Increasing number of Americans abandoning organized religion

May 14, 2018

An increasing percentage of Americans say they have no religious affiliation in a society that traditionally has been religious. A University at Buffalo political scientist is part of a group of researchers who have been looking at that in the context of politics, with the heavy involvement of the religious right and the Republican party.

UB's Jacob Neiheisel worked with other political scientists at Denison University and the University of Cincinnati in a continuing research project to look at available data on in the conjunction of religion and politics.

They found increasing controversy in states with large evangelical populations. They were struggling over issues like gay rights, especially same-sex marriage.

The researchers also found larger percentages of people listing no religious affiliation in states where there were the most intense clashes between religion and state governments. Those states were heavily Republican.

"Our explanation for that is those are the ones who are coming up against messages surrounding the Christian Right more proximately than those who don't really think about the Christian Right," Neiheisel said. "So it's in their information environment. It's in the churches and so, in particular, for peripheral attenders, are the ones who are getting the messages. They don't particularly like the intermingling of politics and religion."

Neiheisel says not all are leaving religion.

"I've heard other folks say that they're atheists or agnostics. A lot of these people still believe and they still have religious beliefs and they have a positive affinity toward it. They just can't bring themselves to put the label on it and I think that's an interesting situation to be in," he said. "Sometimes you hear that people are leaving religion, we think they must be completely non-religious. These are still by-and-large still religious people. They just can't stand the organization anymore."

Neiheisel said the effect on the churches and politics is not clear. However, he said there is pushback when pastors take very strong religious points of view. That potentially might lead to a minister backing off a little if he senses feelings in a congregation very different from his.

Neiheisel said the work builds on research by sociologists into people with no church affiliations.

"They were writing around 2000-2002 who came up with this thesis that the religious 'nones' have been growing over time," he said, "and that's partially due, in their view, to the intermingling of politics and religion, particularly the emergence of the Christian Right and then later the prominence of the Christian Right in the Republican Party."

Studies say it is younger people who abandon organized religion over church attempts to legislate issues like marriage. However, Neiheisel said an interesting element in the research is that the "nones" often are not abandoning religious beliefs, but are abandoning organizational churches.