Is the religiosity of the Right driving the secularization of the Left?

September 22, 2019 • 9:30 am

In this piece from last Wednesday, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux in Five Thirty Eight (henceforth “538”) discusses the increasing religious nonbelief of liberals, as opposed to that of conservatives or moderates. (Click on screenshot to read.)

There’s little doubt that liberals are losing their faith (or not taking up faith) at a higher rate than are other political groups, as you can see from this graph:

And, as a group, the more liberal you are, the more likely you are to be a “none”: those people unaffiliated with a religion or church. (Note: nones can believe in God, though many don’t.) As 538 notes:

As recently as the early 1990s, less than 10 percent of Americans lacked a formal religious affiliation, and liberals weren’t all that much likelier to be nonreligious than the public overall. Today, however, nearly one in four Americans are religiously unaffiliated. That includes almost 40 percent of liberals — up from 12 percent in 1990, according to the 2018 General Social Survey. The share of conservatives and moderates who have no religion, meanwhile, has risen less dramatically.

Other statistics quoted by Thomson-DeVeaux:

  • ” . . . since 1990, the share of liberals who never attend religious services has tripled. And they’re less likely to believe in God: The percentage of liberals who say they know God exists fell from 53 percent in 1991 to 36 percent in 2018.”
  • “. . . views about religion and its role in American society have become increasingly polarized. According to surveys by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of liberals who believe that churches and religious organizations positively contribute to society dropped from nearly half (49 percent) in 2010 to only one-third (33 percent) today. And according to 2016 data from the Voter Study Group, only 11 percent of people who are very liberal say that being Christian is at least fairly important to what it means to be American — compared to 69 percent of people who identify as very conservative.”

This difference, and the trend, are facts that have been documented before. There are two questions, however: why the connection between political ideology and religiosity?, and “why are liberals becoming secular faster than those adhering to other ideologies?” While Thomson-DeVeaux doesn’t answer the former, I’m not sure that her answer to the latter question is correct.

What’s her explanation? That as the Right becomes increasingly religious, and its political stands increasingly bound up with Christian dictates, it’s driving people (especially young people) to the Left. And that may be true, at least in part. But the evidence adduced by 538 to support this claim isn’t very convincing. Here it is:

1.)  Thomson-DeVeaux says this:

For one thing, the timing made sense. In the 1990s, white evangelical Protestants were becoming more politically powerful and visible within conservative politics. As white evangelical Protestants became an increasingly important constituency for the GOP, the Christian conservative political agenda — focused primarily on issues of sexual morality, including opposition to gay marriage and abortion — became an integral part of the the party’s pitch to voters, but it was still framed as part of an existential struggle to protect the country’s religious foundation from incursions by the secular left. Hout and Fischer argued that the Christian right hadn’t just roused religious voters from their political slumber — left-leaning people with weaker religious ties also started opting out of religion because they disliked Christian conservatives’ social agenda.

Yes, but a temporal correlation is not a causation. Perhaps the causes were reversed: the Right became more Christianized as a reaction to what they saw as an increasing secularization of America—a trend that is pervasive not just in the U.S. but in the West as a whole. I think secularization is inevitable given the rise of science, the spread of education, and the lack of evidence for religious claims that, in earlier times, seemed to be the only explanations for phenomena now seen to be purely naturalistic.

2.) More from the article:

But within the past few years, [Michele] Margolis and several other prominent political scientists have concluded that politics is a driving factor behind the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. For one thing, several studies that followed respondents over time showed that it wasn’t that people were generally becoming more secular, and then gravitating toward liberal politics because it fit with their new religious identity. People’s political identities remained constant as their religious affiliation shifted.

Yes, but the question is why their religious affiliation has shifted. Young people throughout the West are becoming more secular, and it can’t always be in reaction to Right-wing religiosity.  As The Washington Post reported in 2016, exactly 0% of young Icelanders believe that God created the Earth, and the secularization of that nation is increasing very quickly:

But this can’t be due to a reaction against the Right, as Icelandic politics are in general progressive, and I could find no evidence that the more conservative politicians are increasingly embracing religion. I think it’s far more likely that Bjarni Jonsson is correct when he says:

“Secularization [in Iceland] has occurred very quickly, especially among younger people,” said Bjarni Jonsson, the managing director of the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, an atheist nongovernmental organization. “With increased education and broad-mindedness, change can occur quickly.”

3.) Finally, here’s the only “telling” evidence supporting 538’s hypothesis:

Other research showed that the blend of religious activism and Republican politics likely played a significant role in increasing the number of religiously unaffiliated people. One study, for instance, found that something as simple as reading a news story about a Republican who spoke in a church could actually prompt some Democrats to say they were nonreligious. “It’s like an allergic reaction to the mixture of Republican politics and religion,” said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and one of the study’s co-authors.

The first paper (pdf here)says this:

Rising none rates are more common in Republican states in this period [2000-2010]. Moreover, when the Christian Right comes into more public conflict, such as over same-sex marriage bans, the rate of religious nones climbs.

So yes, the greater the religiosity of a state, the faster the rise of the nones, but while this provides a modicum of support for Thomson-DeVeaux’s hypothesis, it doesn’t explain why the rise of secularism is higher among liberals than among more conservative groups. (I’m not rejecting her hypothesis, but arguing that the evidence is not very strong, and there could be other factors as well.

As for reading the news story—a classical undergraduate psychological “prompting” experiment—this is a short-term effect, and I’m wary of what this kind of study means. After all, one such study showed that after reading a “no free will” prompt, undergraduates cheated more often in an immediate psychological test. That led the authors, and many others, to claim that promulgating the doctrine of determinism would lead to society’s downfall. But at least two attempts to replicate that study, using identical methods, gave no result, and another study gave the opposite result. And really, is an effect that lasts ten minutes going to last a lifetime?

So while Thomson-DeVeaux might be partially correct in her “liberals become secular as conservatives cling to God” hypothesis, it’s likely not as simple as that.

The article concludes by suggesting that, in fact, this religious polarization of the electorate is a bad thing for Democrats, as it hurts that party’s need to collect religious voters, and also tends to polarize politics as a whole:

The political implications of this shift are already evident. As more liberals become nonreligious, the Democratic Party’s base is growing more secular, complicating the party’s efforts at reaching more religious voters.

. . . But [David] Campbell warned that this shift is already reducing churches’ ability to bring a diverse array of people together and break down partisan barriers. That, in his view, threatens to further undermine trust in religious groups and make our politics more and more divisive. “We have very few institutions left in the country where people who have different political views come together,” he said. “Worship was one of those — and without it, the list is smaller and smaller.”

My feeling about that: meh.  The Democrats are hardly touting their secularism and/or atheism; in fact, given the bad odor attached to nonbelievers in this country, Dems tend to avoid saying anything about their faith unless they’re already religious, like Pete Buttigieg.

Do we really want to pretend to believe in God so that we can herd believers into the Democratic party, or to reduce the polarization of American politics? We can for sure become more conciliatory, treating our opponents with more politeness and seeking consensus on issues that don’t involve religion. And we don’t have to proclaim our atheism when it’s not relevant. But we are nonbelievers and nones, and we’ve become that way not just because Republicans embrace superstitions, but because there’s no evidence for those superstitions.

h/t: Barry



32 thoughts on “Is the religiosity of the Right driving the secularization of the Left?

  1. Cogent. After living in SE Asia, Japan, & Africa over the last half-century, as well as other venues with markedly different religious customs, I find it difficult to believe that anyone would adhere to the bovine nitrogenous excrement promulgated by religious ‘leaders’ and/or politicians. Count me as NONE!

  2. Regardless of why the nation is becoming more secular, this trend has created panic among the ardently religious. This is why they fervently support Trump and the right-wing politicians that push their agenda. They realize that time is running out for them being a privileged group in society in the sense of them having majority support. They love Trump and Mitch McConnell because of their ability to nominate and confirm right wing justices, the last bastion to maintain the country as Christian dominated, which they believe incorrectly was and should be the case. It’s now or never. This strategy could work. Long after Trump is gone, right wing judges will defend so-called religious liberty. Social tensions could rise, similar to the case when a pro-slavery Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that black people could not be citizens. So, in this area, as many others, Trump’s legacy will poison American society for decades to come.

  3. I think the article does a good job analyzing what is happening and why but comes to the wrong conclusion on the results. The move away from religion by the young people is the religion and politics of the right, the conservatives. When behavior becomes repulsive or at least makes no sense, what else can they do. The religious in this country on the right are becoming more extreme on the social issues of abortion, against gays and are full of the hypocrisy of backing less than moral characters who push all of these social issues. They are presently in lock-step behind a disgusting dictator. If that does not push them away from religion, I don’t know what will. There is nothing wrong with losing religion and what it should do for you is make you wonder how you ever believed in the first place.

  4. Evangelicals fervent support of Trump has exposed their immorality to a very wide audience, and (rightly or wrongly) taints other forms of Christianity by association.

    This widespread exposure of evangelical immorality is a recent thing, brought about by Trump’s election, but it will accelerate rejection of superstitious thinking that’s already naturally occuring.

  5. Agree that assuming the Right is causing the Left to react in a certain way seems like a leap. Isn’t the more obvious answer just that the same psychology that causes a person to trend very liberal probably causes them to be less religious as well?

  6. I think the author’s hypothesis is very poorly supported by the data and sliced quite cleanly by Occam’s Razor. As Jerry asks, “…it doesn’t explain why the rise of secularism is higher among liberals than among more conservative groups.” There’s a very simple and proven explanation, among many, for why conservatives hold onto religious belief longer: they tend to live in smaller, more unified, less urbanized communities, which often organize themselves around the local church. Even Orthodox Jews in suburbia are organized around their religion/synagogue. I even know liberal people from such communities who, while they no longer believe in almost any of the tenets of their religions, still call themselves Catholic and go to church because their social and familial life is organized around this. To divorce themselves from their religion would be to divorce themselves from their social bonds and community.

    Meanwhile, liberals largely live in cities, where the above factors don’t normally come into play.

    1. Yes well, would you call 400,000 a city? I probably would. In this city of that size there are many more religious people than nones and they pack the churches on Sunday. Often I see people defining the religious as those people out there in the rural areas but here in the urban, east and west coast we are the liberals. It does not always work that way. We do have cities in the Midwest and they are filled with religious people.

      1. That’s of course true as well. You can see from the data that even “extremely liberal” are still under 50% religiously unaffiliated.

        1. Yes, even liberals have faults. Just a joke. I have been a life long atheist probably before I knew much about conservatives or liberals so the transitions from being religious to not, I have no experience directly.

          1. I never really knew what I was until I realized I was an atheist. I went to Hebrew day school, but I realized I didn’t believe in any of it at the time, though I’m not sure if I believed in god (I honestly don’t remember). After I got kicked out in seventh grade, my parents moved us to a better school district. I had had a Bar Mitzvah and everything, but it turns out they sent me to that school and took me to synagogue and did all the Jewish stuff just because they didn’t like the neighborhood’s public school district. Turns out they were both atheists!

            Actually, I guess they provide a good example of what I was talking about in my first comment: they went to temple, had me Bar Mitzvah’d, and acted like reform Jews to fit in with the parents of the kids with whom I went to school. After we moved and I went to public school, all of that went away except for celebrating the big Jewish holidays, which we do by getting the family together and eating lots of food 😛

            Judaism is unique in one aspect, though: we all still consider ourselves genetically and culturally Jewish. Unlike other religions, Judaism is also an ethnicity. All of my ancestors were Ashkenazi Jews, so I’ll always be genetically Jewish.

            1. That is interesting. Not being Jewish I missed out on all that. When I was a kid, about 8th grade, had a friend at school who was Jewish. Actually his parents were, one Jewish and Catholic. They had two boys so one was raised Jewish and the other Catholic. Never knew how that turned out for them but at the time I thought nothing of it.

              1. I have no idea how you could possibly raise two kids in the same house with two different religions. How bizarre.

  7. The graph does not exactly show that liberals are losing their faith at a higher rate than all other groups. Among moderates, the relative increase from 1991 to 2018, a little over a factor of four, appears to be slightly greater than that among liberals; liberals just started out higher and ended up higher. Liberal reaction to the gross hypocrisy of Trumpophilia among the Evangelicals might explain the liberal uptick (34% to 38%) after 2016, but of course can’t explain the long-term trend. What has happened in the last 27 years or so to explain the long-term trend among both liberals and moderates, and to a lesser extent among even conservatives? ???

    The only major change I can think of is the increasing digitalization of life. Could it be that the spread of information (and disinformation) by computer is having a secularizing effect in one generation similar to la revolution tranquille in Quebec in the 60s-70s? Maybe a scientific outlook somehow leaks into a generation’s head when that generation spends many hours a day using a technological device, i.e. their phones and/or laptops. Or maybe the sense of community that used to be found in Church is now being replaced by the social network “communities” (ugh). Or, finally, as the example of Iceland (and other Nordics) implies, maybe secularization follows naturally as the standard of living rises. But that would have to mean that the standard of living has risen for a lot of people in the last 27 years, even here in the nasty old USA, contra the pop-Left meme that everything is always going to the dogs here.

  8. There are two questions, however: why the connection between political ideology and religiosity?, and “why are liberals becoming secular faster than those adhering to other ideologies?”

    There is one answer: the opposite of liberal is conservative, which by definition means opposed to change. Belief in millenia-old religious texts and doctrines fits well with opposition to change; change such as the “moral arc” of increasing rejection of slavery, racism, etc. and increasing acceptance of LGBTQ+, etc. Conversely liberals who embrace the moral arc are faced with cognitive dissonance or need to comparmentalize to retain Bronze Age religious endorsement of slavery, genocide, etc.

    1. Christianity has been, at least since Constantine (because of Constantine?), an authoritarian system, and that aligns with conservatism.

  9. “why the connection between political ideology and religiosity?”

    A good question. Similarly, why, if you see an American flag displayed, do you immediately think “right wing”? Why is concern for the environment associated with the left? Why, for that matter, when Roger Clemens was accused of doping, did opinions break down along political lines? The only reason I can come up with is that opinions about these and other issues are latched onto as mere badges of the tribe rather than as the result of any thought process whatsoever.

  10. I’ve found this issue is more fruitfully tackled by looking at what often SUBSTITUTES for religion among people who describe themselves as non-religious, non- believers, atheists, and rationalists. The last category, defined as persons who disbelieve any claims not supported by logic and evidence, is smaller than all the others. Thus, many nonreligious Scandinavians still think Nature spirits exist; some atheists believe in an afterlife; and environmentalism and gender feminism have many of the traits of religious beliefs. Lastly, the majority of liberals have great faith in the State.

    1. I’ve found this issue is more fruitfully tackled by looking at what often SUBSTITUTES for religion among people who describe themselves as non-religious, non- believers, atheists, and rationalists. The last category, defined as persons who disbelieve any claims not supported by logic and evidence, is smaller than all the others.

      Do you have any data to support that claim? Almost all of the atheist I’ve known fall into the “rationalist” category, and I’ve never heard of an atheist that believes in an afterlife.

      1. Survey data compiled by Phil Zuckerman, Rodney Stark. If an atheist argues, for example, that “real socialism has never been tried” or “global warming will wipe out humanity in 12 years”, this qualifies as superstitious thinking.

        1. Holding erroneous views isn’t necessarily superstitious. Holding erroneous views dogmatically in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence – that might be considered superstitious, depending on the definitions you’re using.

  11. The validity of the 538 title is questionable. Secularism comes out of science and critical thinking. If this is a learning lesson that makes liberals dislike religion because of the politically enabled religious right then that is true. But that falls under education of oneself, rather than politics.

    I know too many liberals who are religious or accommodating to religion to think that politics would ever change their minds. Only science and reason will do that and that is often only communicated to them on a daily basis by members of their family and community.

    Religion will never die in a vacuum but a community that endorses science and secular ideas will naturally extinguish religion from itself. Disliking your political opponents is not enough.

  12. I’m going to go out on a limb here and argue that while reactionary people tend to have religious beliefs, progressive people tend to have other beliefs.

    Peoples’ brains seek out order (through predictive processing) in the world around them. It is a human characteristic. The predictive processes are rarely conscious but do lead to a generally useful way of understanding the world (although not necessarily ‘factual’) and these are summarised as ‘beliefs’.

    You could reasonably argue that progressive (secular) beliefs work well enough to displace less reliable religious beliefs. So contra the article right wing religion has almost nothing to do with left wing secularism. They are just different belief systems.

  13. One contributing factor, that I’ve not seen considered in understanding declining church and synagogue attendance, is how much family life has changed over the past 50 years here in the US. Joining a Protestant church or Jewish synagogue costs money and time, and those are two things that are in shorter supply for middle class families.

    To maintain a middle class lifestyle now requires two incomes. It means that married women are out of the home for a considerable amount of time each week. Going to a church or synagogue on a Sunday or Saturday means one more day each week that you have to get the family up, fed, dressed and in the car by a certain time. Who would want to do this, unless there is a strong pressure or connection to one’s religion. Plus, with both parents working, there’s less time to do errands, social activities, and so on. Having free time on the weekends is important.

    Churches and synagogues also rely a lot of volunteers to run activities, and with women especially time-constrained already, they would be loath to take on any more such obligations.

    As for the money paid in membership dues, there could well be more pressing financial needs that families have, such as saving for college or paying medical bills or even paying for decent housing. Another stress that could cut down on the motivation to join a church or synagogue.

    Is it that people’s beliefs have changed so much, or that there are social and financial factors that make church and synagogue attendance less compelling than in the past?

  14. I notice that nobody asked about “other” religions, which might have changed the figures considerably. I know from personal contacts that a *lot* of Americans — and Icelanders, and Russians if you please, are taking up traditional Paganism. It’s understandable that they’d publicly list themselves as “none” rather than have to deal with a lot of questions.

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