A quarter of U.S. adults do not affiliate with any religion, making the so-called “nones” for the first time bigger than any religious denomination.

Will religiously unaffiliated Americans increase support for liberal policies, in 2018 and beyond?

File 20180108 83574 1baygiy.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Nearly one of every four people in the US is religiously unaffiliated.
Prazis Images via www.shutterstock.com

(The Conversation) — Last fall, the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute noted the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans: Nearly one of every four people is unaffiliated – a threefold increase since the 1980s.

Often called “nones,” this group encompasses agnostics and atheists, as well as those who simply do not belong to a religious community.

The common linking of religion with conservatism in the U.S. has prompted speculation that a growth in the number of people without a religious affiliation would increase support for liberal policies. Indeed, there is analysis that shows that unaffiliated Americans are twice as likely to identify as liberal than as conservative.

However, some observers disagree. They argue it is impossible to know whether decreased religious affiliation will benefit political liberals.

As a historian of American religion, I have studied people who have disaffiliated from churches. History suggests caution about political generalizations.

Early religious landscape

During the late 19th century, unbelief and indifference to religion, especially the U.S.‘s dominant religion of Christianity, became more acceptable in public opinion. This was especially true among educated elites because of the combination of two phenomena. On the one hand, new scholarship called the origin and history of the Bible into question. On the other, evolution suggested that a divine being was not needed to explain the world’s development.

Scholars such as Christian Smith have shown that many noted Americans – such as the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., attorney Clarence Darrow and Cornell University founding president Andrew Dickson White – adopted a secular worldview.

But a shared rejection of religion did not lead to shared political views. This was demonstrated in the 19th century by two men who left Christianity: the lawyer and Republican Party power broker Robert Ingersoll and Yale University social scientist William Graham Sumner.

A shared path to disaffiliation

Robert Ingersoll.
Mathew Brady, via Wikimedia Commons

Ingersoll and Sumner had much in common. Both grew up in mid-Atlantic states before the Civil War. Both came from families that adhered to strict forms of Protestant Christianity. Indeed, Sumner briefly became a clergyman in the Episcopal Church. Both were early advocates for Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

Ultimately, both men abandoned religion.

Each became noted for his particular critique of religion. Ingersoll was the most famous agnostic of the day. He toured the country proclaiming his message of unbelief to large audiences. Sumner joined the faculty of Yale. He pioneered the field of academic sociology and led the effort to secularize higher education.

Despite their similar path to becoming unaffiliated, Sumner and Ingersoll had little in common politically. This was especially true on the major issue of their day: how society should care for the poor and working class.

America endured social upheaval as it underwent mass industrialization in the late 19th century. At the same time, the country experienced a long recession. The questions prompted by these developments dominated political debates: Should charities support the able-bodied unemployed? Should the government care for the poor? Should industry be subject to regulation?

These questions divided Ingersoll and Sumner.

The charitable agnostic

As his biographer Susan Jacoby notes, Ingersoll had a compassionate nature even as a young man. He preached generosity even as he rejected Christianity. For him, this life was all that mattered. There was no need for a religion focused on other worlds when people suffered in this one. “There are plenty needing help here,” Ingersoll wrote, exhorting people to “do each other good.”

Ingersoll urged charity toward the poor and needy. He also advocated a more active role for the state. Government institutions, he believed, could protect workers from exploitation and ensure Americans’ well-being.

The social Darwinist

William Graham Sumner.
Popular science monthly volume 35 via Wikimedia Commons

Sumner espoused very different views. Even before leaving the pulpit, he preached hard work and individual effort rather than compassion and mutual aid. Unlike Ingersoll, who accepted evolution as science but not as sociology, Sumner embraced social Darwinism. The maxim “survival of the fittest” shaped his political views. Sumner wrote that Americans must acknowledge that there were people who were simply “a dead-weight on the society.”

Sumner denounced charity as unfair redistribution of wealth. He wrote that charity took money from those who had earned it and gave it to “the man who has done nothing to raise himself above poverty.” Nor did he see any role for government in protecting citizens. In this way, Sumner championed many of the same values of modern conservatism. He proclaimed “the inadequacy of the State to regulative tasks.”

Ingersoll and Sumner left Christianity for similar reasons. But their beliefs led them to very different political opinions. They reflected the range of views held by the increasingly visible population of unaffiliated Americans of their day.

Not united in political beliefs

There is reason to believe a similar diversity of opinions exists today.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s study notes that the religiously unaffiliated are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. But more unaffiliated Americans identify as independents than as members of the two parties combined.

This breadth of political views aligns with data in a 2012 Pew study. That analysis found unaffiliated voters to be more liberal than the general public on abortion and gay rights. But on the broader issue of the size and scope of government, unaffiliated Americans differed little from their religious neighbors. Both religious and nonreligious respondents were nearly evenly split on the question of whether or not they desired smaller government, a longstanding conservative position. This suggests that while unaffiliated people hold more liberal views on some social issues, they are not united in their political beliefs.

These data confirm the lesson of history. It is not easy to generalize about the political views of Americans who reject religious institutions. Politicians and parties who predict their future based on declining religious affiliation do so at their peril.

(David Mislin is an assistant professor in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.)


  1. In my view, the growing unaffiliated, non-religious population should be careful not to become a partisan group of voters or organizations identifying as liberal or conservative. Avoid taking the religious right’s approach.

    That being said — the “Nones” should stand firm on strict separation of church and state, women’s rights, LGBT rights, reproductive rights.These issues are not political if you take out the religious viewpoint and insert rational, secular one. It would also marginalize the religious hard-liners of all faiths… that would uphold true religious freedom.

  2. The reason the unaffiliated trend liberal is partly because the Republican party won’t accept them. There are videos on YouTube of David Silverman of American Atheists at CPAC. He gets into several arguments with folks at the convention because they insist you have to be religious to be a conservative.

  3. If they can find a well-spoken, ethical candidate. Unfortunately, Hillary did not qualify.

  4. Odd, people who would want to divorce themselves from helping people have an eternal relationship with Christ. How much more selfish can one get?

  5. Ha-ha, eat your heart out: “It is not easy to generalize about the political views of Americans who reject religious institutions”!

    AW SNAP.

  6. What part of “It is not easy to generalize about the political views of Americans who reject religious institutions” don’t you fathom, capture, understand, comprehend, dig, get?

  7. Excellent historical review. You can see why ‘The Great Agnostic’ Ingersoll is such a hero today. Today, over 2/3 of Nones identify as liberal. Note: Social Darwinism has nothing to do with Evolution; it is a label to add justification for greedy people. Those who identify as Atheist or Agnostic are overwhelmingly liberal.

  8. Actually, various non-religious groups do a lot of good. Basically, good people do good. You do not need to believe in a God. During the recent disasters in the US, many Atheist groups sent people to assist, often working with religious groups.

  9. The common term for trying to direct Atheists is ‘herding cats’. There are not Atheist leaders or groups telling them how to vote or think.

  10. The part where theocratically minded Christians have influence and access with conservative political platforms far in excess of their population and acceptance by the nation at large.

    You don’t see too many non religious political conservatives because they are rejected by the conservative political apparatus.

  11. Atheists do it to feel good about themselves. Christians do good to glorify God.
    Who are the selfish ones?

  12. How did you go about determining this? It sounds like you are just reciting church propaganda.

  13. How did you go about determining this to be true? It sounds like something you just made up to be insulting.

  14. Atheists are not out to glorify God. That would prove it true there.

  15. Since atheism asserts without any facts that no gods exist and that when you die you cease to exist then it doesn’t matter what you do. Its all utterly meaningless. Dawkins says it so well:
    “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
    ― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life

  16. You have identified one motivation they do NOT have. You have not provided any evidence or testimony for the reasons they DO have. Your conclusion does not follow from the evidence you provided.

  17. Atheists generally assert NOT that no gods exist, but that claims about gods are without sufficient evidence to accept as truth. That is not the same thing.

    Saying that life does not have a meaning IMPOSED BY A GOD is not the same as saying that life can have no meaning, and it is not saying anything about whether a person finds a life without religion to be a better life, as you asserted.

    So your assertions are false.

    And anyone who’d actually read Dawkins books would know this; he makes it all abundantly clear. So it appears you either have only read cherry-picked quotes of Dawkins — not a very scholarly thing to do — or are deliberately misleading folks — not a very Christ-like thing to do. Which is it?

  18. So you have no evidence to offer, as I suspected. Just something someone made up.

  19. Unless you don’t want to use your common sense, I guess;

  20. Common sense = speculation. Anything asserted without evidence can and should be be rejected.

  21. I suggest you don’t take a job testing chairs then.

  22. I have abundant evidence for chairs. You have no evidence for your speculations about the motives of atheists, and you don’t seem to care enough abut the truth to find out.

  23. Christians do it just to score points with God to try to get a ticket to heaven.. Who are the selfish ones? (see I can make stuff up too).

  24. That is ridiculous. Perhaps atheists do good to help others because they care.

  25. And it makes them feel good about themselves – they think they have helped someone.

  26. Doesn’t work that way. There is nothing one can do to make God love them. We love God because He loves us first. There is nothing that can make the Lord want to take you to Heaven – all have fallen short of the glory of God.
    Works are not a route to Heaven, they are the result of a relationship with Jesus.

  27. All good deeds, even those glorifying God, tend to make a person feel better about themselves. I don’t see the difference nor do I see that it matters.

  28. “Since atheism asserts without any facts that no gods exist and that when you die you cease to exist then it doesn’t matter what you do. Its all utterly meaningless.”

    “Since atheism asserts without any facts that no gods exist…” Since you are asserting without any facts that this is what atheism asserts, what you have to say is utterly meaningless.

    “when you die you cease to exist…” George Washington is dead. I’m pretty sure he has ceased to exist.

    “Then it doesn’t matter what you do…” Exactly the same thing is asserted by Christians of your ilk. All you have to do is sin, claim you have repented, and then ask Jesus for forgiveness. He always forgives, which you also assert without evidence. After running on a family values campaign, the current governor of Missouiri as found to have engaged in an affair. Not surprisingly, Jesus forgave him.

    “It’s all utterly meaningless.” to you.

    Or you said it. not me.

  29. JP is a known Psycho-Right troll over on the various Patheos Nonreligious pages. Feel free and safe to ignore and block his wretched arse, because you’ll never see anything of value attached to his user profile.

  30. And do you feel good about glorifying god? Of course you do. That’s why you do ir.
    Clueless as usual, but self glorifying to the very end.

  31. Arguing with Sandimonious is like arguing with a rock, except that it’s less productive and no where near as much fun. Good luck!

  32. Yes, I feel good glorifying God, but the difference is God get’s the glory, not me.

  33. Religiously unaffiliated is rather a strange term, if you are among the infinitesimal Elect of YHVH (the Saved; the Heaven-bound; the disenculturated; the saints). Since it was one of the main purposes of Messiah Yeshua to expose the sin of religion itself, as a den of thieves committing the unpardonable sin of monetizing YHVH our Heavenly Father, the very creation of a religion-business in the name of Yeshua (later renamed Jesus by the antiChrist living Europeanized money-dependent money-lovers) is anathema to all disciples of Messiah Yeshua. Our actual Lord was non-political, stating when physically forced into their dominion, that His Kingdom was not even of this world (and thus, neither is ours). The blindly enculturated socially christianized masses, operate on the narrow-minded assumption that all Saved/transformed people have anything whatsoever to do with the things of this world, which the masses on Broadway (Matt 7:18-27) blindly comply with. No Saved Heaven-bound individual on Earth, participates in any way, with any organized religion-business, nor with anything even remotely political. But for the eternally doomed (churched or not), this life is all there will be, thus explaining the passion for it (1 John 2). ~ A disciple of Messiah Yeshua! (Ad hominem to follow).

  34. I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. I have it on the best authority that all atheists and agnostics, and a good deal of non-evangelical Christians, and anyone who isn’t a Christian, get their marching orders directly from Satan. And if you disagree with me, its obvious you’re also getting your marching orders from Satan, too.

  35. But you get ot feel good about it. But we already knew that actual self insight isn’t one of your virtues,.

  36. This is an excellent example of Poe’s Law. I cannot tell.

  37. Wow. This thread is full of Poe’s. I really cannot tell.

  38. Damn gnostics. I thought the Real Christians wiped you guys out centuries ago. In the name of The most Holy God, of course.

  39. Nah, he’s real. He’s a gnostic, I think. But who knows?*

    *points if you got the pun.

  40. Oh, c’mon. Yes you can. I have faith in you.

    Oh, wait! If I clearly have faith, then I am a poe. But I lack the subtlety and flaming a-holery to be a genuine Poe, so I must be a fake Poe. But wouldn’t that make me real?

    i’m so confused!!!! I’ll make a few sacrifices to the goat of mendes and see if he can straighten this out for me.*

    *yes, at this point, I am pulling your arm.

  41. JP is a known Psycho-Right troll over on the various Patheos Nonreligious pages.”
    I just saw this on the internet. So already, there is something of value attached to him.

  42. because I want to disagree with your statement. why did you make your initial comment?

  43. Thank you for proving our point. You feel good about it.

  44. So does God love everyone initially? If not, how does he choose who he is going to love? If God doesn’t love everyone initially, that begs the question as to why he created us in the first place.

  45. The current governor of Missouri is Jewish. And not the Messianic Jewish that — no surprise — Roy and Kayla Moore’s lawyer turned out to be (that’s why they can fellowship with him). So Jesus has to sit this one out.

  46. No thanks. Mixing poe and amontillado can have a fatal side effect!

  47. I teach 2d and 3d Grade SpEd Summer School. One of the main things I always teach is ‘Actions Speak Louder Than Words’. Adults need to learn that lesson also.

  48. The report I read about this said that god had forgiven them. I went back to it. This was Greiten’s statement. “While we never would have wished for this pain in our marriage, or the pain that this has caused others, with God’s mercy Sheena has forgiven and we have emerged stronger.” I just somehow read that Jesus did. I always get so confused about these sorts of things, because I can’t keep straight which gods are forgiving which sins. My bad.
    God forgive me.

  49. No, Atheists want to help people. That would seem a higher calling, as they are not looking for ‘eternal reward’ for their actions.

  50. If someone is filling sandbags next to you, do you question their motivations? Or are you just glad that more sandbags are getting filled faster?

  51. Mrs Clinton may, or may not have been the best candidate. But no moral person could have voted for Trump after what we all saw.

  52. If you lived eternally, you’d probably require something to keep you entertained. Puppets fill the bill quite nicely.

  53. Show some evidence for God. The best example was the last 5 minutes of the Ham on Nye debate. When asked if they would change their mind if evidence were produced, Ham said ‘no’ because of his book. Nye said ‘yes’ he would change his mind with evidence.

  54. It’s okay. I don’t know his wife’s religion, but this statement says that she, not God, has forgiven him. She just did so “with God’s mercy.” This is consistent with Judaism: for sins committed against other people, only the wronged person can truly forgive.

  55. Voted for neither one. But did vote for a conservative write-in.

  56. I believe that God loves everyone (For God so loved the world that He gave His only begtton Son…)

  57. But, it isn’t for my glory, but His. Big difference Mark and that was the point I was making.

  58. ” I don’t see the difference nor do I see that it matters.” You contradict yourself.

  59. And following the train of the comments obviously isn’t yours. I’m repeating my first comment

  60. When you have a system like politics or academics and you fracture the whole into four groups-secular liberal, religious liberal, secular conservative, religious conservative, it’s like multiplying fractions. You get numbers that increasingly represent less of a whole number.
    If you want something to represent more of a whole you have to divide the fractions with each other…Wow! I never believed I would ever understand how a multiplied faction would make sense. Now I believe there really is a president.

  61. What I said WAS the discussion. It does not matter how you justify your actions to yourself or the world. All that matters are your actions. Good is good, no matter who does it, or why. The same with bad.

  62. Not sure what you mean? I think is was supposed to be an insult? Please be more specific.

  63. Both are equally selfish. Lets take Sand’s argument one truthful step further. Christians sometimes do good to glorify a deity… because glorifying deities makes them feel good about themselves.

  64. As an outsider reading your comments, its crystal clear to me you do not believe that. You’d like to believe it, thus cherry pick that line and use it when convenient, but you’re likely fooling noone, except perhaps yourself, Sand.

  65. “Us?” Nice try. Try “me” instead because the answer is mirrors reflect what is in front of them.

  66. It isn’t always for your glory, but sometimes it is, likely. If you perform kind acts anonymously to serve a deity then granted the deity gets most or all the glory. When you do good works publicly alongside other church members for instance, its, if nothing else subconsciously, to share that glory with the deity, whether you choose to believe so or not.

  67. A half baked analogy there, JP. Atheism is not a path, or journey even, that would lead anywhere. It would be like stating, “Not listening to jazz music is a dead end,” or “not painting my kitchen yellow does not lead to a better life.” Please up your game by jettisoning all notions that atheism can accurately be described linearly. It can’t.

  68. Thanks for the tip. I surely will if I determine his intent is not to have mutually enlightening conversation.

  69. So let me get this straight. You are telling us that people who do good works of charity that help other people are selfish. You also tell us that your god thinks so too, though you provide no evidence of the existence of this god or that your god has ever said helpful people are selfish. And you think that this god wants you to point an accusing finger at all those kind, generous people and call them selfish. And that your god is proud of you when you do this. And you think that is the meaning of the word “love”.

    Do you see why you are failing? I think you’ve grossly misunderstood your own teachings.

  70. Actually the atheist needs to up his game by first providing the facts that proves atheism is true. Otherwise it has no place at the table in explaining reality and leading to a better life for all.

  71. Where did I say that God thinks they are selfish also? I did say that it will not help a person to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. How did you equate the two?
    Christ gave His Word so that we can be right with Him and know how to maintain that relationship.
    Sin separates us from God. Christ died that we could again have a relationship with Christ.
    Repeating what Christ has taught about what separates us from Him, is helping the person. We all need a relationship with Christ.
    Knowing the sin that is separating one from Christ, is the best way to rid oneself of it and return to blessings.

    James 5:20 – New International Version
    remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

    I have used this analogy several times, as well as others, but if you know someone is in a burning building, would you not go in to help them out? Same with Christians teaching Christ’s Word.

  72. Very good JP. Instead of comparing atheism to a path or journey you just compared it to a place [at the table], a much more truthful, appropriate comparison. Thank you. Please keep up the good work. Using better, more truthful analogies always helps us answer questions such as whether a rise in atheism would create a better life for all. But whether it would or wouldn’t has nothing to do if it is true. This peasant has chosen to put his money on what can be most proven to be true. As to providing facts I can’t provide facts proving Jesus doesn’t exist, but I can easily turn that argument around since what is good for the goose (me) is good for the gander (you). You can’t provide facts proving Allah, Thor, Hanuman, etc. don’t exist either. Nor that a rise in Islam or Hinduism, etc. wouldn’t lead to a better life for all.

  73. Exactly! You glorify god because it makes YOU feel happy.

  74. “Suppose??” How could or is it even remotely possible I am NOT allowed ANY opinion I have??

  75. There are plenty of facts that proves God exist.
    Anyone who claims that Allah, Thor, Hanuman, etc exist needs to present the evidence for them so we can see if there is good reasons that they do. Same for the atheist. What is the evidence that atheism is true? I have yet to see any from any atheist. All I get is: “I don’t find the evidence for God convincing and so God does not exist”.

  76. You just stated that you do good works because glorifying your deity in that way “makes you happy.” So the end game for your behavior as with all humans is to make yourself happy. Which means you are just as selfish as the rest of us.

  77. Atheism is NOT a truth. If you tell me it’s a truth that you walked on the moon, I won’t believe you until YOU provide indisputable evidence. If you tell me deities exist, I won’t believe you without indisputable, VALID evidence. There is plenty of evidence your deity exists. None of it in my opinion is valid. Thus we differ in our beliefs.

  78. Of course you do. That’s because you use circular reasoning. Ben in Oakland is right that you hide behind such reasoning.

  79. Helping those in need can indeed make you feel good. It’s among the most warm and satisfying emotions we’re capable of experiencing. Whether it’s in service to God or out of personal desire to have empathy and compassion for others, I don’t think it’s appropriate to label either as “selfish”. I mean, glorifying God is motivated by securing a personal spot in heaven for just yourself. Using your logic couldn’t that be considered the ultimate display of selfishness?

  80. or is it out of the desire for the high you get for helping someone?

  81. Do you not feel the same “high” when helping someone out of a desire to glorify God? I would imagine that knowing God is pleased you’re doing his work feels pretty darn good but that doesn’t make you selfish, nor does it diminish the actions themselves.

  82. Feeling satisfied that you may have glorified your Lord and Saviour is much, much better than “I was a nice person”

  83. Matthew 7:15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

    Matthew is speaking of this forked-tonged – sandinwindsor….

  84. That’s a purely subjective statement. I could say the same by just switching the order around. Doesn’t address the specific point of how that makes any side more or less selfish. I’ll leave it at that. Good discussion, thanks for sharing your views. Cheers.

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