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Friday, July 5, 2013

Belief and Religious Affiliation: Making a Distinction

Some posts have suggested that organized religion has lost some of its influence.  At the Wall Street Journal, however, Rodney Stark points out a big distinction:
But I disagree with the notion that the U.S. is heading toward becoming as unchurched as much of Europe. One reason is that saying you have "no religion" is not the same as disbelieving in God. Many people who say they have no religion are simply saying they have no official religious affiliation. They may actually have strong personal beliefs. The increase in the "no religion" group may also be an illusion caused by the rising nonresponse rate to survey studies.
Consider: The proportion of Americans who claim to be atheists has not increased even slightly since Gallup first asked about belief in God in 1944. Back then, 4% said they did not believe in God, and 3% or 4% give that answer today.
Most of those Americans who are reported as having no religion are not unreligious but only unaffiliated, and some of them even attend church. They do not belong to any specific denomination, but probably most of them would agree that they are Christians, had they been directly asked that question.
A far more important indicator, as many recent studies—including the Baylor National Religion Surveys—have found, is that those who say they have no religion are surprisingly religious. Most say they pray, and a third even report having had a religious experience. Half of these respondents who would be considered by survey takers to have "no religion" believe in angels.

So even if the proportion of Americans with no professed religion is rising, that does not translate into an increase in irreligiousness. But it may well be that the proportion of nonreligious Americans is not even increasing, and remains far smaller than recent surveys reveal.