The Question is Why?
The Question is Why?
Nearly one quarter of Americans are now “Nones” or religiously-unaffiliated. The question is “Why?” One could infer that if we can figure out why people are leaving the church we could work against the answer to Why.
We are looking at Ryan Burge’s new book, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going. I consider it one of the most significant books in the last couple years for those who want to understand American Christianity.
Some boldly declare they know why and get others to believe them. Burge knows the data are complex and complicated. There is no one reason why the Nones are rising.
What makes it all so complicated is social desirability bias: people like to fit in and as long as most are church folks the ones wanting to leave (or who have left) don’t declare themselves.
Here are the standard reasons given, though I will not give them in the order Burge gives them:
First, secularization of society.
In essence, the more educated and the more wealth the less likely one will go to church. Marxism saw religion as a tool of oppression. The USA is one country that just doesn’t fit the secularization theory. Perhaps it is delayed?
If social desirability is real, it is most real with respect to reporting on one’s religious behaviors. The internet makes people cope with their lack of fitting in – the unbeliever finds more unbelievers and it becomes easier to become a None.
Third, decrease in social connections.
Robert Putnam’s famous Bowling Alone has been an attractive theory for many: we have become less socially connected and we have less social capital. Cable TV and the internet replaces some of the social connection lacks. Burge however shows that this theory is not matched by the data.
Fourth, loss of trust in religious authorities.
The revelations of Roman Catholic priests is another explanation, and one can add to that the revelations of others. This one works “to a point.” The numbers are not strong here so Burge would say this “may be a piece of the puzzle” but the numbers are not clear enough to prove this point.
Fifth, changes in family structure: marriage, divorce, children. Again, to a point. “It’s worthwhile to note that someone who is neither married nor a parent is twice as likely to be unaffiliated as someone who is both.”
America’s evangelicals are now about 80% GOP. Did the culture war do this? Was it race? Was it economics? Yes, in part each of them was involved: “devout Protestant Christians are Republicans, with very few exceptions.”
Here’s the question:
Do our politics impact our religious affiliation, or does our religiosity have an impact on what political party we identify with?
Recent scholarship seems to be pointing more and more to an understanding of politics as the first cause and religious affiliation lying downstream of that. Instead of deciding who they will cast a ballot for based on their religious tradition, most Americans pick a church that lines up with their view of the political world.
That is stunning. Burge’s book is one in a short list who says evangelicals are more shaped by their politics than their beliefs.
His conclusions include these:
If I were to have to point to a few factors, I think that secularization, politics, and the internet are the major causal factors that have given rise to the nones.
While secularization might have put the pieces in place for America’s disaffiliation, I think what accelerated the shift were changes in politics, fueled in no small part by the introduction of the internet.
It doesn’t take a huge causal leap to believe that as the loudest and most numerous voices in Protestant Christianity became more theologically and politically conservative, that drove off a lot of moderates.
As evangelicals have become more linked to one political party, that has naturally led to the alienation of a lot of people who think differently about Politics.
Many ways, the damage has already been done-the wave of the nones will continue to grow in size.