Are right-wing evangelicals causing the rise in religious 'nones'?
The number of non-religious Americans has reached unprecedented heights. Are the most religious Americans to blame?
The number of Americans identifying as atheists, agnostics, or as not having any religious preference, collectively known as 'nones', has reached record highs. At the time of writing, a full quarter of Americans claim no religious affiliation. The rise of nonreligious Americans over the last two decades has been rather dramatic, particularly when you recall that between 1950 and 1980 the number held steady at a measly five percent.
Why are Americans beginning to turn away from religion?
A study by Paul A. Djupe, Jacob R. Neiheisel, and Kimberly H. Conger examines the recent spike in the number of non-religious Americans and breaks the statistics down further, giving context to the trend and offering explanations that raise important questions for modern activists.
The research team noticed that the rise of the nones began in 1994, just when the religious Right began to take on greater political prominence in the United States. That rise has been affected by political events and changing views on social issues ever since, with many people moving away from the church as the religious Right achieves political success.
Using information gathered by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study the authors were able to create this map of American nones. The demographic fluctuations of the nones are shown for each state and the District of Columbia from 2006 to 2016.
As you can see, every state saw some increase in the number of nones over that decade. At a glance, the final numbers can appear to be similar for most states. However, there is more to the charts than meets the eye.
The data on the prevalence and growth of religious nones was compared to information about the political affairs of each state. Specifically, the authors investigated the number of “registered lobbying groups associated with the Christian Right, the number of gay rights lobbies, the number of lobbying groups affiliated with the religious left,” and added an indicator for if the state had ever enacted a ban on gay marriage.
They then asked a simple question: What was the relationship between the rise of the nones and right-wing Christian political activism in each state?
The results were clear: the greater the political power and success of the Christian Right in each state, the more rapidly the number of nones had risen. A clear example can be seen in the aftermath of the rush to ban same-sex marriage in state constitutions around 2004. Despite the victory, the long-term results were disastrous for organized religion, as the authors explain:
As a result, religion lost somewhere between 2 and 8 percent of the population. By 2010, a ban was in place in twenty-nine states, in which 58 percent of the population lived. These states were more likely to be evangelical and had smaller proportions of nones in them in 2006, but by 2010 that gap between the nones in marriage ban states and those in states with no marriage ban had been cut in half...
The effect was particularly noteworthy in states where both gay rights groups and groups for the Christian Right were politically active, suggesting that it is not only right-wing activism that is causing the decline in religiosity but also the ongoing contention between more moderate factions and the Christian Right.
Correlation vs. causation
Could this be a correlation? Does any of the evidence prove that evangelicals are driving people away from religion?
The data shows a strong relationship between the dominance of the Christian Right in a particular state and the rate at which the number of nones increased. “Religious attachments fade in the face of visible Christian Right policy victories,” conclude the authors of this study. Similar studies and surveys have also pointed in the same direction.
One study shows that a third of the religious nones in the study explained that they had left organized religion over gay rights issues, furthering the notion that political differences are directly causing this exodus. Another study by Putnam and Campbell demonstrates that American liberals have grown increasingly secular while American conservatives have become more religious, showing again that our political and religious affairs are becoming intertwined.
Why don’t moderates move to more moderate churches?
The authors suggest that the visibility and activism of the Christian Right cause the public to view all religions as similar to them. “There is clear evidence that people—probably those without strong relationships with houses of worship—use the Christian Right as a proxy for religion as a whole, and discontinue their religious identities as a result,” said study author Paul Djupe.
Has anything like this happened before?
Yes, but on the Left.
It was reported by many ministers in the 1950s and '60s that church attendance would decline after clergypeople reported their involvement in anti-war protests. The same phenomenon occurred in cases where clergypeople would integrate the pews, with segregationist members of the congregation fleeing to ministries that had yet to move past the Jim Crow mindset.
It seems that a similar thing is happening to today’s Right, with churches and clergypeople that take up bold stances on social issues running the risk of alienating more moderate members of their congregations. However, unlike in previous cases where the offended churchgoers seem to have just gone to a new church, people today seem more inclined to leave the church entirely. This creates an interesting catch-22, as attempts to make society fall more in line with religious principles cause fewer people to be religious.
As the culture wars rage on it seems that taking bold stances on social issues can have short-term success at the cost of long-term erosion of support, as the example of the gay marriage debate shows us. Will the religious Right alienate moderates in a drive for ideological purity? Or will threat of extinction cause more moderate voices to come to prominence? These are questions all movements have to ask and ones that will have tremendous effects on our future.
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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