Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Religious ‘nones’ are gaining ground in America, and they’re worried about the e …

Thirty-four percent of Americans surveyed said they were atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular,” according to the American Family Survey released today. (See here for the live stream of the launch event, kicking off at 9 a.m. EST.)

Taken together, this makes the unaffiliated the largest religious group in the study, having surpassed Protestants (33%) and Catholics (21%). There was also a smattering of other groups such as Muslims (2%), Jews (2%), Mormons (1%), Orthodox Christians (1%), and Hindus (1%), as well as those who said they were “something else” (4%).

The American Family Survey is the project of Christopher Karpowitz and Jeremy Pope, who teach political science at Brigham Young University, and is co-sponsored by BYU and the Deseret News. Now in its third year, it aims to uncover Americans’ attitudes on a broad range of issues, including politics, health care, immigration, and the challenges now facing the American family. This year had a special focus on comparing Clinton and Trump voters.

How respondents answered questions about challenges facing the family was the source of some of the surprises in this year’s study compared to 2015 and 2016, says Karpowitz.

“When we first started doing this study in 2015, more than two-thirds of our respondents picked at least one cultural issue as being one of the three most important issues facing American families. Now there’s been an 11-point increase in the percentage of people who say the biggest issues facing families are economic.”

Overall, economic issues increased in importance from 51% to 62%, while concern about “cultural” matters (e.g., the decline in religious faith or the increase in sexual permissiveness and drug use) decreased by 17 points, from 68% to 51%.

Basically, this shows that an increasing number of Americans are more worried about economic stresses than they are about traditional markers of moral decline.

What’s particularly surprising about this trend, says Karpowitz, is that “the economy seems to be humming along, and we’re not in a recession right now.” Various markers of economic health, such as low unemployment and a robust stock market, are already in place.

However, about four in ten respondents reported that they had put off going to the doctor when they were sick or experienced a time in the last year when they couldn’t pay a bill, showing that the economy’s health has not prevented many Americans from feeling a financial pinch.

There’s a religious divide in how Americans perceive which are the most pressing issues. Highly religious people are far more likely to point to cultural issues than are secular Americans, with 72% of frequent religious attendees and just 43% of non-attendees being concerned about things like sexual permissiveness or falling religious attendance. In contrast, nearly seven in ten secular respondents were concerned about the economy.

Faced with these polarizing differences, what can almost everybody agree on? There are two things.

First, “Everybody loves their own family, and there’s hope in that message—there’s a lot of commitment to family, across lines of political and religious difference,” says Karpowitz. Among parents, it doesn’t matter if respondents voted for Trump or Clinton, or did not vote at all; nor does it matter whether they consider themselves to be religious. Every group of parents sees the act of parenting as a fundamental, core part of their identity.

And second, Americans are concerned that kids need more discipline. “More than half of both very religious and nonreligious Americans say that parents not teaching or disciplining their children is one of the most important issues facing families,” says Karpowitz.

In other words: we all love our own kids to pieces, but we also think that other parents need to do a better job teaching theirs.




About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Economic angst seems a perfectly reasonable response to the events of the last year. The rising cost of health care and the uncertainty brought by proposed changes to the health insurance system, together with massive changes to the tax system, should make us all uncertain about our individual economic futures. For the last several years a humming economy and rising stock market have had very little impact on wages while dramatically increasing the wealth of the top 1% of Americans. The proposed tax plan (with its gutting of the ACA and threat to Medicare and Medicaid) is not likely to help the situation. Not only is economic angst reasonable, I’m guessing the general sense of helplessness and disappointment (with Washington) is likely to turn to anger and an uptick in violence.

  • Here is something to consider, Jana. The increase in nones, exceeding any other “religious” group, is simply karmatic chickens coming home to roost.

    I’ve got the perfect example, ripped from today’s headlines. On Tuesday, the results of the Australian gay marriage plebiscite were realesed. Australia voted publicly for gay marriage, with the yes side winning 62% to 38%, after a truly nasty campaign waged by— wait for it— religious conservatives!!! Their arguments were either lies, baseless fear mongering, stupidity completely detached from reality, from facts, logic and experience. Things like “can I marry my dog/sister/computer now”, destruction of the family, danger to children blah blah, churches will be forced blah blah, disgusting human beings out to destroy marriage, we’re being persecuted for our beliefs blah blah,and on an on and on and on.

    They still lost 62-38. The Sydney episcopal diocese donated $1 million smackers to the no side. (Think about how many starving children they could have fed for that). They still lost. $1 million dollars for an extra large size can of Australian Whoopass!

    I’m sure that conservative religion just got a major kick in the teeth because of the viciousness and detachment from reality of the no side, not to mention…

    The Sydney episcopal diocese donated $1 million smackers to the no side. Because what are a few Dead children when there is (self-)righteousness to be upheld?


    I doubt the people of Australia are going to forgive and forget that their gay family members, friends, colleagues, neighbors, AND FELLOW CHURCH GOERS were dragged through the viscous slime of the vicious “Christian” venom.

    Not to mention, those starving kids.

    Paraphrasing Mr. Obama: YOU BUILT THIS,

  • As an atheist I want to make sure we fairly examine the evidence….the survey is not stating 34% of people are atheist/agnostic…but rather they are in a subset of Nones.

    Having said that…I suspect a lot of people who say Nothing….are virtually speaking atheist.

    If I had to guess how many people had no specific beliefs in any gods…I would guess that this number would probably 20-22%

  • All the spittle you spew about anything religious and then at the end you interject the Devil himself, which everyone knows is a religious figurehead.

    Meanwhile, the nones are supposed to continue increasing in number until you are consumed in the global warming. Keep taking your polls until they burst into flame, won’t change a thing.They are called nones because that’s what they become on the last day.

    Just trying to keep you energised. Stay out of the hot sun.

  • You’re correct about the various subsets of the Nones. To be more specific, this survey found 5% of the population to be atheist, 6% agnostic, and 23% “nothing in particular.” Added together, these three groups made up the 34% total that is considered “Nones” in America.

  • I clicked to the linked article and while I didn’t look at the actual report one point that jumped out was that concern about economics vs. cultural was also political – a finding similar to another recent poll on attitudes towards how well the economy is being currently managed. (And it could be argued that it was cultural that the Republicans really hooked into as part of building a base). Harvard also did a study last year as to student support for different ideologies and actually what they found was that students supported policies more than ideologies So a policy recognizing a basic right to food and shelter provided by government if needed was support by about half. I think that surveys that show a surprisingly high level of support for socialism are predicated on the observation that the economy isn’t working out that great for lots of folks.

  • Mr. Obama is the devil himself.

    All i can say is wow. So much spittle you arespewing. You can always count on fundelibangelists to take the reviling to a brand new level…

    Especially the trumpees.

  • This particular breed of psycho bigot is always hilarious. Go ahead, ask him to name one bad thing Obama ever did. The answers are always hilarious.

  • It is reasonable to be concerned about the economy with republicans in charge. Just today the House voted to give corporations and the wealthy huge cuts on the backs of others. Many parts of the country vote with their religious heart against their own interests and choose not to get educated or stand up to these politicians who are owned by big business.
    I am sure many of the nones have social concerns such as religious groups pretending to fight for freedom when in fact they are fighting against the civil rights of groups who are marginalized in their faith.Case in point is the LGBT.

  • And the world statistics:

    Religion………………………… Adherents

    Christianity ……………………..2.1 billion

    Islam…………………………… 1.5 billion

    Irreligious/agnostic/atheism…… 1.1 billion (look out here we come)

    Hinduism 900 million
    Chinese traditional religion 394 million
    Buddhism 376 million
    Animist religions 300 million
    African traditional/diasporic religions 100 million
    Sikhism 23 million
    Juche 19 million
    Spiritism 15 million
    Judaism 14 million
    Baha’i 7 million
    Jainism 4.2 million
    Shinto 4 million
    Cao Dai 4 million
    Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
    Tenrikyo 2 million
    Neo-Paganism 1 million
    Unitarian Universalism 800,000
    Rastafari Movement 600,000

  • Gosh Ben….you scared me there. I, for two seconds, thought we agreed on something and I’d hate to think I’d gone apostate.

  • Yes, the “nones” are rapidly increasing as a share of US society…However, this survey seems out of whack — 34% nones and only 33% protestant? These numbers don’t sync with much larger surveys from Pew and PRRI which both show the nones at about 25% and protestants at about 45%

    I wonder if there was a problem with the questioning…perhaps some protestants not affiliated with a denomination inadvertently grouped themselves with the “nones”. Shows how the way pollsters ask questions — affect survey results. I’m not saying that has happened here…all-in-all, the good news is that religion is falling away in the USA, there is hope for the future !!

  • “Various markers of economic health, such as low unemployment and a robust stock market, are already in place.”

    The problem with the markers is that they don’t really show the decline in good paying jobs, in job security, in opportunity, and the very real virtual freeze on income growth for the non-wealthy. As for the “robust stock market”, it belongs primarily to the very wealthy, anyway. Did you notice that the stock market came roaring back long before jobs did after the Bush recession.

    One of the things we need to look at is wealth concentration. Several years ago I read that, as the economy “improved” from the Bush recession, the measure of wealth concentration among industrialized nations showed the U.S. only trailed Switzerland in wealth concentration. At that point, the concentration of wealth was as great as it had been before the Great Depression. I cannot imagine it has done anything but concentrate even more in the four or five years since I heard that piece of news.

    The other thing that is of great concern is the opportunity for upward mobility. It is highly dependent on a college education and that education is now so expensive that our graduates are over a trillion dollars in debt and student loan debt is only exceeded by mortgage debt in our country. Young people who do manage to get the education are then so saddled with debt they can’t start building families, buying homes, doing what their parents did.

    So, what is a tax cut going to do to really address the problems most of us are facing with getting our own lives on track to buy a home, save for retirement, educate our kids, and pay off the loans that got us the education in the first place? Or try to help our kids pay off the loans? For older folks, most do not have sufficient savings for anything more than a hard-scrabble retirement and the stock market did not pay off so well for all of them – many lost a great deal in the Bush Recession. What will the proposed tax cuts do for them?
    A B S O L U T E L Y N O T H I N G … watch for even greater wealth concentration and wage stagnation for most Americans to continue.

  • People are fed up of the kind of religious doctrines and dogmas espoused by fundamentalists, evangelicals and the Roman Catholics. People, especially the youth, have seen the hypocrisy in each of these religious segments of the society. There is no spirituality to any degree in the lives of evangelists, priests, ministers and pastors. They watch with some kind of dismay and confusion the way American televangelists, Catholic pedophile priests and greedy preachers swindle the congregation. They range from Kenneth Copeland to Benny Hinn to Paula White not forgetting T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyers and the list carries on and on. They are shamelessly adorning the Hall of Fame and Scandal in the United States and they call themselves people of God. So, why do we wonder that the hypocrisy and double-speak of these so -called men and women of God are responsible for driving away the youth who are sincerely trying to seek spiritual redemption from organized religion?

  • But, he is not wrong. In the last ten years or so, I have become extremely hostile to the religious right. I am in my 70s so I have had, worked with and still have Christian friends. My friend are not at all extreme, so I do not dislike them. The Christians that Ben speak about are one of the reasons that I not only questioned my religion, became an atheist and now donate to FFRF and AU. So, the fundagelicals seem to do more alienation than otherwise.

  • The nones may one to look for a universal religion that is for all Humanity. A religion that teaches us that God is Unity and is neither male, female nor black or white. Sin is not a birth right but acquired through lack of knowledge. Salvation is what you do as a human for Humanity and not what you say. True God consciouness is the antidote for human misery.

  • Pew also found that 11% of Americans don’t believe in gods. Which technically makes them atheists, whether or not they identify as such. Given that 22% of Americans are nones, and 11% don’t believe in gods, that makes about half of ‘nones’ atheists.

  • Sounds like a lot of noise to me. Like someone who has lost their religious beliefs, but still wants to create some sort of religion to identify with.
    Why not just be a humanist, it focuses on human well being, and comes without all the god and sin language.

  • Nonsense, David. I know what I believe, or more accurately, don’t
    How would you like it if we simply asserted that you, David, didn’t actually believe in god? Christians are just playing a game of pretend? That’s what you’re doing in reverse.
    I’ve been an atheist my whole life and that won’t change.. without evidence.
    But even with evidence, while I might be persuaded a god existed, whether or not I respected it is another matter. And I consider the act of praise and worship to be below me. And below all of us.
    Why even praise or worship a thing for doing something no one asked it to do, and for its own pleasures? Do you praise your mother every time she flushes the toilet?