Religion News Service reports that a new WIN-Gallup poll indicates that atheism is on the rise in the US while those who identify as religious are decreasing. The poll presents a staggering drop in the latter category, from 73% in 2005, to only 60% today. RNS, quoting Ryan Cragun, attributes the increase among atheists to the impact of the New Atheists (Sam Harris hit the big time in 2005), but doesn’t address the bigger news of why so many people have stopped considering themselves religious.
The specific question asked in the poll was, “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?” I’m a little tempted to wonder if some respondents might have been confused by the wording, and identified as “not a religious person” because they don’t regularly attend a house of worship, and misunderstood that first clause. But assuming that the respondents didn’t get denser over the past seven years, what could have prompted this shift?
While the New Atheism certainly had some effect (perhaps more indirectly via online communities where atheism and irreligion grew in acceptability), I would also want to examine how changes in what it means to be “religious” in America may have made some people more reticent to identify as such. When the Barna Group finds that 91% of young non-Christians identify Christianity as “anti-homosexual,” and when the members of the Christian tribe are defined more by their political stance than their doctrine, “religious” can start to be a category with less panache.
My speculation is that many of the respondents who would have identified as religious in 2005 don’t want to associate themselves with those who loudly call themselves religious today. These newly “non-religious” probably thought of religion and spirituality as much more closely related seven years ago, but now are firmly in the “spiritual but not religious” camp. Sure, Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, et al have pulled some people out of religion, but I’d wager a great deal more are being pushed out but the religious.