If one wants information on large numbers of people, it makes perfect sense to use survey methods yielding statistical data. Depending on the nature of the data, one can then make correlations between, say, religious affiliation, age, gender, income, location and party registration. If you are running for political office, start a local church, or sell a product or a service, this information can be very useful. Some data of course are available from public sources, such as party registration in a locality. But most surveys are looking for information that can only be obtained by asking individuals for their self-identification, opinions and behavior—so, you are a Democrat, what is your view of the Obama foreign policy, are you in favor of sending ground troops to Iraq? You may also be interested in the religious factor: You are Catholic, what is your party registration, are you in favor of sending in ground troops? And so on. The trouble with such survey data is that they come from responses to pre-set questions that may miss the nuances in the respondent’s view of things. That is a particular problem in the area of religion. I think that qualitative methods are more likely to catch the nuances. All the same, competently handled survey data about religion can be very informative. One of the most competent source for religious data from many countries is the Pew Research Center in Washington, specifically its division “Religion and Public Life”, directed by Luis Lugo.
On April 4, 2015, Pew issued a document titled “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050”. Some of the findings are very interesting indeed, assuming that current demographic trends continue:
- Christianity will continue to be the world’s largest religion, but Islam is growing faster (it is generally true that strongly religious people have more children, but I daresay that polygamy is demographically helpful).
- By 2050 the global numbers of Christians and Muslims will be nearly equal.
- Four out of every ten Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa.
- India will still have a Hindu majority, but it will surpass Indonesia as the country with the largest number of Muslims.
- In the United States Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two- thirds in 2050.
- Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion; Islam will. [A little while ago Pew issued a special report on American Jews, which generated many debates in the Jewish community. Speaking demographically only, the most promising group within that community are the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox—the more ultra, the better.]
Needless to say, all these shifts will have significant consequences for international and US domestic politics. But in this post I want to focus on the group that is categorized as “religiously unaffiliated”. This group consists of people who, when asked about their religious affiliation, say “none”. They are, not too happily, called “Nones” (no, my dear—they are not Catholic sisters—on the contrary!). They are concentrated in countries with less fertile and aging population. They have been declining from 16.4% to 13.2% of the global population (still a hefty billion). They have been rising in the U.S. from 16% to 26% of the total population. The U.S. figures have been hailed by the shrinking number of scholars still adhering to so-called secularization theory (which proposes that modernity means less religion); they take the rise of the Nones as evidence that the US too is heading toward European secularity (never mind all those noisy Holy Rollers in the allegedly more backward regions of the republic).
A more refined breakdown of the Nones differentiates between “atheists”, “agnostics”, and those who simply identify themselves as “unaffiliated”. What do these terms actually mean in America today? There is indeed a small group of self-described atheists, some of them affiliated with organizations/”churches” also so described. Some are quite militant, going to the federal courts to claim First Amendment rights or to have Christmas displays dismantled in public parks. There is a whiff of fundamentalism about these people, an attitude of superior certitude (an atheist could be defined as an individual who heard a voice from heaven with the message that heaven does not exist). Though it must be said that most Americans who insist on their right to be atheists (“freedom from religion”) are not as intolerant as the “godless” activists who carried out anti-religious propaganda in the Soviet Union and Maoist China.
And who are the “agnostics”? The Greek word literally means “those who don’t know”. In chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews (a New Testament text by an unknown author, probably writing in the 60s CE), faith is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (RSV). In other words, Christian faith is something different from direct knowledge (gnosis); I’m not competent to speculate whether the author of Hebrews had in mind the Gnostics (literally, “the knowing ones”), whose secret wisdom was in competition with the teachings of the early Christian church. Be this as it may, the term “agnostic” describes quite well a lot of our contemporaries who consider themselves Christians but have some doubts. Finally, the reasons for “non-affiliation” could be varied: not being comfortable with one’s original denomination because of theological or moral disagreement, not having found a more congenial denomination, disliking a particular pastor or congregation for whatever reason.
A Pew study released in 2012 (presumably also containing data from 2010, the base line for the recent projections) has some interesting findings about the Nones (the report is titled “Nones on the Rise”):
- 14% of the Nones say that “religion is very important in their life”.
- 68% (!) say that they “believe in God or universal spirit” (30% say that they are “absolutely certain”, 38% that “yes, but less certain”).
- 21% report that they pray daily.
- 18% consider themselves “a religious person”; while 37% say that they are “spiritual but not religious” (the semantics of the term “spiritual” is a minefield into which I’d rather not venture here).
- 12% identify themselves as “atheists”; it is not clear how many of them overlap with those who believe in a “universal spirit”.
There seems to be a good deal of confusion here, some of it perhaps attributable to those who designed the questions rather than those who struggled to respond to them. In any case, there is little here to suggest that hordes of godless militants are about getting ready to storm the bastions of American religion.
My critical comments on the category of “Nones” are not to suggest that it should not be used at all. If I were part of a team constructing a questionnaire in this area (something as unlikely as my becoming an atheist militant), I would certainly advise some conceptual changes. One would be to differentiate the “Nones” from the “Buts”—that is from those who will say something like “I am Catholic, but…”, this preamble then being followed by a list of items where the respondent cannot accept the teachings or the actions of his church. There are very many such people, in most religious communities today. They fit into the first of two categories based on the work of the distinguished British sociologist Grace Davie—“belonging without believing”—that is individuals who do not disaffiliate from their religious community, thus cannot be called “Nones”, but do stay in with a degree of dissent or inner distance. The other category, “believing without belonging”, does fit the description of “Nones”—they form the very large group of unorganized practitioners of Asian meditation techniques or informal charismatic gatherings, and of course individuals who construct their religious idiosyncracies all by themselves. Picture a person who goes into a bookstore and comes out carrying a stack of books dealing with religions from all parts of the world (like Woody Allen in the film where he questions a Hare Krishna devotee and then tries to become a Catholic). The French sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger has called this type of solitary religion bricolage, “tinkering”, like a child assembling and disassembling Lego pieces. The Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow had the same idea when he called this phenomenon “patchwork religion”.
What we have here is a religious landscape that is highly diverse, colorful and volatile. It is the result of the combination of pluralism (the coexistence of different religions, worldviews and value systems in the same society) and religious freedom (where the state refrains from imposing or re-improsing religious or ideological uniformity). My favorite Zulu proverb says “If I don’t beat my drum, who will?” I will therefore conclude by restating my proposition that we don’t live in a secular age, but in a pluralist age. I have tried to spell out some very far-reaching implications of this increasingly global fact in my recent book, The Many Altars of Modernity (Berlin and Boston, DeGruyter, fall 2014). Both religious and political fundamentalists try to set up a totalitarian regime, in the society as a whole or within the confines of a sect or subculture. Their project seeks to repress the powerful dynamics of pluralism. The good news is that under modern conditions any version of this project is hard to realize.