In their April article, “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations,” co-authors Michael Hout and Claude Fischer* report that the decline had little to do with religious skepticism, since most respondents continue to hold conventional religious beliefs. Factors that appear to be responsible for the escalation in alienation from organized religion instead include demographic shifts (e.g., age group membership, delayed marriage and parenthood) and political beliefs.
“Perhaps the most influential factor is the recent trend in which politics and religion are becoming increasingly publicly intertwined,” explains Hout. Part of the basis for this conclusion is that the increase in “no religion” survey responses appears to be confined to liberals and moderates.
“This doubling of no religion preference is highly significant because for the 17-year period from 1974 to 1991, there was no significant change in religious preference,” says Hout. But “no religion” responses have accelerated since 1991. The greatest increase in such responses occurred in the two youngest age groups (born in the periods 1945-1959 and 1960-1974).
While religious preference also tends to track with family status (i.e., people frequently disengage from organized religion after leaving the family in which they grew up but re-attach when they start their own family), this factor played little or no role in the current findings. Recent trends toward extended schooling and delayed parenthood have influenced religious preference among the younger age groups. In addition, the younger age groups are more likely to have been raised without religion, as a larger percentage of people in the 1990s than in previous years claimed no religious origin or upbringing. And, an increasing percentage of people are “falling away” from the religion of their childhood as they become older. Between 5 and 7 percent of Americans raised in a Christian tradition, especially those who came of age in the 1960s and their offspring, have left organized religion.
Hout and Fischer maintain that one important reason for this change in religion preference is political. Specifically, their study found a link between having no religion and rejecting clerical activism, which supports their hypothesis that during the 1990s, having a religious identity increasingly became seen as an endorsement of conservative views. Hout and Fischer found that many liberal and moderate Americans felt that religion became distressingly politicized in the 1990s.
As to the role of secularization (i.e., skepticism), the researchers did not find this to be a cause of the increase in “no religion,” because most “no religion” responders maintain religious faith, a belief in God, and a belief in life after death.
“These findings show that religious dissenters are distancing themselves from the church and not from God. They may consider themselves ‘spiritual’ yet not ‘religious.’ They pray but do not attend service. They detach themselves from organized religion, not God,” Fischer explains.
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* Drs. Fischer and Hout are Professors of Sociology at the University of California-Berkeley. Fischer is also the inaugural editor of Contexts, the American Sociological Association's newest journal, presenting sociological work in magazine format to wide audiences. (See www.contextsmagazine.org.) Currently, Fischer and Hout are collaborating on a study of the major social and cultural trends of the 20th century.
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