When it first came out, a new Pew study on American religion made major waves, showing, seemingly, a steep drop off in Christian religious affiliation and a rise in religiously unaffiliated Americans. The percentage of respondents calling themselves Christian dropped by almost 8 points from 2007 to 2014. Atheists, agnostics, and those who identify as “nothing in particular” rose by 6.7 percent to 22.8 percent.
Some, like Ross Douthat, have called the numbers into question for a variety of reasons. In a recent essay on an earlier Pew study, Peter Berger gives one key reason to handle the Pew data carefully: “nones”, those who have unaffiliated from a religious tradition, aren’t quite what you might expect. Here are some of the facts Berger pulls out about them:
- 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”.
Berger concludes from these numbers that “there is little here to suggest that hordes of godless militants are about getting ready to storm the bastions of American religion.” Whatever else it may be, the shifting American religious landscape is a complex thing.