Religious and atheist blogs and websites will have much to twitter about today as the results of the new American Religious Identification Survey is released. This is a telephone survey of a sample size somewhere around fifty-five thousand people, which is well more than is needed for a deep, low margin error. It is published under the aegis of Trinity College of Hartford Connecticut, which apparently has some really goos press agents. The survey has been done twice before, in 1990 and 2001, and it caused a lot of buzz back then, too.
The view you’d get from the headlines: more and more Americans are becoming non-religious. The percentage of poll respondents who identified “none” as their religion rose from 11% to 15.1%, and is now the third-largest of all categories, behind only Catholics (25.1%) and Baptists (15.8%).
The quick, superficial takeaway: “Oh noes, the atheists are gaining and religious folks are losing!” As if religious identification were a game of Parcheesi that is even capable of being won or lost.
The view from within the numbers: Focusing only on changes in percentage, for instance the way USA Today does, ignores the fact that while many denominations have experienced modest declines in percentages of the overall population, they have gained in overall numbers. If you’re a churchgoing American, you’ve probably not noticed a large decline in the numbers of people you see joining you at services every Sunday (or Saturday or even Friday or Wednesday depending on your religion). That’s because in raw numbers, there are more bodies in more churches than ever before in American history.
And it’s also not fair to say that people who answered “None” when asked what their religion is are necessarily atheists or agnostics. What this suggests to me is that these people do not think about the issue of religion very much. That category of people is still quite small — subgroups within “None” are “atheists” and “agnostics.” Now, those groups have made gains even more remarkable than the headlines — agnostics rose from .5% to .9% of the overall population, and atheists rose from .4% to .7%. But we’re still only talking about a very small minority here.
That’s not to say that the social scientists who actually took and published the survey ignored the issue of population expansion. Far from it. And that’s probably where the real action is — explaining the combination of population growth with shifts in overall religious identification. They did that, but that’s not where the publicity is resting for some reason. They point out that “none” was the biggest beneficiary from population grown, accounting for more than a third of new entrants into the universe being sampled since the first survey, taken nearly a generation ago.
Now, even this is an incomplete picture. Population expansion comes from a few sources — births offsetting deaths and immigration being the two largest. Considering only birth-to-death ratio, the USA is growing at the rate of 1.71 people per 1,000 every year. This is greater than replacement rate, but only barely. The rest is coming from immigration. It strikes me as unlikely that nearly four in ten immigrants to the US over the past nineteen years have been irreligious people. One of the principal reasons people immigrate to the US is to gain a degree of religious freedom that they do not enjoy in their native lands.
So this suggests to me that the growth in people who do not self-identify with a religious group is happening from people who were born here and who formerly did identify with religious groups. In other words, the number of people who have abandoned their religious is growing, at a rate I cannot determine with the ARIS statistics, but in proportions large enough to account for a growth of four and a half million people in the last seven years. This makes intuitive sense to me. But then again, it would.
Now, there’s something else that jumps out at me. The ARIS survey lists the overall universe size at 228 million. But that’s not even close — 306 million is the real number. The discrepancy came from the fact that the universe the survey measures is adult Americans, not Americans overall. This means that there are 78 million Americans under the age of 18, just a little bit more than one-quarter of the overall population.
Those children are being raised, in overwhelming numbers, by at least one parent and their parents are, to varying degrees, passing along their religious preferences to their children. Certainly there are lots of stories out there about children choosing different religious paths than their parents. But these stories are exceptional and full of conflict precisely because they are out of the norm. Most parents succeed in transmitting their religious beliefs to their children — often even when they intentionally set out to not do so.
So the piece of the puzzle, the one that lets us use these numbers to see what is in store for us, is what percentage of children are growing up in religious households? My suspicion is that religious people tend to have larger families. Their churches provide support networks, many of the religions prohibit the use of contraceptives or other family planning techniques, and I seem to recall seeing some demographics that support the conclusion from elsewhere but I’ve no time to look them up at the moment.
The question, then, is whether irreligion is at some kind of a generational high-water mark right now. The answer to that question depends on why it is that this significant number of people are choosing to abandon their religions. That is not something that the survey answers, and to get a really good understanding, requires both quantitative as well as qualitative data.