How to describe the growing phenomenon of waning American religiosity? Centuries ago it was called “apostasy,” from the Greek word for revolt. More recently, when I was growing up, Catholics who stopped believing were said to have “fallen away.” Today we speak neutrally of “the unaffiliated,” describing the dramatic increase in their numbers as “the rise of the nones” (as in, those who choose “no religion” on research surveys). But there’s an obvious problem with that last phrase, as the boyfriend of one of my theology graduate students pointed out: “It’s not like I believe in nothing!”
The objection was apt, for this is exactly what some commentators (mostly on the Right, though not always) allege regarding the unaffiliated. The story is as familiar as it is uncomplicated: these “nones” have reportedly been swayed by a rising secularist tide, one that threatens to replace traditional religiosity with moral relativism, and communal decision-making with radical individual autonomy. The result is that everything is reduced to personal whim. Even if critics do not necessarily blame unaffiliated persons for the shift, which is thought to be the result of broad social trends, they are essentially arguing that young people have been seduced by a kind of nihilism. Never mind that the data reveal that the majority of “nones” do believe in some kind of higher power.
This narrative is seductive, as it fits well with an apocalyptic view of modernity that pleases many on the Right (and not a few on the Left). It’s true that a certain level of secularization is a necessary precondition for religious disaffiliation. Choosing “no religion” would be impossible without the preceding loss of a general religious consensus—a point often made by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. It’s an option that previous eras simply didn’t have. Living in a world awash in religious feeling, belief, practice, and authority, medieval Europeans could not simply “opt out” of religion; it was literally unthinkable. But Europeans and Americans in the wake of the Enlightenment could do so freely, as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln famously did. So did a lot of ordinary people in the earliest years of the Republic, though it’s worth remembering how popular enthusiasm swung decisively toward spiritual fervor during the Second Great Awakening.
In a broader way, though, the evidence does not support the assertion that disaffiliation was caused by any secularist tide. Instead, that explanation looks more like confirmation bias. After all, the basic sociological evidence is not in dispute. Numerous surveys of Americans (like Gallup, Pew Research Center, General Social Survey, and many others) point to a remarkably similar pattern. From the late 1960s through 1990, very few Americans (no more than 7 percent) described themselves as having no religion. Now, nearly a third do, including close to half of Americans under twenty-five years old.