Thousands of atheists and unbelievers, including Alberto Valdez from Del Rio, Texas, gathered Saturday on the National Mall for the Reason Rally. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

Is the growth of the nonreligious good or bad? Americans are divided

(RNS) Nearly half of all Americans -- 48 percent -- say the growing number of nonreligious people is “bad for society," according to a poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

But about the same amount -- 50 percent -- say the rise in nonreligious people is either a good thing (11 percent), or doesn't matter (39 percent).

Thousands of atheists and unbelievers, including Alberto Valdez from Del Rio, Texas, gathered Saturday on the National Mall for the Reason Rally. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

Thousands of atheists and unbelievers, including Alberto Valdez from Del Rio, Texas, gathered Saturday on the National Mall for the Reason Rally. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The findings flesh out last year's Pew Forum survey on the "nones," the one in five Americans who report no formal religious affiliation. But the results also illustrate the divided reactions to this trend between those who are religious and those who are not. The study found:

  • White evangelicals (78 percent) and black Protestants (64 percent) were most likely to think the growth of the nonreligious population is “bad for society." Meanwhile, a combined 59 percent of Hispanic Catholics say the number of nonreligious people is either “good for society” (11 percent) or “does not matter” (48 percent).
  • Young people are more likely to think the number of people who are not religious “does not matter” -- 50 percent of those between 18 and 29, compared to 34 percent of those over the age of 65.
  • About one-fourth of the religiously unaffiliated say it is a “good thing” that more people are not religious, while a 55 percent majority says it doesn't make much difference for society.

Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, said the study’s findings reinforce what religion sociologists observe about the young -- they are more tolerant of religious, and nonreligious, diversity.

“They have grown up in a culture that has taught them not to judge others,” he said. “Plus, younger people are simply less religious themselves, so there are more of them who would not be troubled by this.”

But John Farina, an associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University, is cautious about some of the survey’s findings.

“Most surprising is the finding that more Hispanic Catholics than white Catholics are indifferent,” he said -- 48 percent versus 38 percent. “That contradicts everything we hear about faithful Hispanics. I distrust this finding.”

Ryan Cragun, a sociologist of religion at the University of Tampa and author of a book about the attitudes of the religious versus the nonreligious, said he was concerned with the wording of the survey’s questions.

“Why are they specifically asking about an increase in the nonreligious rather than a decrease in the religious?” he said. “How you word questions matters.”

Still, the findings in part back up Cragun's work with Barry Kosmin of Trinity College’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society about the attitudes of nonreligious Americans -- that they are more tolerant of diversity and difference.

“It's still fascinating that just under 50 percent of Americans find the increase problematic even though 80 percent claim to be religious,” Cragun said. “Either Americans aren't as religious as they seem or they don't think religion is such a good thing, which is pretty interesting.”

Pew conducted the survey among more than 4,000 adults nationwide; the survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.



  1. When our government arbitrates every aspect of our life and protects us from the consequences of our actions, you have a society that increasingly finds no need for God. When the printing presses finally stop at the US mint and everything comes crashing down, America will once again turn to God.

  2. It is interesting that the earth was built with a dome structure instead of a rectangle or even a perfect circle. Thank God for natural selection.

  3. I think it is good that religion is dying, but we lose our sense of all things spiritual because we threw the baby out with the bathwater.

  4. I’m a religious person–an Anglican Christian. From what I see in our public life, (particularly in how many in government who trumpet “religious” or “traditional” values) I see a strong inclination among the “religious” to mistreat those who are different from themselves. For that reason, I believe that the decline in “religious” people may lead to a kinder, less polarized, less vindictive and less hate-filled society.

  5. What time-frame and evidence can you cite when “America (turned) to God” making things “better” in and for our national life?

  6. When did we have a “sense of all things spiritual”? How did that show itself in our national life contrasted with our national life today?

  7. Mr Jones, I’m not familiar with that “dome structure’ you’re speaking of. Can you tell me what and where that “dome” is and how you know about it? My understanding of the planet is that it’s a globe.

  8. As for myself and “unbelievers,” I generally find that I don’t believe in the same god or gods that they don’t believe in. Little of what is touted as religious truth in the American religious tradition is of much utility, credibility or, frankly, charity.

  9. Ryan,
    You make a good point that many non-religious are already on the road to answering. Turns out the younger non-religious are still looking for a few things. There was a study asking why people went to church, and it turned out that the top few things had nothing to do with religion or any god: community, friends, activities, ready-made opportunities for charity like soup kitchens and clothing drives, discussions on philosophy. If I remember correctly, worship appeared somewhere near 8th on the list, and that is among regular church-goers.
    Many atheists now turn to places like UU churches, where half or more congregants don’t believe in any god, or newer atheist communities in their local area. Atheist groups now do soup kitchens and trash cleanup and graffiti removal and other community involvement. The attempt to keep the better parts of religion are very much there, while consciously trashing the other bits, like throwing out the Bible completely, unless you place it alongside Homer as an example of ancient literature. I don’t want to join any church because I don’t want my money or time going to supporting that church, so other opportunities that now present themselves.

  10. Alex,
    We started as a secular nation and our Constitution reflects secular ideas from the Enlightenment era of the late 1700’s. There were a few religious revivals in America, the various Awakenings, but there is serious debate on whether their influence was positive or negative. As with most things, I’d bet it is somewhere in the “wash” category. Many American ideals were conscious rejections of the overt power and coercive influence religion had in Europe for the centuries prior to 1776. No one wanted another Thirty Years War, or any of the brutal, nasty conflicts that characterized the very religious Europe of the day. Keep in mind that most Colonists, while often religious, came here to escape the nasty evil that powerful religions cause.

  11. I like your reply. It touches on something I regard as an essential truth of our humanity, whether one drapes it in religion or not: we need one another. And, as in the early days of settlement by white people on this continent, churches were all the things that you mention. I’m thinking in particular of their role of as social venue for social, networking and support in time of both emotional and material need. Every person needs such supports at various times. And the need extends not just to the taking, but also to the need to give.

    I also like your take on the biblical literature. Clearly, much of the so-called Old Testament literature is Israel’s “epic poem,” so to say–the mythic explanation of who they are, how they came to be, and why they do the things they do. And, like the Homeric epics, the bible also includes writings (most notably in the works of the individuals referred to as the prophets) intended to provide insight into how and why we wander from the needs of our own humanity and how to get ourselves back on track. A favorite of mine is Micah’s advice “to love justice, do mercy and walk humbly with God.” The advice works quite as well if the “G” word is left off. The epistle of James similarly describes “true religion” as “visit(ing) widows and orphans and keeping oneself unspotted from the world.” Not one word about “worship” or even about “serving” a god. It’s all about how we look after one another.

    I’ll close this rather tedious posting with this observation: When Siddartha Gautama rose from his sojourn under the Bodhi tree, his new-found enlightenment was revealed in a life givern over wholly to the service of others.

  12. God help us the next time America turns to “god.” If we really did, I’d expect the case to be made for a guillotine to be set up at Wall and Broad Streets.

  13. Mr Hite, I would argue that the desire to make this a nation that treats all its members more justly is a godly desire. But I don’t think we see much of that desire among those braying the loudest about the United States’ being a “christian country.”

  14. Daniel,
    I think part of the point of the USA is that we never claimed in any way that our country came from any god. This is as opposed to the great nations of the world at the time, which had divine right as part of their ruling charter. Our Constitution never mentioned any god, and when it mentioned religion it warned people to keep it separate from government. Its one and only claim to authority comes from the “We the People” clause. That means that the success or failure of our nation sits solely on our shoulders, the citizens of the USA. Vote, pay your taxes, some should serve in uniform or in civil service. Innovate. Invent something new. Make your immediate surroundings a better place than you found it. Those thing are our charge. God has nothing to do with it.

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