In his 2009 inaugural address, President Obama earned plaudits in atheist, agnostic, and secular humanist circles by, for the first time, acknowledging the presence of “nonbelievers” alongside “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus” in the American religious landscape. Public Religion Research Institute’s 2012 American Values Survey shows, however, that Obama’s well-intentioned term “nonbelievers” falls short as an adequate description of the growing, complex group of religiously unaffiliated Americans.
Political candidates and campaigns are rightly paying attention to the religiously unaffiliated, the fastest growing group in the religious landscape that currently counts nearly 1-in-5 (19 percent) Americans among its ranks. While they are somewhat less likely to vote than religiously affiliated Americans, the religiously unaffiliated still make up 16 percent of likely voters this year. And among millennials (Americans ages 18-29), nearly one-third (32 percent) count themselves among the unaffiliated. The Democratic-leaning religiously unaffiliated are also settling in as a comparably sized counterweight to Republican-leaning white evangelical Protestants in national partisan coalitions.
But the internal diversity of the religiously unaffiliated presents a challenge to candidates and campaigns who are seeking to court this group’s votes. PRRI’s recently released American Values Survey profiled three distinct subgroups of religiously unaffiliated Americans: atheists and agnostics, seculars, and a newly identified group, “unattached believers.” Importantly, these subgroups vary widely in terms of race, education, and even religiosity. There is considerable distance between atheists and agnostics on the one hand and unattached believers on the other, with seculars generally falling in between.
Atheists and agnostics, who represent more than one-third (36 percent) of the religiously unaffiliated, are perhaps the most prominent group of the three. Atheists and agnostics are more likely to be white, male, and more highly educated than unattached believers. For example, more than three-quarters (76 percent) of atheists and agnostics are non-Hispanic whites, and nearly half (45 percent) hold at least a four-year college degree. By contrast, among unattached believers, who represent nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of the unaffiliated, just 56 percent are white, while nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of are black and 12 percent are Hispanic. Only 17 percent of unattached believers hold a four-year college degree.
Notably, unattached believers differ from atheists and agnostics in their beliefs about God. Atheists and agnostics are the lone group in which a majority (56 percent) agree that God does not exist. Relatively few atheists and agnostics believe in God, either as a person (30 percent) or an impersonal force (6 percent). By contrast, nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) unattached believers say that God is a person with whom one can have a relationship, while approximately one-quarter (26 percent) believe that God is an impersonal force. No unattached believers say they do not believe in God.
Similarly, unattached believers are far and away more likely to see an essential link between belief in God and moral behavior. A majority (51 percent) of unattached believers agree that it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values, a view held by only 1-in-20 (5 percent) atheists and agnostics.
These subgroups also have distinctive postures toward religious institutions and people. Unlike atheists and agnostics, the overall profile of unattached believers suggests that for the most part, they drifted away from organized religion rather than rejecting it outright. When asked why they left the religion of their childhood, unattached believers are more likely than atheists and agnostics to say cite mundane reasons like being busy, or to say they have no reason, or that they are unsure of their answer. By contrast, atheists and agnostics are substantially more likely than unattached believers to say that they become unaffiliated because they ceased to believe in God or central religious teachings.
Recognizing the distinctiveness of these subgroups is important for political campaigns because connecting with a particular voting bloc depends on having an accurate understanding of the group’s profile and priorities. Relying on stereotypes or anecdotal evidence inevitably leads to outreach strategies that are clumsily calibrated. Getting beyond the “nonbelievers” terminology, which ignores internal diversity and occludes the considerable religiosity among the religiously unaffiliated, is one critical first step both campaigns would do well to take.