chart/comment at Daniel Silliman’s “Religiously unaffiliated now at 20%”


Daniel Silliman asks, in passing, “What happened in 1988?”

First hypothesis: Could be that the end of the Cold War, and the removal of the atheist enemy/competitor, made it easier for Americans in general to drift away from politico-theological prior commitments. Presumably other factors were also involved, of course, possibly in some synergetic interrelationship. Interesting that the upward slope seems to have stalled around the year 2000, temporarily reversed just after 9/11 and during initiation of the “War on Terror,” then re-accelerated through the end of the Bush years and the dawning of the “Age of Obama.”

14 comments on “chart/comment at Daniel Silliman’s “Religiously unaffiliated now at 20%”

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  1. I don’t read te graph as indcating 1988 beng anyting special – 88-90 being similiar to 74-77 . 95 is first year clearly up from the past with a clear jump in 97. The blue line’s attempt to smooth year to year fluctuations is knda misleading I think.

    My reflex speculation would be the increasing levels of GenXers in the adult polling pop. as backdrop, and then whatever events you want to point to as pushing or pulling the numbers.

  2. I agree that from the graph it’s not really ’88, but ’93 or ’94 is a “new all-time high,” and first measurement in a clear “peace dividend year.” It seems clear that “something” is going on if a figure has changed from tiny minority to large population segment and an increase of 400%. It’s an epochal change of some kind, and, though we date the Fall of the Commies to 1989, the process it represents likely began earlier, and would have taken longer to set in. So I’m not speculating that when the Berlin Wall came down, “all the walls came down” and we were suddenly free to be you and me for the first time, or maybe I am.

  3. It could have something to do with television. By the mid-1980s, the first generation of Americans who marinated in a shared pop-culture via cable TV would have come of age. I remember talking to someone who was a teen in the 1950s: an inner-city Italian who thought the rest of the U.S. was pretty much like his family, although he allowed there were probably a lot more Irish in Boston. Said he felt very confused by the world depicted on television. His life looked nothing like Ozzie & Harriet’s, et al. He couldn’t believe every family seemed to own a car. Compares to my grandmother’s story of growing up in the outskirts of Budapest. “We woke up on Saturdays with a list of chores to do. But we always saved time to add whatever it was the neighbors were doing. If they were whitewashing the front of the house, we did that.” I can’t recall too many people going to church on television. And then MTV hit in the mid ’80s. That felt like an earthquake. Madonna, Dire Straits, Cindy. Also, this was around the time that malls started to have Sunday hours. Sunday became just another day to work/shop.

    • Hard to separate cause and effect there. The secularized, transactionalized “open society” – as TV, as Gen X, as malls, as capitalism – somehow dislodged a certain vestiges of pre-capitalist or pre-liberal-democratic commitments or identities in a sizable group, in a way that was finally expressible in terms of “declaratory behavior.” Another relevant factor might be the growing number of mixed marriages, though mixed marriages would also be both causes and effects of the same phenomenon.

      It’s worth emphasizing though that the 20% aren’t “atheists,” mostly, but free-floating theists. Self-professed atheists, according to the pollsters whom Silliman quotes at his blog, are still 3% of the total, though were only 1% in 1962 (maybe too small a difference and absolute number to take seriously, unless the change is confirmed consistently over the entire life of the poll). It would seem reasonable to suspect that the growth of the “non-professing” segment of the entire population might be accompanied by a growth of a “weakly professing” unmeasured segment. I wonder if anyone has ever tried to measure strength or type of religious commitment. Might be worth bothering Silliman a little more for what else his fellow researchers on the Nones say about them.

  4. The children of mixed marriages would no doubt be far more likely to not feel a particular loyalty to either parent’s religion but still consider themselves “spiritual” or “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Jewish” but unaffiliated to a particular branch/sect and therefore non-participating. So the question seems to be what increased the instances of mixed marriages in the first place and that leads to the two world wars, when large numbers of young people were forced off the farm or old neighborhood. WWII, particularly, would have produced the generation that was later grown and identifying themselves as “nones” and factors such as television, the falling of the Wall, etc., would also have to be considered in the acceleration.

    • Right, so what we keep on running up against is that defining or explaining this phenomenon and describing ourselves is virtually the same operation. We can’t get outside of the phenomenon in order to analyze it objectively, since it concerns the production of “us” or of our concept of ourselves.

      That said, the self-declaration of the Nones seems to be a late stage effect of Weberian “disenchantment of the world,” which would occur within each individual gradually as it occurs in society “outside” gradually. Eventually, in social-evolutionary time, a lessening attachment to traditional or pre-modern beliefs and related customs (or particular forms of belief and custom), as inherited, shows up, somewhat unevenly but in broad parallel trends: in marriage patterns, social mobility, economics, law, politics, etc., as well as finally in the verbal conduct or expressed self-concepts of masses of Americans, specifically as reflected in the poll-answering behavior. The poll doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know already, but appears to confirm the existence of a trend of some kind over some period of time. The poll can’t tell us on its own whether it’s recording an aftereffect or epiphenomenon or in fact capturing a continuing or truly accelerating fundamental process. In other words, if we or the world were “becoming re-enchanted” or “re-traditionalized” in some way – not saying we are or aren’t – it might not show up in “how people answer such questions” for a very long time, if ever.

      In the meantime, the very asking of the question is part of the process it measures: The very awareness of non-pre-de-legitimated alternative belief systems and the assumption of their co-legitimacy tends to reveal pluralism as incipient indifference, a process that is itself subject to the same process of conversion from perceived threat or danger into perceived irrelevancy on the way to unperceived unreality.

  5. I have no idea. I was actually joking in that last comment. What I do believe might be the case is that whatever caused people to stop feeling the need to be affiliated also made them happier in general. Not saying that’s good or bad, mind you. And we’d probably need some more graphs before we came up with a good working theory as to why so many people felt it was safe to go solo at about the same time. I did ask a social psychologist friend what he thought and he informed me that it’s a world-wide phenomenon, “less so in the U.S.” I already knew that, though. He’s probably not even telling me what he really knows. Friends…

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  1. […] “the Nones” increase in number, and real existing religious faith becomes more None-ish: “Religion” becomes a word for […]

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