The number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has risen, while Protestants are for the first time ever no longer a majority, a study reveals. The so-called “nones” vote primarily Democratic, giving Obama a boost in the upcoming election.
The survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and released on Tuesday, says one in five Americans describe themselves as atheists and agnostics, or choose not to identify themselves as religiously affiliated when it comes to their faith. The figure is an increase from the 15 per cent reported five years ago.
The number of Protestant adults in America has reached a low of 48 per cent — the first time Pew has reported the share to be under at least one half of the nation. Catholics account for 22 per cent of the adult American population, with the remaining 10 per cent divided between other faiths and those who replied that they were unsure.
Senior Pew researcher Greg Smith says the change comes at a time when older, traditionally more religious generations are being gradually replaced with younger people who are less religious and more likely to question religious institutions. While most of the "nones" believe the church can do good to society by bringing communities together and helping the poor, they also say it is too focused on money, power and politics.
The change may also be attributed to the way people discuss religion, especially those who seldom or never attend religious services. While in a 2007 Pew report some of them still identified with a religious group, the latest findings show people more often speak about their spiritual connection with nature and the Earth – and even pray daily – but still say they are "not religious.” The report says the increase has occurred across all income and education levels and both genders. When it comes to ethnicity, though, the growth is more significant among the country's white population.
The trend has clear political implications. Americans with no religion tend to vote for Democrats, support reproductive rights and marriage equality, while Republicans traditionally rely on more religious voters, according to the survey. John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, says the rise of the "nones" could reshape the political landscape in the US, with unaffiliated Americans becoming "the single largest faith-based or religious group.”
“It may be in the near future that the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democratic Party coalition as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party coalition,” he adds.
The growth in the number of "nones" is not expected to stop, or even slow down. Pew researchers say unaffiliated young adults are not expected to become more religiously active as they age.
Even so, the US remains one of the most religious developed nations. Fifty-eight percent of Americans say religion is very important in their lives – twice as much as in many European states.