Attack of the Nones

Back in the 1970’s, religious pollsters created a category called “nones” -- people with no religious affiliation. It’s a category that intentionally combines groups that should be kept separate – atheists; believers who are too indifferent or apathetic to go to church; and serious believers who dislike organized religion. (Recall that Jesus told his followers “when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray” -- don’t be like the “hypocrites” who pray in public.)

I suspect religious pollsters created this category because there were almost no atheists at the time (less than 2%), and they wanted to exaggerate the size of the enemy. Years earlier, right-wing demagogues and propagandists exaggerated the size of the Communist threat. Religious pollsters serve religious propagandists, who need an enemy. There weren’t enough atheists to pose a credible risk, so they found a way to inflate the enemy's size.

 

The Religious News Service (RNS) covers the latest installment of these surveys (here). Their lede says: “It’s bad news for organized religion: A majority of the religiously unaffiliated — the so-called ‘nones’ — say they fell away from faith not because of any negative experience, but because they ‘stopped believing,’ usually before the age of 30.”

Before quantifying the threat, RNS whines that nones just “stopped believing in the religion’s teachings.” But they make no attempt to determine whether this is like “stopped listening to Elvis” or like “stopped believing that the earth is flat.” Is it just a change in taste or do they have compelling reasons? RNS is more concerned with faith than facts, and doesn’t want rationality intruding.

The next paragraph provides both quantification and deception: “Gloomier still for religion is this — nones now make up 25 percent of the American population, making them the single largest ‘faith group’ in the U.S., ahead of Catholics (21 percent) and white evangelicals (16 percent).” They say that “nones” are now the largest “faith group.” Believers are a soon-to-be persecuted minority. This is doubly deceitful, claiming that non-affiliation is a “faith group” while Christianity is not.

The facts show that “non-affiliation” has grown very quickly in the past decade. nones RNS

While RNS focusses on the youngest group, in fact the rate of growth has been essentially the same for all age groups. It remains to be seen to what extent the recent increase is real or just an aberration due to the economic crisis or other factors.

In any case, the trend looks favorable for nones, and hopefully for reason. Even more strikingly, RNS reports that almost 60% of nones say "religion does more harm than good.” This goes well beyond non-affiliation. It is a radical change in opinion, as most Americans believe you can’t be moral without the Bible. Furthermore, RNS misreported the facts. The actual results from PRRI show that 66% of nones said “religion causes more problems in society than it solves.”

To provide some consolation, RNS notes: “A majority of nones still believe in God — 22 percent say God is a ‘person,’ while 37 percent see God as ‘an impersonal force.’” This is wrong. God is not ‘an impersonal force of nature.’ Certainly not the God of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. At best this is deism.

For whatever reason, people are becoming increasingly skeptical about organized religion. If they knew the facts, they would be even more skeptical.