From the “God Beat” to the “None Beat”

As newspapers have transformed into “new media,” and the economics of the media industries don’t make the same sense, companies have tightened their belts and laid off staff. One of the casualties has often been the “god beat,” reporters covering news about religion in their regions.

Stating this on RD is superfluous, as readers are often here precisely because of these shifts. However, the recent Pew Research Center report on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” brings the question of the “god beat” back, but with a twist.

The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein gave a retweet to this one:

We certainly need more skilled reporters who are knowledgeable about religious traditions in all their amazing and wacky manifestations. And in response to the Pew report, there were plenty of straightforward pieces in major outlets, generally by people who didn’t quite know what to write except just to relay what was already clearly stated by Pew.

For those who did know what to write, Sarah Posner’s lessons from the Pew Report here at RD, are useful takeaways. Apart from an overwrought headline (“millennials leaving church in droves”) CNN’s Daniel Burke was able to get into some nuances of the survey results. And Emma Green at Atlantic took the time to note the complexities of religious identity revealed in the report, especially with a rise in interfaith marriages and religion-switching.

As Green reminds us, “Not everyone in America is ditching religion, but people are finding more and more flexibility in the institutions that once reinforced steady religious practice, like marriage.”

The Pew report was certainly one of the more thorough ones in years, and their ability to do two nearly identical polls within seven years reveals important trends. What continues to go missing are the denominational differences of the unaffiliated.

The Pew report makes clear that “unaffiliated” can mean atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” Three useful, if not overly general, categories. Speaking on the Diane Rehm show on Wednesday, Kim Lawton, managing editor for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, was clear that even among the unaffiliated many still “believed” in god or a higher power, but simply don’t connect with traditional religious institutions.

For now we can hold off on challenging the corollary assumption that everyone sitting in temple and church on Friday nights and Sunday mornings are believers and “theists” (they aren’t).

With new shifts in the religious landscape of the United States, however slight or severe they are, we also need writers on the “none beat.” That is, we need good writing by people who can make sense of the unaffiliated, not just in the knee-jerk way of saying “we are becoming more secular,” or as the New York Times piece by political reporter David Leonhardt offers its silly title “The Rise of Young Americans Who Don’t Believe in God” (which is not what the Pew report indicated—the report was about religious affiliation).

With that, journalist Steven Weiss and I briefly exchanged some potential categories for the unaffiliated on Twitter. Feel free to add your own and perhaps we can get these installed to help flesh out the next Pew Report.

  • Jim Reed

    A few years ago there was a South Park episode, Jewpacabra, that featured a couple of the boys in the forest at night saying the phrases, “No Jesus” and “Jesus is a lie”. That seemed to be a riff on the Jesus myth theory, but it never seemed to get much more traction after that. Still, I see the fact that it was out there on such a public stage as indicating some kind of change in our world. The Jesus Myth people might be a minor subset of non-believers, but I think they should be included on the list of unaffiliated.

  • seashell

    I’m a member of the “So Whats”. I don’t believe in God, but it’s more in an apathetic way than a life cause or a foundational building block in how I live my life, and until the political became so personal, I didn’t care what other people believed, either.

    Now I’m trying to understand the nuances of the highly religious because I’m interested in how we see the same America in such vastly different ways.

  • Jim Reed

    Sending kids to fight in Vietnam ended up changing youth culture in America, and the response to the changing youth was conservative Christianity becoming political. That split America because we could handle a Christianity that wasn’t doing anything, but a united Christianity that was voting according to their religion just does too much damage to ignore.

  • seashell

    Yes, that’s a good overview and I’m aware of some of the history. But I’m looking for the nuances involved in the extreme partisanship we have today.

    I’ve started reading a book that Sarah Posner referred to in her article 5 REASONS YOU SHOULDN’T OVERTHINK THE NEW PEW DATA’S IMPACT ON POLITICS, called The Politics of Evangelical Identity by Lydia Bean. I like this book as Bean documents how:

    …evangelicals’ political views are shaped by a “narrative of Christian nationalism,” a “24/7 narrative” that “liberals basically destroyed America and conservatives have to take it back.”

  • Jim Reed

    I think the political split became self perpetuating. The insanity of the conservatives drives out a few of them, and then those who are left skew even more to the right. The result is there is no middle ground. They are way too far out on the ledge to admit their mistakes. They have to somehow find out how they can blame the progressives, and at least say they are partially responsible. But they aren’t, so that approach can’t get anywhere. The gap grows, and the right gets more crazy, and that drives out a few more, and that causes the gap to grow a little more. So far the status quo has been maintained because they still are giving the rich enough votes to keep the political power game going. Once the Republicans stop winning elections, the rich will abandon this whole structure and look elsewhere for their next power block, and then the social conservatives will be screwed. They will fall apart, and the gap will expand until one side is gone and then there will be no more gap. Of course to a conservative point of view all this is nonsense, so the game continues to play out.

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  • GeniusPhx

    this became relevant because the religious right took over the republicans in the 1950’s along with putting god in the pledge, on money, and joined the words ‘patriotic’ and ‘christianity’. it was a calculated branding that worked too well. now the republicans are synonymous with evangelicals, not a good thing these days.
    christians can’t seem to get their heads around a person not believing in god so they think we are confused or backsliding and will come back to jesus eventually. usually on our death beds. not so. once you learn santa was actually your dad, you can’t go back to believing in santa again, the same with god/jesus. we cant go back to believing something we know was never true in the first place.
    I believe it goes the other direction. the nones are those who would be abandoned by their families/friends/coworkers if they came out as atheist and those who no longer know what a god is and will eventually be able to admit their isnt one.

  • Jim Reed

    republicans are synonymous with evangelicals, not a good thing these days.

    Maybe not, but it has been very good for Republicans in the last few decades. They were able to use this to help the rich grow the gap about 10 fold over what it used to be. Any increase in American wealth is still going totally to the rich. At the top, they always knew this relationship couldn’t last forever, but as they burn through the evangelicals it has been working almost perfectly through these decades. It is hard to imagine how they will ever find another lockstep voting block this good. They might, but for the rest of us it is still seems hard to imagine.

  • GeniusPhx

    right. they could use the same fear and guilt to make ppl vote that works in religion. they are running preachers for public office. congress is far more religious than the population they represent. no ‘nones’ in congress, only 1 atheist. republicans will have to loose the bible eventually and find something else to run on.

  • Jim Reed

    The promise of heaven has a certain fiscal efficiency that will be hard to match. It is a long time since Republicans have had to promise the people much else.