Acton Institute Powerblog

Less Religion Means More Government

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My article from this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

Soviet communism adopted Karl Marx’s teaching that religion was the “opiate of the masses” and launched a campaign of bloody religious persecution. Marx was misguided about the role of religion but years later many communists became aware that turning people away from religious life increases dependence on government to address life’s problems. The history of government coercion that comes from turning from religion to government makes a new study suggesting a national decline in religious life particularly alarming to those concerned about individual freedom.

The American Religious Identification Survey, published by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., reports that we should expect one in five Americans to identify themselves as having no religious commitments by 2030. The study, titled “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” reports that Americans professing no religion, or Nones, have become more mainstream and similar to the general public in marital status, education, racial and ethnic makeup and income. The Nones have increased from 8.1 percent of the U.S. adult population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

According to the study, 22 percent of American 18 to 29-year-olds now self-identify as Nones. For those promoting dependency on government to handle the challenges of everyday life, as well as those who wish to take advantage of a growing market for morally bankrupt products and services, the news of declining religious life is welcome.

The increase in non-religious identification among younger generations highlights a continued shift away from active participation in one of the key social institutions that shaped this country. It may also come as no surprise, then, that according to the research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, voters under 30 are more liberal than all other generations. When asked about their ideology, 27 percent of those under 30 identify themselves as liberal, compared to 19 percent of baby boomers, and 17 percent of seniors. Pragmatic utilitarianism, favorable views toward a larger role for government in helping the disadvantaged, and a lack of ethical norms characterize this young segment America’s population.

The most significant difference between the religious and non-religious populations is gender. Whereas 19 percent of American men are Nones only 12 percent of American women are. The gender ratio among Nones is 60 males for every 40 females.

The marketplace and society in general will both reap the consequences of high numbers of male Nones. If more and more men are abandoning the religious communities that have provided solid moral formation for thousands of years, we should not be surprised by an increase in the explosion of demand for morally reprehensible products as well as the family breakdown that follows closely behind. With consciences formed by utility, pragmatism, and sensuality, instead of virtue, we should expect to find a culture with even more women subjected to the dehumanization of strip clubs, more misogynistic rap music, more adultery and divorce, more broken sexuality, more fatherlessness, more corruption in government and business, more individualism, and more loneliness.

Alexis de Tocqueville cautioned in his 1835 reflections on Democracy in America, that the pursuit of liberty without religion hurts society because it “tends to isolate [people] from one another, to concentrate every man’s attention upon himself; and it lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification.” In fact, Tocqueville says, “the main business of religions is to purify, control, and restrain that excessive and exclusive taste for well-being which men acquire in times of equality.” Religion makes us other-regarding.

Historically, religious communities in the United States addressed the needs of local communities in way that were clearly outside the scope of government. For example, as David G. Dalin writes in “The Jewish War on Poverty,” between the 1820s and the Civil War, Jews laid the foundation for many charitable institutions outside the synagogue including a network of orphanages, fraternal lodges, hospitals, retirement homes, settlement houses, free-loan associations, and vocational training schools. These were also normative activities for both Protestant and Catholic religious communities on even a larger scale in communities all over America before Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The reported decline in religious life is an omen that virtue-driven local charity will decline, the passion to pursue the good will wane, and Americans will look to government to guide, protect, and provide. As we turn our lives over to government control, our capacity for independent thought and action are compromised. The real “opiate of the masses,” it would seem, is not religion but the lack of it.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • D.L.

    Anthony, you’ve got some rather sloppy analysis here. The actual stats you have are: 15% of Americans are “none” in stated religion, 22% of 18-29 year olds are nones. Then you grab another source to show that younger Americans are more liberal. It’s here that you run into trouble:

    *You’re assuming a correlation between younger nones and liberal ideology. Neither study you cited supports that correlation. In fact, the only data given on party affiliation contradicts this assumption: nones are just as likely to be Democrats as the rest of the American population.

    *Beyond assigning younger nones a political party, you’ve declared them characterized by “a lack of ethical norms.” Since neither study you cite addresses such an issue, this seems to come from your self-formed characterizations of liberals, young people, or perhaps both.

    *Your predictions for the moral behavior of these nones would greatly benefit from empirical evidence. What do you actually know about the strip club attendance of nones? Or are these, again, unsubstantiated personal impressions of people?

    Finally, you’re missing what is perhaps the most interesting part of the Nones study: Only 7% are actually atheist. 27% believe in a personal God. Which portion of this demographic are you going to blame for rap music, fatherlessness, strip clubs, and everything else? Just the atheists? The atheists and the agnostics? What about the agnostics sitting in churches every week?

    I might agree with some of your assessment of society’s ills, but your indictment of the nones, particularly young nones, seems like a classic case of manipulating data to support a priori beliefs. Please consider a rewrite.

  • K

    Well, the so-called “religious” right has done a great deal to discourage people of all ages and genders from any association with religious institutions, lest they be construed a whacko the rightwingers. The true peace churches, which Jesus would attend if he were here, have been largely driven out of business by mega-political-gay and women hating “life” churches. It is the nonsense that has driven them away, Anthony. No more Love Your Neighbor for those rightwingers, no way. Hate Your Neighbor has arrived in a limo, mandating a tithe from the throngs of worshippers. It’s a sick mess; that is why the Nones are increasing. George Bush and his Axis of Evil, and the Armegeddon/Crusades talk. Ugh. Who needs that? Not me.

  • Roger McKinney

    I wouldn’t place too much confidence in self-reported religious identity, either. I have worked with consumer surveys for decades and know that self-reporting is notoriously bad. People lie on surveys. If a person thinks that having a religious ID is the socially acceptable thing to do, they will do it even if they don’t know anything or care anything about religion.

    In Oklahoma, Baptists are the largest religious group. So in prison, something like 80% of prisoners ID themselves as Baptist.

  • I would expect that actual empirical data would not support your blanket assessment that the younger generation could fairly be characterized by “a lack of ethical norms.” Nothing in either study addresses such a poorly-defined issue, so I’m left to wonder if this is simply ageist, dogmatic prejudice creeping in to your work.

    The idea that a person must have affiliation with a modern faith community or belong to a religion in order to have “ethical norms” is not supported in any peer-reviewed study that I’ve ever heard of. I have to concur with the commenter above that for this reason alone you should research more and rewrite so as to avoid the appearance of bias.