John Quiggin,

Without knowing about how religion and govt interact in Australia, I’m going to take a wild guess that you folks don’t have religious types trying to take over the govt, at least not to the extent and level of threat that they will succeed, such as we have in the US. Nothing excites distrust and aversion to religion like religious “leaders” in or near power. But they don’t get near power unless there is a period during which people pin their hopes on religion driving a reform of political life. In between the periods of hope and fear of religion in govt, there are long stretches of indifference to religion as any sort of force in public policy. Perhaps Australia is in a state of permanent indifference, so doesn’t undergo cycles.

So if Australia doesn’t have such cycles, perhaps the slow decline in affiliation you are seeing is an underlying secular trend. Undisturbed by cycles of revival and reaction, Australia reveals the underlying trend.

This could be true, but there are cycles of all sorts of duration. At the longest view, we have cycles of the rise and fall of whole religions, not just these revivals of the existing religion. It is generally thought that Buddhism at least started out atheistic. Less universally agreed is the idea that that was the whole point, the rejection of religion. Far from universally agreed (as I outlined in prior comments) is the idea that Judaism and Christianity also were basically the same idea originally, an atheistic reaction to all the god-botherers. I am not sufficiently familiar with the other major religions to say whether the generalization is sound that all of them were founded in reaction to god-bothering, but that seems to me possible based on my superficial knowledge. Of course, now we see that both Buddhism and Christianity and the other majors have devolved over time into our age’s centers of god-bothering. Perhaps that means that they’re ripe for the provocation of the next cycle of major religion creation. Christianity may be headed for the same trash heap as the worship of Serapis, but it will be succeeded by a religion that will devolve into god-bothering over time.

But perhaps Australia shows us how it will go. Perhaps the short and long-term cycles are both dying out, that what we will see in the future is merely growing indifference to religious affiliation. We will have fewer and fewer people bothering god, and the remnant will bother the rest of us less and less as power slips further and further from their grasp.

Comments on this entry are closed.