Not Quite Atheism, but it’s a Start.

Americans and religion increasingly parting ways, new survey shows

BERKELEY — Religious affiliation in the United States is at its lowest point since it began to be tracked in the 1930s, according to analysis of newly released survey data by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Duke University. Last year, one in five [20% of] Americans claimed they had no religious preference, more than double the number reported in 1990.

Figure 1 from pg. 1 of the study (link further down)

UC Berkeley sociologists Mike Hout and Claude Fischer , along with  Mark Chaves of Duke University, analyzed data on religious attitudes as part of the General Social Survey, a highly cited biannual poll conducted by NORC, an independent research institute at the University of Chicago.

The results were just released this week, even though the survey was done last year, and they show two very interesting trends.  First, the average American citizen’s relationship with institutionalized religion is dropping (-11.6%).  Second – to go along with that – self proclaimed knowledge of the existence of a “personal God” is also trending downward (-4.8%), in favor of a belief in a less personal, more ambiguous “higher power” (+5.1%).

Sounds to me like Deism is on the rise.  I’ll take that as a sign that things are looking up.  Still, though, that’s 60% of the sample population saying they know something they can’t even begin to prove.

The news for atheism isn’t so hot, but at least it’s still on a slow upward curve.  I really wish they had asked the questions regarding atheism and agnosticism differently since I, for one, could answer “yes” to both the first and second questions (that whole belief vs. knowledge thing again).  Over the last 20 years, the percentage of non-believers has only gone up by 0.9% (from 2.2% to 3.1%).  The number of agnostics has also gone up slightly, from 4.1% to 5.6% – a rise of 1.5%.  In other words, let’s just say that the number of “doubters” – in whatever form they may take in the context of this survey – has gone up by about the same proportion in both categories, from 6.3% to 8.7% (+2.4%).

Here’s a screen shot of the table I’m referencing.  The entire PDF of the study is here.

Overall, I see this as a good thing.  I would selfishly like to see non-belief increase a lot more than it is, but I’ll take Deism over institutionalized religion any day.  It’s a hell of a lot easier to engage in rational discussion – and work on creating a progressive, modern society – with people who don’t base their entire moral code on the contents of an ancient holy text.

One last thought.  I blame the Internet.  Look at the first figure again, and when the trend really started going up.  It was around 1996 when the World Wide Web finally became a thing.  I have no idea if there’s a clear causal relationship between the two, but I would imagine that the ability to access information and communicate with the entire world from the comfort of your own home has a tendency to open people’s minds to a world beyond their own home towns or the walls of their churches.

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