Religion Today

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

“I Can’t Be Bothered”: America’s Largest Religious Group

Since its release last October, the report on religious affiliation by Pew Survey Research has caused quite a stir. Titled “Nones on the Rise,” it revealed that for the first time in history as many as 20% of Americans identify with no religious organization at all. This information has been widely and wildly misinterpreted, with dire warnings about the dangers of America’s growing atheism at one extreme and reassuring observations that 80% of Americans are still religious at the other. It is time to set the record straight.

For starters, the category “none of the above,” refers to the interviewees not identifying with any organized church or religion; it does not mean they do not believe in a god. In fact, 68% of the nones believe in a divine being, just 3 percentage points less than the national average of 71%. 

Professing atheists make up fewer than 3% of the survey’s respondents. More than two-thirds of the people in the nones category simply say they follow “nothing in particular”—some 14% of the interviewees.

What do people mean when they say they belong to “nothing in particular,” or in other words, to no religion or religious organization in particular?

Rather than stick to a crisp and careful academic definition, as I usually do, I want to propose a looser understanding. I think it means “I can’t be bothered.” In other words: I can’t be bothered going to church. I can’t be bothered thinking about religion. I don’t spend any time thinking about a god. I’m involved in other things and I don’t really care about this subject.

If atheism is a strongly held feeling, then this is not. Atheists have thought about god or gods and have made a conscious choice to reject them. The “nothing in particular” bunch simply have not given the idea much thought; they can’t be bothered.

This interpretation of the data is supported by an observation made in the Pew report. They say “the increase in the [none of the above category] has taken place almost entirely among the segment of the population that seldom or never attends religious services.” Indeed, there has been an 11% increase in the nones, to just under 50%, from those who do not attend church more than once or twice a year. These people have not been attending a church and so they have largely forgotten about religion.

But what about the 50% of people who seldom or never attend a church or other religious group, but still identify themselves with a religious organization?

They also should be counted in the “I can’t be bothered” category. Think of it this way. There are a number of people whose religious affiliation is rather tenuous. They may have been raised within a religion but now do not think much about it or do much with it. Do they belong or not? If you ask them, what do they say?

Some will have thought about it enough to say, “No, I no longer am affiliated.” By contrast, others will not have thought about it even less. So they may say, for example, “I was raised a Catholic, so I’m still a Catholic even though I have not darkened a church door for 20 years.” By the way, the Catholic Church agrees with this view; you cannot unbaptize yourself.

Can we figure out how many people still give a religious affiliation, but can’t be bothered with religion? Let me cautiously hazard a guesstimation. Nationally, 80% of Americans are affiliated with a religious organization. Just 58% say they pray daily (a figure which includes grace at meals). If the difference between those who belong and those who pray represents the difference between those whose religious beliefs inspire them to do something religious and those who can’t be bothered to do anything religious, we wind up with 22% of the population.

If we add the 22% of the religiously affiliated who can’t be bothered to the 14% of the religiously unaffiliated who can’t be bothered, we wind up with 36% of the population. This means that “those who can’t be bothered” make up America’s largest religious block, significantly bigger than Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Catholics or Mormons. I would conclude that we should pay more attention to this previously hidden group, but they don’t want to be bothered.

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  • The math is interesting, but what about the people who do attend church "religiously" but who aren't letting that influence their behavior in any positive and meaningful way? I would add those pew-sitters to the "can't be bothered" category. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    By Anonymous Sandy, at 1/30/2013  

  • From another Sandy
    First, thank you for the many insightful posts. I’ve sent some on to family and friends and often agreed with you. However, this time I think you have missed the mark. The majority of the people I know would be in a “non- of –the- above” category but still have a strong, active, spiritual life. It is simply that churches, and organized religion on the whole is no longer a good fit. Most of us grew up in traditional churches and along the way have evolved into a different belief structure. Lack of church affiliation does not mean a lack of spirituality, lack of belief, apathy or indifference to God.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/30/2013  

  • Instead of firing out dire warnings about Americans possibly getting less religious, such a fact should be celebrated. In view of the rather obscure impression one gets of religion when studying the American landscape of religious cults, this should likely be a positive development!

    Counting peas in order to make the fractions of religious Americans appear larger is a disservice. Likely, the number of religious Americans is much smaller than 80%, as their deeds tell us more than their words.

    I myself count as a Roman Catholic although I am about as atheist as they come. By your count, I would have added to the Americans who probably believe in a god, whereas I truly don't. Only people who don't think much about the issue are likely to 'believe in a god'.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/30/2013  

  • Some of us in the "nones" category have indeed thought extensively about God (or Godde as some prefer) and religion and have determined that the existence of Godde is one thing and religion is something completely different. I stopped affiliating with any religious organization about 8 years ago after many years of participation in Christian denominations (singing in choirs, serving as congregation president, etc.) My reason was and remains that religions are human-constructed faith systems that have as their primary goal the subjugation and control of humans. In addition, many religions appear to revel in ignoring scientific observations and hold up blind belief (in whatever the religion propounds regardless of internal inconsistencies and hypocrisies) as the preferred method for approaching life. No thanks.

    I attempt to solve technical problems in an effort to improve the planet and the human condition. I am constrained by the laws of physics and the precepts of logic. I continue to study the tenets of religions as there is much of value there and I am still pondering the existence of Godde, although not necessarily as a physical entity and certainly not in the image of humans. You are right, though: I can no longer be bothered being formally affiliated with a religion but not because I haven't thought about it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/31/2013  

  • Thanks for this thoughtful and provocative essay. I don’t disagree with anything you say. I just want to add two things. First, I don’t think many people who would claim affiliation and do go to church regularly have much consciousness of meaning of their denomination’s tenets. Even avid evangelical Protestants have a knowledge of the bible that is only skin deep and they cannot or will not explore the implications and ambiguities of their beliefs. Abortion is probably the only issue they care much about. Going further, I’m pretty critical of us Unitarians who claim to be on a spiritual journey but are really just coasting from one experience to the next. We will die as uncommitted or unaware of what our issues are as we are at present. In short, few can be bothered whether affiliated or not.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/03/2013  

  • I think you're right--good name for this group. I suspect it may be larger if praying only includes grace--some folks do that as a matter of family routine, maybe "for the kids", but with little meaning other than reciting the same words day after day.

    And I recall reading an essay a few years ago by a devout atheist who objected to the label. As he said, I don't acquire or require a name because I don't believe in the easter bunny, or unicorns. Why a special term for this? So maybe the line between "atheism" and "can't be bothered" is blurry for many as well.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/04/2013  

  • Atheists don't reject gods any more than we reject faeries, goblins or unicorns.

    A lot of atheists are also not part of the "I can't be bothered" category because we are constantly fighting for the complete separation of church and state. We want equal rights for believers, non-believers, women, gays, etc. We are definitely bothered when people are fighting to make abortion illegal, to stop sex education, to stop marriage equality, to force creationism into science class, and now to start a state-sanctioned religion (NC).

    By Anonymous -Dave, at 4/15/2013  

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