Godless America? Say Hello to the ‘Apatheists’

Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville described America’s vibrant religiosity in the mid-nineteenth century, the United States has remained exceptionally pious when compared to the rest of the developed world. The nearly universal faith in God among Americans and their diligent church attendance have puzzled sociologists of religion and defied countless predictions of the impending secularization. As Gallup recently reported, when it comes to the importance of religion, Americans resemble the devout Iranians and Zimbabweans much more than they do the irreverent British and Swedes.

Underneath this façade of piety, however, drastic changes seem to be taking place. Fueled by the Christian Right’s political meddling, the Catholic sex abuse scandals, violent expressions of Islamic fundamentalism, and George W. Bush’s unpopular “faith-based” presidency, anti-religious sentiment is on the rise in America. Atheist polemics—most notably Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith—have dominated bestseller lists; feature films and documentaries criticizing religion, such as The Golden Compass and Religulous, have succeeded at the box office; atheist blogs, such as PZ Myers’ Pharyngula, have become internet sensations, while irreverent advertisements have appeared on American billboards and public buses.

Atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers also have learned to organize themselves politically and socially. In addition to supporting several national and international organizations (e.g., American Atheists, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Atheist Alliance International), they have established a national lobby, think tanks, social and dating networks, college groups, radio programs, summer camps, and even their own “out” campaign, inspiring people to come out of the closet as atheists. Perhaps the next step is devising an irreligious equivalent of the evangelical megachurch.

Are Americans losing their taste for religion after all? Mounting sociological evidence suggests this may be the case. The American Religious Identification Survey(ARIS), released just last week, is the latest in a series of religion polls showing substantial growth among the group variously described as “unchurched,” “unaffiliated,” or simply the “nones.” According to ARIS, the proportion of people who claimed no religion has almost doubled since 1990, increasing from 8.2% to 15%. This growth has occurred largely at the expense of Christians, whose percentage has shrunk from 86.2% in 1990 to 76.7% today. Another large-scale survey conducted in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life also showed that unaffiliated individuals are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States.

The increasing numbers of the “nones” appear to be a long-term, nationwide trend. Ariela Keysar, co-author of the ARIS report, explained that “the ‘nones’ are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.” It is also the only group to have grown in every racial and ethnic group. Vermont, where 34% of residents claimed no religion, is now the most irreligious state, while Mississippi is the most religious, with only 5% of residents refusing to identify with a faith tradition. Overall, the South remains a religious stronghold, while the Northeast and the West look more and more like the secularized societies of Western Europe.

Does this mean the United States is on track to become a nation of the godless? Not at all. As Gary Laderman pointed out in his recent feature here on RD, religious change is far too complex to be captured in a single sociological study or perspective. Surely this is the case with the growth of the “nones” in America. What complicates the issue is that few of the “nones” self-identify as atheists or agnostics.

In the ARIS survey, over 12% of respondents said they either did not believe in God or were uncertain about God’s existence, another 12% said they believed in a higher power rather than a personal God, but only 1.6% chose the atheist or agnostic label. The 2008 Pew Forum survey showed that about half of the “nones” actually considered themselves religious. In other words, it appears that most of the unaffiliated individuals are not atheistic or anti-religious in any activist sense, but are rather apathetic toward organized religion and reluctant to join any particular denomination or sect. Perhaps an appropriate term to describe such individuals is “apatheist,” a person who is not interested in trying to prove or disprove God’s existence or any other religious dogma.

To complicate things even further, the alleged decline of Christianity is largely occurring within mainline denominations, while many of the theologically conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches are thriving. If this trend continues, the American society may find itself increasingly polarized between evangelical Christians and the “nones,” creating a fascinating, albeit potentially explosive, cultural dynamic.

In the end, while some Americans will find religion at evangelical megachurches, others will abandon religious faith altogether. What is truly important, however, is that both groups learn to respect each other’s liberty and agree to disagree in a civil manner. America is neither Christian nor godless, but a nation that treasures pluralism and diversity, a nation that seeks to embody the ideal of E Pluribus Unum.

Konstantin Petrenko is a doctoral student in Religion, Politics, and Society at Baylor University. His research interests include the interaction of religion and politics in the modern world, church-state relations in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the sociology of religion.