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1 in 5 Americans is 'religiously liminal,' say researchers

Is atheism on the rise, or is religion? At times we hear polls claiming both, but new research shows it's not that simple. 

You've likely seen conflicting headlines like this: “Atheism on the rise." “Religion experiencing an increase." “Millennials Less Likely to Be Religious." “Churches Finding New Ways to Reach Young Audiences." And so on. The question remains: Are we becoming more or less religious?

In a 2017 article published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, NYU Sociology professor Michael Hout discusses the phenomenon of liminalism. Limen is Latin for “threshold." Being liminal means you're on the fence about religion. You either have one or you don't, and that might change depending on when or how you're asked.

This sounds wishy-washy, in the way that some atheists believe agnostics need to decide (as do some faithful). But as Hout points out, this phenomenon partly explains why polls seem skewed year after year. And no small percentage of Americans are liminal:

About 20 percent of Americans were liminal in recent years, 10 percent were consistently nonreligious, and 70 percent were consistently religious.

As Hout points out, an answer often resides in how you phrase the question. The religious will be consistent, as will atheists. But when “something else" is offered things become less clear. If you aren't affiliated with Judaism or Protestantism, yet you don't want to check off “no religion," into the liminal category you go, which might be odd if you're pagan or Taoist.

One of the most popular responses I've come across is that someone believes in God, the afterlife, or heaven and hell, but does not have faith in organized religion. Likewise, the “spiritual not religious" category fulfills the role of religious yearning without fitting into the folds of any particular religion.

And, of course, humans change. I think of my mother in this circumstance, who was raised Catholic but didn't pay much attention to her religion until her own mother passed. Suddenly she began attending church again and making sure I believe in God (I don't) during our phone conversations. This trend lasted for a few years after my grandmother's passing but has tapered off recently. Nonetheless, mortality is a powerful indicator of religiosity for people who otherwise don't think much at all about it.

Our views generally become more conservative as we age, for a number of reasons: we move into like-minded enclaves when leaving city life; our trust in institutions falter the longer we live and the more experiences we have; our relationship with money changes as economic divides grow; our body starts to slow and break down, making us sense mortality in ways we previously did not. Aging is change in many regards, so it makes sense that a.) conservatism and religion are often linked and b.) religion is more associated with baby boomers than millennials.

Then there's the function of religious institutions. In his 2016 book, Sweat Equity, Bloomberg's New York bureau chief, Jason Kelly, writes that yoga and Crossfit studios are filling the role churches and synagogues once did. They provide room for a shared experience between individuals with similar goals. Likewise, the explosion of ayahuasca tourism in South America offers an opportunity for having spiritual experiences without the dogma of American religious rituals. These spaces provide for profound moments without prior religious beliefs, which could account for the uptick in numbers of those leaving religion behind.

And while liminalism does cause strange curvatures in studies, it does appear that fewer humans have faith in religion. Hout's article covers 2006 to 2014, and there is one trend he's confident expressing: people are becoming less religious. Or at least they're claiming as such. In 2006 he discovered that 14 percent of Americans preferred no religion. Fast forward to 2014 and that number rose to 21 percent. Each two-year interval showed an increase.

Hout believes the liminal population accounts for “the rapid decline of religious identification in the United States." Yet he does not feel that is a promise of eventual atheism. In fact, he says the data points in the opposite direction:

"As they stand on the threshold between religious and nonreligious, nothing in the logic of their position or the evidence at hand foreordains that they will eventually step in the direction of being nonreligious. Two key observations point the other direction, toward a religious identity. Liminals are more likely to name a religion than not. A minority of persons raised with no religion displayed a consistent nonreligious identity as adults; a third of them were liminal, and a quarter of them were consistently religious."

Religion is fluid, dependent upon culture and context. A 2017 Pew survey shows that splits in Protestantism, which has divided the church for centuries, is no longer as important as before. Muslim births are projected to outnumber Christian births by 2035, while the “nones" are not procreating nearly as much. Neuroscience and the social sciences are explaining many human behaviors once attributed to religion, though with climate change and economic inequality affecting the psyche of a planet, religious and nationalistic tribalism is also on the rise.

Hout's data is a snapshot of our current moment. A fifth of humans appear religiously dynamic. How that changes in the coming years is anybody's guess, but we can be certain that it won't be disassociated from external conditions. And right now it's pretty clear that we're better off working together than continuing to believe apart. We'll have to see what direction the curves shift next.


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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