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Harvard’s new chaplain di tutti chaplains, elected unanimously, is an atheist. This gesture acknowledges the super-rapid rise, in America, of the category Nones — non-church-goers, many of whom retain spiritual leanings. Some Nones are atheists, or close to it; others look like mild versions of deists. All seem to have abandoned organized religion, though all seem subject to the same existential anxiety and ontological questioning typically shared by traditional followers of God. We’re talking about a quarter of the US population – on a par with evangelicals, and with Catholics – and a segment that’s growing really, really fast.

Why is this happening? In reading about it, UD has encountered many theories, starting with the general point that increasing secularization is baked into most modern, successful countries. Even so, the US has until quite recently exhibited strikingly higher rates of belief in God and of church attendance than places like Norway, France, and England. What has changed?

Nonreligiosity is on the rise far beyond the confines of Harvard; it is the fastest growing religious preference in the country, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 20 percent of the country identifies as atheist, agnostic or nonreligious — called the “nones” — including four in 10 millennials.

The reasons that more young Americans are disaffiliating in the world’s most religious developed country are varied. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith attributes the trend partly to the growing alliance between the Republican Party and the Christian right, a decline of trust in institutions, growing skepticism of religion in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a shift away from traditional family structures that centered on churchgoing.


The trend, [Robert] Putnam says, is borne out of rebellion of sorts.

“It begins to jump at around 1990,” he says. “These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the nones is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”


Since the 1990s, the Republican Party has sought to win support by adopting conservative Christian positions on same sex marriage, abortion, and other cultural issues. But this appeal to religious voters has had the corollary effect of pushing other voters, especially young liberal ones, away from religion. The uncritical embrace of President Donald Trump by conservative evangelical leaders has accelerated this trend. And the Roman Catholic Church has lost adherents because of its own crises. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that an overwhelming majority US adults were aware of recent reports of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and most of them believed that the abuses were “ongoing problems that are still happening.” Accordingly, many US Catholics said that they have scaled back attendance at mass in response to these reports.


Note what’s not cited: The intellectual stardom of the New Atheists. You might expect this to appear as a reason, but UD didn’t expect it to. It’s rare to reject organized religion merely because of arguments people make against it. Lots of people have pointed out that Dawkins and Hitchens recycle the same anti-religion arguments people have made for centuries. It seems more likely, as the above comments suggest, that you leave organized religion because of the actual beliefs and behaviors it seems to generate in your time, in the world around you. Ol’ UD, for instance, thinks this photograph alone probably accounts for two million or so newbie Nones.

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

For a closer look at some of those beliefs and behaviors, read rural Texan writer Natalie Jackson:

“When my classmates were hospitalized with COVID-19, there were repeated calls for prayers and proclamations that God would provide healing. When they died, those prayer requests became comments that ‘God called [them] home.’

The belief that God controls everything that happens in the world is a core tenet of evangelicalism — 84 percent of white evangelicals agreed with this statement in PRRI polling from 2011, while far fewer nonwhite, non-evangelical Christians shared this belief. The same poll also showed that white evangelicals were more likely than any other Christian group to believe that God would punish nations for the sins of some of its citizens and that natural disasters were a sign from God. What’s more, other research from the Journal of Psychology and Theology has found that some evangelical Christians rationalize illnesses like cancer as God’s will. 

This is why I remember friends and acquaintances in Leon County when I think about how religious beliefs influence one’s attitude toward COVID-19 and vaccination. PRRI’s March survey found that 28 percent of white evangelical Republicans agreed that ‘God always rewards those who have faith with good health and will protect them from being infected with COVID-19,’ compared with 23 percent of Republicans who were not white evangelicals. And that belief correlates more closely with vaccination views among white evangelical Republicans — 44 percent of those who said God would protect them from the virus also said they would refuse to get vaccinated. That number drops to 32 percent among Republicans who are not white evangelicals.

Complicating matters further, the pandemic also fits neatly into ‘end times’ thinking — the belief that the end of the world and God’s ultimate judgment is coming soon. In fact, nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Republicans (64 percent) from our March survey agreed that the chaos in the country today meant the end times’ were near. Faced, then, with the belief that death and the end of the world are a fulfillment of God’s will, it becomes difficult to convince these believers that vaccines are necessary. Sixty-nine percent of white evangelical Republicans who said they refused to get vaccinated agreed that the end times were near.

Moreover, given how many white evangelicals identify as Republican or lean Republican — about 4 in 5 per our June survey — disentangling evangelicals’ religious and political beliefs is nearly impossible. Consider how many white evangelical leaders like former Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. downplayed the severity of the pandemic in line with Trump. Falwell was hardly the only evangelical leader to do this either. If anything, the pattern of white evangelical resistance to vaccination has reached the point where some white evangelical leaders who might otherwise urge vaccination hesitate to do so because of the political climate.”


And Falwell Jr’s a twofer: Told people fuck-all about what pandemic; and turned out to be a flaming moral degenerate.

Hitch used to say that until people stop being afraid of death, religion will always be a winner. Point taken. But it’s just as true that as long as religions spawn large numbers of dumb and dumber fanatics (dangerous fanatics is for another post), secularity’s got a fighting chance. Ask Adelle Goldenberg.

Adelle Goldenberg, 22, grew up in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, where she recalls being told that she could not attend college. In preschool, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, her answer was simple: a bride. It was the only thing she could envision for a girl like herself. When she turned 19, she applied to Harvard in secret and fled the community.

Once at Harvard, she was wary of assuming any religious label, but she still yearned to find people wrestling with issues deeper than academic achievement. She started attending meetings of the humanist group and discovered in Mr. Epstein a form of mentorship that felt almost like having a secular rabbi, she said.


One more thing, if I may: Read Jackson again, and add to her characterization of rural evangelical Texans the fact that every one of their houses is dripping with guns. It’s hard for UD to avoid the conclusion that these people are death-lovers — passive nihilists who can’t wait for it all to be over in any one of the many ways their… arsenals (see notorious rates of suicide vs. homicide with household guns) of faith provide. And then eternal bliss.


UPDATE: You have to admire the fervency of the evangelicals.

An evangelical pastor and senior VP for a non-profit called National Religious Broadcasters was fired on Friday for promoting COVID vaccines on MSNBC’s Morning Joe… National Religious Broadcasters, a 1,100-member organization of Christian communicators, told [Daniel] Darling his statements violated their policy of remaining neutral about COVID vaccines, Religion News Service reports. He was told he could sign a statement admitting he had been insubordinate, and admit that his pro-vaccine statements were wrong, or be fired. He chose the latter.


Joel Rainey, who leads Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, W.Va., said several [evangelical] colleagues were forced out of their churches after promoting health and vaccination guidelines.


We’ve reached snake-handler levels of stupidity here.

Margaret Soltan, August 26, 2021 1:57PM
Posted in: forms of religious experience

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2 Responses to “The NONES and the AND THEN SOMES.”

  1. JND Says:

    No comments after four days?

    I’ll jump in . . . as a white evangelical who started public school in rural Texas shortly after the polio vaccine became available . . . .

    In those days, our parents (1) got down on their knees and thanked God for a vaccine that would prevent the scourge of polio in our lives, and (2) got up and drug us to a vaccination site where we stood in line until vaccinated.

    There was never the slightest doubt.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    JND: Yes – and this is one reason why people are having such trouble figuring out where this bizarre attitude came from. People say, “Well, they believe in eternal life… ” which, fine, okay, but do they believe in this life?

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