It doesn’t mean that former theists have become atheists or even that they are likely to. The driving factor is the collapse of mainline Protestantism, leaving people who are vaguely theist without a religious identity. Many questions lie beyond that change but first, a note about identity…
The Catholic Church is in big trouble too. But the nature of the problem is a bit different. “Catholic” is a multigenerational identity. People can think of themselves as Catholic even if no one since their grandparents’ day has ever been to mass. Put another way: They don’t think they’re atheists (that’s scary). They just continue to say they are Catholic—even if they can’t recite the Lord’s Prayer. No one challenges them on the point. Why bother? One suspects it’s roughly similar with Islam in the Middle East.
By contrast, let’s say that no one in your family has darkened the door of a mainline liberal church since your grandmother did, occasonally, in the 1960s. You probably won’t think of yourself as a member. Truth be told, such a church never had much impact on the culture around it. In recent decades, it probably became largely indistinguishable from the surrounding culture from which it got all its ideas. Its disappearance would have little cultural impact.
The rise of the Nones does mean something important, however: Those who care about the Big Questions are more visibly polarized:
Consider, for example, the percentage of Americans who report that their religious affiliation is “Strong.” This percentage has fluctuated a bit over the decades, but the most recent survey puts it at 34 percent, a number that has remained basically unchanged since 1975, when 35 percent of Americans reported a strong religious affiliation. Apparently, the rise of the Nones is not attributable to a decline in religious enthusiasm among the most strongly committed.
By contrast, the decline in the percentage of Americans who say their religious affiliation is only “Somewhat strong” appears steadier, particularly in recent years. In 2006, about 12 percent of Americans told the GSS surveyors that their affiliation was “Somewhat Strong.” In the most recent survey, that percentage has fallen to only 4 percent. That is a significant drop… Confirmation bias is always a problem when one looks at data like this. Still, the 2018 report suggests that Americans are becoming deeply divided in our attitudes toward religion, a subject about which I’ve written elsewhere. Mark Movsesian, “The Devout and the Nones” at First Things
Movsesian goes on to explain that the divide leaves a deeper mark now on American politics, with Religious Nones being the largest group in the Democratic Party (30%) and 70% of declared Republicans believing in the “God of the Bible.” The “religious left,” incidentally, now seems to be largely an artifact of thinkmags, although it was an important force decades ago.
Visible polarization enables issues to become more politicized than they otherwise could be.
Whatever happens with science issues as a result won’t be dull.
See also: Researchers: Rise In “Religious Nones” Masks Growth In Evangelicalism
For The First Time, “No Religion” Is The Most Popular Choice For Americans
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