An Interview with Dr. Greg Smith from the Pew Research Center
Rachel Roberts, the founder of American None, had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Greg Smith of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank that conducts many forms of data-driven social science research. The 2015 groundbreaking report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, was integral to the inspiration that led Rachel to eventually form American None.
Statistically, Nones now account between 26% (Pew) and 34% (American Family Survey) of the American population. This roughly translates to 86-112 million people. Rachel asked Dr. Smith about the significant factors that have given rise to the surge of Nones over the past 15-20 years. Below are his answers.
(It is worth noting that these are different from the reasons that individual Nones list for leaving or declining religion. For a list of those reasons, check out the FAQs on our website.)
What are the primary sociological factors contributing to the rise of Nones in the United States?
"It's important to realize that there's a major generational component to the rise of the Nones. In large part, you have older cohorts of Americans—people from the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers—who are, on average, quite religiously observant. As those cohorts age and as they begin to pass away, they are being replaced by a new generation of young adults that is simply far less religious than their parents and grandparents before them.
People in their 30s, 40s, and 50s are drifting away or turning away from religion. And just as importantly, there are people who are just entering adulthood today who are less religious than their parent's generation was before them."
"There's a lot of data that suggests politics is a big part of what's driving people—especially young people—away from religion. Over the last 20, 30 plus years, religion—particularly Christianity—has come to be associated, at least in the popular imagination, with conservative politics, especially with respect to issues regarding sexuality. And maybe especially to homosexuality.
As religion has come to be associated with that kind of politics, the theory is that people who don't share those politics have turned away from religion. And there's a lot of ideas to support this theory.
Our data can't prove that's what's happening. But you can see the evidence for it because when we look at the political characteristics of religious Nones, they are among the most firmly and consistently liberal and democratic constituencies in the United States today. So I think there's a lot of evidence that suggests that there is something to that idea, that politics is part of what's pushing people away from religion."
What role has the Information Age played in the groundswell of Nones?
"I don't know that our data can speak directly to that question, partly because our data only goes back to 2007 or so, and I think you'd need longer-term data to look at this question.
But I can tell you that there are scholars who suggest that February 2019States grows more diverse, and as people become more mobile, and as people are exposed to different kinds of information—including information about different kinds of religion—it may become more difficult for people to view their own religion as the one true path. This is especially as people become exposed to other religions within their own family, whether we're thinking about spouses, or in-laws, or within their own neighborhoods, or within their own workplaces, or in their own school. It's interesting because that also parallels part of what's attributed to why our country's become more tolerant of the LGBTQ community, and so there's definitely parallels there.
We know from surveys we have done that knowing someone from a particular religious background is associated with holding more positive views of that group. For example, people who know someone who is Muslim tend to have a more favorable view of Muslims as compared with people who don't know anyone who's Muslim. People who know someone who's Catholic tend to have more favorable views of people who are Catholic than compared with people who don't know anyone who's Catholic.
And the same thing is true for atheists. We did a survey in February, 2019, where we asked respondents to rate religious groups on a feeling thermometer ranging from zero to 100. And the idea is if you feel warmly and positively towards a group, you'd give it a warm rating up to 100, and if you feel cold or negative toward a group, you would give it a lower rating closer to zero. And we could see that among people who know someone who's an atheist, the average thermometer rating given to atheists is 51 degrees. Among people who say they don't know anyone who's atheist, the average rating given to atheists on the feeling thermometer is only 38 degrees.
We see this over and over in our surveys. Knowing someone from a particular kind of background tends to be associated with more positive views of people from that group or with that background. And that's true of atheists as it is of many others."
Society is evolving faster than religion. And getting to know people who are different from yourself breeds acceptance. And where there is acceptance, there is Love.