Nebraska's changing religious landscape: The rise of the "Nones," and the political implications

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May 18, 2011 - 7:00pm

Part one of this two-part series discusses the effect of immigration on religion; check it out here.

It sounds like the beginning to a bad joke - why are there so many "Nones" in Nebraska?

But the only habits involved are the behavioral kind. In this case, a "None" is someone who doesn't belong to an organized religion, including atheists, agnostics and humanists.

From 1990 to 2008, the percentage of Nebraskans who fall under the "None" category jumped from 7 percent to 17 percent, according to the latest American Religious Identification Survey.


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause

Several Lincoln-area atheists and agnostics got together at local community collective LUNk House to discuss their beliefs - or lack of. For their stories, jump to the end of this article.

Courtesy of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey

Chart comparing the political party preference of "nones" and U.S. adults

Full text of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey

"And interestingly enough, the number of people who refused to answer our questions went from two percent up to six percent," said Barry Kosmin, research professor in public policy and law at Trinity College in Connecticut and principal investigator for the 2008 ARIS. "Now, what we find is that a lot of people who refuse to answer questions about religion are actually antagonistic toward religion. So a lot of them are what you might call closet 'nones.' They don't even get as far as answering the questions to tell you why they're agnostic or anti-clerical."

If you add in the "don't knows," more than one in five Nebraskans don't belong to organized religion or simply don't believe in any god or gods at all.

Why the increase?

"I'm not going to suggest I know all the answers," Kosmin continued, "but one of the answers may be that it's more acceptable today to question religion, or to be sort of disinterested in religion and the religious."

The biggest growth in "Nones" occurred during the 90s, in part because of the decade's prosperity.

"People who are worried or scared or something, they want lucky charms and things like that; in crisis, people pray," he said. "When they're actually more confident about themselves, they're less reliant on external forces."

The stereotypical atheist is a young, highly-educated white male - but that's not really the case anymore.

According to the ARIS report, class, education and income don't predict whether someone will be religious or not. Although Nones still tend to be male, and are more likely to live in the West than the East or Midwest, the highest percentages of Nones are found among Asian, Irish and ethnically Jewish communities. Latinos tripled their proportion among Nones from 1990 to 2008.

Several Lincoln-area atheists and agnostics got together recently to discuss their beliefs at a LUNk Collective, a leftist community house. Their ages ranged from 18 to 83. They included Caucasians, an African-American, a Jew and a transgender woman. Some believed in a higher power; some vehemently did not; and some said they simply didn't know.

Joseth Moore is 41 years old. His father is a Pentecostal minister in Lincoln; he recently got married to a Christian. And he's unabashedly atheist.


Click here for the American Congregations 2008 report from Faith Communities Today

Click here for a report on "American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population"

Click here for the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

"When you personally do not experience miracles, when you personally do not see certain things happen, or for that matter, when you do see certain things happen, like, oh, church members 'sinning,' if you will, just like any other non-believers," he said, "it's like, well, you're not any different than I am, so what are you trying to save me from when you're doing the same thing I'm doing?"

(Hear more excerpts from their discussion at the end of the story.)

So what do all these changes really mean for the average Nebraskan?

More and more, politics and religion are sandwiched together in the United States. The 2008 election proved that Nebraska conservatism can't necessarily be taken for granted anymore.

Especially when it comes to the influx of Latino Catholics, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor Michael Wagner.

"Well the religious changes, for the most part, seem to really advantage the Democrats," he said. "The growth of Hispanic voters who identify as Catholic are voters who tend to be choosing to vote for Democrats in elections. In 2008, Hispanic voters were 2-to-1 for Obama over McCain. And given the climate in Nebraska over immigration reform, Hispanic voters who are new to the state seem to be more willing to side with Democrats."

Though Latino Catholics tend to be more conservative on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, those concerns are secondary to immigration policy, Wagner said.

"Immigration tends to trump all."

On the other hand, evangelical or more traditional Christians overwhelmingly vote Republican - and they've become more and more politically active in the last twenty years.

As for the Nones, there's a high correlation between having no religion and being politically independent, though they tend to vote Democratic based on social issues.

"They tend to be younger, and younger people tend not to vote as much," Wagner said. "And so whether that changes over the course of their lifespan is still an open question. Because often churches act as places to engage in social networking and social mobilization to get out and vote."

And the more religious you are, the more likely you are to vote. So even though numbers of conservative Catholics might be decreasing, their potential political power remains strong, Wagner says.

In the end, current religious trends would have to continue for another decade or two before they would result in concrete political shifts, Wanger said.

"Conservatives shouldn't be too nervous yet about some of these demographic changes in terms of American religiosity, and liberals shouldn't be uncorking champagne bottles thinking there's going to be a permanent Democratic majority any time soon, either."

Listen to some of Nebraska's atheists, agnostics and secular humanists talk about their beliefs:

Correction: The original version of this story referred to "Adam Wagner" with the University of Nebraska-Lincon; his correct name is Michael Wagner.



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