Explainer
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The Cold War, the Internet and America’s nones

How does a culture lose religion so rapidly? Stephen Bullivant investigates the American phenomenon of ‘nonversion'.

Stephen Bullivant is a professor of theology and sociology at St Mary’s University, UK, and the University of Notre Dame, Australia.

Image from the series South Park

Those even passingly familiar with American religious trends over the past couple of decades will have read or heard the phrase ‘rise of the nones’ countless times. And with good reason. While in Britain the proportion of people telling pollsters they have ‘no religion’ grew rapidly over the twentieth century – it was already 43% when the British Social Attitudes survey began in 1983; it tipped 50% a little over a decade later – in America the figure stayed stubbornly low. According to Gallup polls, only 5% of American adults identified with no religion in 1975. Twenty years later, in 1995, it was still 5%.

But then, seemingly very suddenly, things started to change. Beginning in the late nineties, then rapidly accelerating in the early 2000s, each new survey showed the nones getting bigger and bigger. Depending on which survey one looks at, nones now account for  somewhere between a quarter and third of American adults. Even at the lower end, that amounts to some 60 million people. And they’re still growing.

This raises a natural question: Why now? Or rather, what is it about the nineties and early 2000s that pushed or pulled large swathes out of thinking of themselves as religious? Various ways of measuring American religiosity all indicate that something significant must have happened around then. But what

A prior, deeper puzzle

That, at least, is the obvious way of approaching things. And to be fair, it has much to recommend it: something, or rather a combination of somethings, certainly did happen to American religion in those critical years. But this in itself raises a prior, deeper puzzle: why hadn’t the numbers of American nones already risen before the late nineties or early naughts? In all manner of other, quasi-comparable countries – Britain, Canada, Australia, France – the nones started growing steadily from the 1960s onwards. Yet while the sixties had all manner of other disruptive and destabilizing effects on American culture, society, politics, and religion, the proportion of nones grew only a little bit, then stopped.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, if one were to look for a sufficiently big ‘something’ within American society, mostly absent from those other countries, which could plausibly have kept non-religiosity artificially low in these decades, then there is an obvious candidate: the Cold War. Or more specifically, the precise and peculiarly religious way in which it was framed in the USA. 

A final, all-out battle

We Brits were as up to our neck in the Cold War as anyone. But only in America, I think, was the Cold War ever popularly framed as a “final, all-out battle between commu­nistic atheism and Christianity”, to quote Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. Remember too that it was only in the mid-1950s that Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as America’s official motto, and “under God” was added to the Pledge. During the Pledge debates in Congress, the Democrat Louis C. Rabaut’s summed up a common view on both sides of the aisle:

“You may argue from dawn to dusk about differing po­litical, economic, and social systems but the fundamental issue which is the unbridgeable gap between America and Communist Russia is a belief in almighty God.”

This wasn’t just an issue with wide bipartisan and popular support view, it was thoroughly ecumenical too. While McCarthy and Rabaut were Catholics, it was a Presbyterian president, Eisenhower, who signed the “under God” bill into law. As Eisenhower himself put it during his 1952 election campaign:

“What is our battle against communism if it is not a fight between anti-God and a belief in the Almighty?”

Embellishing the city on a hill

It was also during the Cold War that presidents began likening America to the biblical “city built on a hill” – all the better positioned, one presumes, to scour the horizon for incoming Soviet missiles. Kennedy was the first US president to use it. Reagan, adding his own embellishment of “shining,” would make it his, and many of his countrymen’s, own. Taken together, all this helped lay down a deep, implicit association between being un-religious and being un-American. Atheism itself bore the brunt of this, but it more generally ruled out as­sociated ideas and identities – including thinking of oneself as having “no religion” – as live options for the great majority of Americans.

Riven fault lines

Meanwhile, the cultural fault lines that begin obviously opening up in the late sixties – gender equality, sexual liberation – kept on widening, with new generations socialized into ever more liberal baselines. This created a growing values gap between traditional Christian views and the wider mainstream culture, on topics that were very personal to, and thus felt very deeply by, people on all sides. This meant that, while churches tended to be most visible on the 'conservative side' of various battlegrounds, they were also often deeply riven by internal versions of the same debates. Not surprisingly, church attendance, at least within Catholic and mainline churches, started falling steadily in the seventies and (except where immigration has helped fill the pews) has never really stopped.

The Internet of ideas and identities

On this basic account – and there is much that could be, and elsewhere has been, added to it – the thawing of the Cold War is obviously significant. Note that it is the Millennial generation, only the youngest of whom are able to remember the Cold War (and even then mostly from holiday reruns of Red Dawn and Rocky IV), who were at the vanguard of the rise of the nones. They were also the first generation to be true digital natives, opening many of them up to a much wider range of ideas and identities than hitherto available. This has been especially effective at chipping away the walls of some of America’s stronger religious subcultures. My ex-Mormon interviewees, especially, cite “the wonderful thing called the internet” as being “the game-changer”.

Serious discussion and South Park

The Millennials started coming of age, and indeed responding to pollsters’ surveys, in the early 2000s. This was also around the time when, arguably for the first time since maybe the hugely popular writer and speaker  Robert “The Great Agnostic” Ingersoll a century before, unbelief was being seriously discussed everywhere from primetime talkshows to episodes of South Park. The bestselling books of the New Atheists – principally Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens – evidently hit upon some long pent-up demand. They were also, significantly here, able to position atheism, and 'no religion' more generally, as a panacea for a world awash with religion. Harris, for example, makes much of how he started writing The End of Faith on September 12th. Dawkins made no secret about his wanting to run adverts with an image of the Twin Towers and the tagline “Imagine no religion…”.

Cultural space opens

Whatever one makes of such arguments, similar rhetorical moves would have had less intuitive appeal to earlier American generations, learning to duck and cover from atheists’ H-bombs: the stuff of Americans’ nightmares were now those with too much religion, rather than not enough. While the long term impact of the not-so-New Atheism is hard to judge – many nones are keen to distance themselves from what they saw as its “dogmatism” and “extremism”, even while agreeing with much of it – it certainly helped open up ‘cultural space’ for being both American and non-religious that the Cold War had (outside of various enclaves, such as college towns and certain big cities) largely sealed shut. As we have seen, it is one that a good quarter of American adults are quite comfortable placing themselves within.

So yes, new somethings indeed happened in the final years of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first: and these helped drive the uptick of nones. But these happened at the same time as the none-inhibiting effects of a much earlier something had more or less worn off, especially among the emerging genera­tions most affected by the new somethings. It is this combination of factors— akin to pulling one foot off the brake as you slam the other down on the accelerator— that explains quite why the nones rose so suddenly and (seemingly) out of nowhere.  

 

Essay
Belief
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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.