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The ‘nones’ are growing, and that requires a new look at American religion

God in the Oval office

America has never elected a proclaimed athiest to the oval office. But how much does religion really matter to the 2016 election?
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America has never elected a proclaimed athiest to the oval office. But how much does religion really matter to the 2016 election?

There are more non-religious people now than at any time in our history. According to a recent analysis by political scientist Ryan Burge, about 30% of Americans are “nones” – those who say “none of the above” or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious affiliation. There are more nones now than there are Catholics, Evangelicals or any other single faith group. The nones are growing fast, while other affiliations are declining.

At the same time, confidence in organized religion is at an all-time low. Last week, the Gallup poll reported that only 36% of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in “the church or organized religion.”

The decline of religion is connected to what I called cultural liberalism in this space last week. Traditionalists are not happy with this. But cultural liberalism is growing.

Cultural liberals tend to be permissive when it comes to abortion, sexuality and other hot-button issues. They are tuned in to science and technology. They care more about sports and pop culture than about religion. Cultural liberals are experimental and entrepreneurial. If they don’t like their church, they’ll change religions – or leave religion entirely.

Religious organizations, on the other hand, are bastions of tradition. They quote ancient texts that have very little to do with modern sensibilities. They are slow to change. Sometimes they are opposed to change entirely.

For young people growing up in a liberal culture, religion is quaint and old-fashioned. The growth of non-religion is a youth movement. The Pew Center reports that across the globe, people under 40 attend church less frequently and are more likely to admit that they are not religious. In the U.S., the younger you are the less likely you are to believe in God or view religion as important.

One negative result of this is religious illiteracy. Knowledge of religion helps us understand our own history. Cities in California are named after saints. But we are often clueless about this heritage. Knowledge of religion helps us understand art, literature and philosophy.

But better education about religion won’t necessarily slow the decline of belief. Atheists and agnostics are among those who know the most about religion. Often the more you know, the less you believe.

The rise of the nones is connected with profound social changes. Religion is a powerful mediating institution of civil society. Church was traditionally a place for people to gather in community outside of business and political life. Church is a focal point for charitable work. It is a place for marriages, funerals and other ritual celebrations. The nones will lose much of this.

Burge, the political scientist, has argued that the decline of religion is connected with a growing disconnectedness. He says, “Those who are ‘nothing in particular’ aren’t just cut off from organized religion. They have disconnected from many of the foundational structures that hold us together as communities.”

Of course, that complaint only make sense if you think that religion has a legitimate role in keeping life organized. The nones reject that idea. They are finding other ways to get connected through social media. And they are creating new communities through sports, gaming and pop culture.

Then there is political polarization. One-third of Republican voters are Evangelical Christians. And a quarter of Democrats are nones. Non-religious voters overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the last election.

At one point in our history, “ceremonial deism” may have been enough to hold us together. We say “one nation, under God” and “in God we trust.” Public events begin with invocations and prayers. But this may no longer make sense when nearly one in three Americans are not religious.

Given the growth of the nones, the First Amendment may be where we need to look to find common ground. Religious liberty is something we might agree upon. The idea of religious liberty is central to the American story. The Puritans came here to escape religious persecution. There never has been an official American state religion. And we all seem to agree that we should be free to exercise our own beliefs – including the freedom not to believe.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala

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