The Associated Press, and by extension many newspapers, has made a big deal out of the results of the American Religious Identification Survey for 2008, which reports that a higher-than-ever number of Americans claim to have "no religion." While this is true based on the survey's findings, there's been little comment on the apparent fact that the growth of "no religion" has slowed since the 1990s. Previous surveys noted a big jump from 8.2% of the sample avowing "no religion" in 1990 to 14.2% saying the same in 2000. The figure for 2008 is only 15%, an increase of less than 1% over eight years compared to a 6% jump during the previous decade.
These findings suggest that the best-selling so-called militant atheists have had little real success in persuading the public. People did quite well on their own in shucking off religion during the 1990s. It may be, however, that Christopher Hitchens and his friends may deserve credit for there being any increase in "no religion" at all in this decade. As Brian Williams has just said as I write, "people turn to faith in tough times," and in many ways the decade of George W. Bush and the War on Terror has been a tougher time than the decade of Bill Clinton and the Internet Boom. It shouldn't surprise us if fewer people have found the confidence to do without the solace of religion since 2001 than during the past decade. Nor should it surprise us if "no religion" actually declines during the current economic troubles.
"No religion" begs a question, of course. All the phrase really means is that the respondent doesn't consider himself a member of an organized church. Delving deeper into the 2008 survey reveals that only 2.3% of respondents were willing to say that "There is no such thing" as God. Presuming that all these respondents fit into the "no religion" category, that leaves 12.7% who have "no religion" but aren't necessarily irreligious. As it happens, 12.1% of respondents say that "There is a higher power, but no personal God." All that means for certain is that they're not Jews or Christians -- Muslims being questionable about whether Allah is "personal." An additional 6.1% of those asked refused to answer the question. One wonders why.
Looking here, we see that the number of respondents who explicitly identify themselves as "atheist" has grown from 0.4% of the survey in 2000 to 0.75 in 2008. That's a near doubling, and perhaps the best-sellers can take credit for this, but notice that the numbers don't match the number who say there's no such thing as God. The discrepancy is probably explained by the atheist equivalent of "no religion:" an unwillingness to be identified with established atheist organizations. It may make some people feel better to learn that, according to this survey, there are more atheists than Muslims in the U.S., and that atheist numbers are growing faster than those of the notoriously prolific Muslim populations.
Probably the safest conclusion to take from the survey is that a certain libertarian attitude is creeping into American spirituality as more Americans deny anyone else's authority to dictate their metaphysical musings. In a way, we have more people trying to figure things out for themselves, without necessarily considering that sometimes there's nothing to figure out.