Latinos, the Nones, and the Decline of American Catholicism

Last week PRRI released a new survey providing an in-depth look at the nones. The nones are now America’s largest “religious” cohort, surpassing Catholics. This is no coincidence. Former Catholics (or people raised as Catholic like yours truly) have been boosting the numbers of the nones for years. The stability of Catholic religious identification in the United States was a mirage. The growth of the Latino population in the 1990s and 2000s, back then overwhelmingly Catholic greatly contributed to the overall numbers and give the impression that Catholic identification was very stable in the face of overall declining religiosity in the country.

Back when I was at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) and we released the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey we noted that anomaly. On page 15 of the 2008 ARIS Summary Report Barry Kosmin & Ariela Keysar noted that “…Catholicism lost ground within every ethnic group between 1990 and 2008. If the Hispanic population, which is the most Catholic, had not expanded then the Catholic population share nationally would have significantly eroded.” This observation was based on an analysis of a subsample of nones that received additional questions on ethnic heritage. We found a substantial number of former Catholics of Irish descent among the nones that was further explored in ISSSC’s report “American Nones.”

Even as Latinos seemed to give Catholicism a boost, under the surface there were problems. The third ARIS report, published in 2010, was on Latino religious change. In that report we noted that Catholic identification among Latinos had declined from to-thirds of all Latinos in 1990 to 6-in-10 by 2008 while the share of nones had doubled. The decline in Catholicism among Latinos led us to conclude that “…while Latinos helped to mitigate some of the losses in Catholic identification in the U.S., the Catholic identification is much lower than it could have been.”

By 2013 I had joined PRRI and our Hispanic Values Survey found that the growth of Latino nones was fueled by an exodus of Latino Catholics. The next year, 2014 the Pew Research Center found that 20 percent of Latinos were nones.

In sum, though the growth of the nones seems to be a mostly white, male phenomenon because the most prominent secular faces are white dudes, people of color especially Latinos have helped the group become the largest “religious” cohort in the country. So, secular America, in the name of all former Latino Catholics I say, you’re welcome.

 

Feature Friday: Congress gets a None (Repost)

Note: With the victory of Freethought Equality Fund-endorsed candidate Jamie Raskin, it is time to unearth this article from the last time a “none” was elected. This piece was originally published in Religion in the News (November 2013).

Conventional wisdom, backed up by survey data, says that no one is less likely to be elected president of the United States than a professed atheist. Yet voters are beginning to send to Washington politicians who claim no religion identity—a sign of the growing acceptance of “Nones” in American society.

The rise of the Nones has been widely recognized since the release of the 2008 Trinity-American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), which found that 15 percent of Americans answer “none” when asked, “What is your religion, if any.” In the intervening years, the percentage of Nones has continued to rise, at a rate comparable to the 1990s, when they increased their share of the population from eight to 14 percent.

According to the 2013 Economic Values Survey of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), Nones now constitute 21 percent of all American adults, and 35 percent of those under 30.

To be sure, Nones are not easy to pin down. As the Trinity-ARIS report,  American Nones: The Profile of the No-religion Population, points out, “‘None’ is not a movement, but a label for a diverse group of people who do not identify with any of the myriad of religious options in the American religious marketplace.”

Nones are defined by what they are not—not religious. Many of them believe in God, as either a personal deity or as some kind of “higher power.” Others are outright atheists and agnostics. Still others are simply indifferent to religion and/or divinity.

Nevertheless, they embrace similar positions on many social and political issues, and are beginning to identify themselves as Nones. They have, willy-nilly, become a significant part of America’s religious and cultural scene.

When Barack Obama won reelection in 2012 the media focused on the lopsided margins that the President received from racial and ethnic minorities, particularly Hispanic-Americans (71 percent to 27 percent) and Asian-Americans (73-26 percent). But the president received a comparable 70-26 percent margin from the Nones.

A few reporters did take note. Nones have become “to the Democratic Party what evangelicals are to Republicans,” wrote the Orlando Sentinel’s Jeff Kunerth on November 13, 2012. Liz Halloran made the same point a month later on National Public Radio.

Yet despite becoming a significant part of the Democratic coalition, the Nones have only a handful of senators and members of Congress to call their own. Only one, Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), openly identifies as a None. An additional 10 (all Democrats) simply decline to give a religious identity, according to the latest CQ compilation of congressional demographic data.

Sinema was first elected to Congress last year, winning a close race in a newly created 9th district that comprises south Phoenix and all of Tempe, home of Arizona State University. A social worker turned lawyer, she grew up in Tucson in a conservative Mormon family.

While serving in the Arizona state legislature she spoke to the Humanist Society of Greater Pheonix and received an “Award for the Advancement of Science and Reason in Public Policy” from the Center for Inquiry, one of the country’s leading secularist organizations.

On election eve, Hemant Mehta, author of the popular Friendly Atheist blog on the Patheos website, lamented the defeat of Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), a Unitarian who came out as Congress’ only “non-theist” (as he called himself) in 2007. Stark’s loss to fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell after 40 years in the House of Representatives was “especially bittersweet,” Mehta wrote, because Swalwell had used Stark’s opposition to reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the national motto against him.

But Mehta took heart at the apparent victory of Sinema, who was “believed to be both an atheist and bisexual, though she hasn’t spoken about either in her capacity as a politician.” After her election was confirmed, both Politico’s Patrick Gavin and Kimberly Winston of RNS described Sinema as the sole atheist in Congress and the atheist blogosphere rejoiced.

Chris Lombardi of the Secular Coalition for America wrote that, despite Stark’s loss, the SCA was “feeling emboldened by [Sinema’s] apparent victory” because “her nonbelief was not a factor in her election.”

Bisexuality was one thing, but atheist? Soon after her election a spokesman for the Sinema campaign responded to Winston’s story in an email: “Kyrsten believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character. Though Sinema was raised in a religious household, she draws her policy-making decisions from her experience as a social worker who worked with diverse communities and as a lawmaker who represented hundreds of thousands.”

The atheist community was not happy. “In an election with so many historic firsts,” wrote Mehta, “the one group that seems to be taking a step backward are atheists.”

Chris Stedman, assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, posted on the CNN Belief Blog that he was “disheartened that the only member of Congress who openly identifies as nonreligious has forcefully distanced herself from atheism in a way that puts down those of us who do not believe in God.” Atheists, he added, “are Americans of good character, too.”

Stark, by contrast, thanked them for their support in an open letter in Friendly Atheist.

Yet Sinema seemed a more natural fit for the None community with which she identified, for just 18 percent of Nones identify as atheist, according to the 2013 Economic Values Survey.

In March, PRRI and the Brookings Institution’s Religion, Values, and Immigration Reform Survey asked whether particular groups were changing America for the better or for the worse. Atheists and people with no religion were considered twice as likely to be changing America for the worse than for the better, the ratio growing to four-to-one when it came to atheists alone. (To be sure, in both cases, nearly half the respondents thought that they had no impact at all.)

Sinema’s election does appear to signal the political mainstreaming of the Nones. But whether a professed atheist can win a seat in Congress, much less the presidency, remains an open question.

Secular Americans: 25 Years of Growth

This year is the 25th anniversary of the 1990 National Survey of Religious Identification. With a sample of over 100,000 interviews, it is the largest study of religious affiliation in the United States. Back then only 8 percent of Americans identified as “nones” or non-religious. Yet, when the successors of the NSRI, especially the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, found that 1-in-6 Americans (15 percent) were non-religious, the press started noticing.

Today, the Pew Research Center and Public Religion Research Institute find that nearly one-quarter of the population is secular. The infographic below shows how this growth has happened percentage-wise and in terms of real population numbers.

25 Years of American Secularism (1)

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I was in Buffalo over the weekend. Not really in Buffalo exactly but in Amherst, NY at the Center for Inquiry’s global domination headquarters. I was a featured speaker at CFI’s annual leadership conference. This year’s theme “Moving Freethought Forward” clearly aligned with my current research interests in race and politics among secular Americans.

I arrived in Buffalo on Friday morning after being stranded for a while on Thursday night (airport celebrity sightings: Curt Schilling and Sen. Elizabeth Warren). After a brief check-in at the hotel and working a little on the first of my two presentations, I went to the CFI headquarters and was able to catch some of the morning sessions. The speakers in those sessions were some of the student participants discussing how their own college (or high school groups) organize and conduct events. The CFI staff also presented about some of their projects.

Watching those presentations gave me an idea of who most of my audience was (the other audience members were leaders of CFI branches, who at the time attended a different event). My first presentation was on the increasing diversity of secular Americans. While initially I focused on race, building on my presentation at the American Humanist Association conference in May, I shifted gears a bit and also discussed sex and gender identity. The movement, or at least the greater secular community, is not just a collection of old white males. Using data from my previous employers, the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) and Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), I showed that the percentage of people of color and women have increased over time among the “nones.” I also included data on LGBT Americans that shows high levels of secularism among this population.

Sharing the stage with James Baldwin and Nemesio Canales
Sharing the stage with James Baldwin and Nemesio Canales

After the statistical part of the presentation I discussed why these groups are increasingly secular. While education is part of the explanation, I moved away from the usual STEM explanation: that as people learn about science they become more secular. Instead I argued that questioning the power structures in society can be a path to secularism. The picture on the left shows the slide where I placed two secular thinkers of color: James Baldwin and Nemesio Canales. Their secularism wasn’t the kind that refutes religion with science but the one that questions divine authority in light of very inefficient results.

I finished the presentation with a segway to my next presentation. In a slide showing different political leaders of different religions I made the argument that the politics of religious groups in America vary by race: white and black Protestants vote differently, as do white and Latino Catholics. But this is not the case with the Nones.

Trying to explain how to make up for a 40-year organizational deficit.
Trying to explain how to make up for a 40-year organizational deficit.

My second presentation compared a bit the secular left and religious right. They are mirror images of each other, with the exception that the latter is a major force in American conservatism, and the former a bunch of people who tend to agree on political and social issues. My goal was to show that regardless of nomenclature (nones, atheists, agnostics), secular Americans largely agree on the issues that are important today. Moreover, they also have similar levels of political party affiliation, and have been abandoning the GOP in the last quarter-century.

I liked how my presentations were received. Several students and leaders talked to me about what they liked and to continue a bit the conversation. Overall, it was a great conference. The diverse faces in the crowd: young men and women reflective of America’s diverse population give me hope about the future of the movement. Of course, the conference was not possible without the hard work of the CFI crew. I was finally able to meet Debbie Goddard in person and chat again with Paul Fidalgo. I also met Sarah Kaiser, Stef McGraw, and Cody Hashman, who made my life easier handling logistics and tech. And I had the opportunity to meet some amazing fellow presenters: Columbia’s Melanie Brewster, a rising star in the secular scholarly community; Desiree Schell is the person who can put in practice whatever theory of politics I come up with; Keith Lowell Jensen made my face hurt with his jokes, especially those about Max, his 5-year old tweeting daughter; and is always good to see James Croft, one of the most engaging speakers around and whose presentation was, luckily, after mine. I also want to thank Matt Enloe for tweeting a storm, the pictures in this post come from his account.