Continuing the PRRI information, I was very curious about the “Unaffiliated” category in American religion, which is second only to the aggregate White Christian sectors: Evangelical (17%); Mainline Protestant (13%), and; Catholic (11%). Unaffiliated now accounts for 24% of the population, but what exactly does the word mean? When “nones” first started showing up on American polls, we were fairly certain that it was a response to institutionalized religion, which is to say these were mostly the oft-demonized millennials who were “spiritual but not religious.” Turns out that category is less than 20% of the Unaffiliated demographic.
The chart is great at pointing out that the explicitly religious are a sizable percentage of the Unaffiliated, but it’s less clear how people mean the words “secular” or “agnostic.” I know many Baptists who are also secularists, and many in the Americans United movement are outspoken secularists because they are strong proponents of church/state separation, but some are also Christian. My experience teaching religion class is that most of my agnostic students are simply people struggling to keep believing. It’s entirely possible that they will come back to faith, but that metaphysical inertia can last for years. The category is likely going to be hopelessly muddy until pollsters separate it into more meaningful segments and clearly define the terms.
Still, the numbers indicate a powerful and profound shift in American metaphysical claims, and as the position becomes more common and less marginalized, we can expect to see a much more robust and less aggressive form of atheism emerge, one that is not a reactionary position and therefore less zealous and angry.
As a side note, I still teach the term “agnostic,” but I tell students that it’s not of much use anymore. The classic term “skeptic” is far more accurate.