Here's the problem with trends: They're dangerous to project and only really obvious in hindsight.
My favorite illustration comes from an investment counselor named John Vann who used statistics about Elvis impersonators: There were 216 Elvis impersonators in 1960, 2,400 by 1970 and 6,300 by 1980. At that rate, he said, one person in four would be an Elvis impersonator by the year 2010.
Gonna be all shook up next year? Probably not.
So what do we make of a prediction that the number of Americans who say they have no religion will hit around 25 percent in the next two decades, perhaps becoming America's largest "faith group?" That line got the most attention from reporters analyzing a new report titled "American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population
If that happens, it means that a trend that started more than 20 years ago will have continued. As with the Elvis prediction, I would not be so fast to bet on that particular future. But the report takes a much clearer look at our past. And the data raises a question:
Something happened in the 1990s to push millions of people away from their religious roots. And then the push got a lot weaker. Why did the number of people who say they have no particular religion boom in the 1990s, with the growth slowing dramatically with the start of the new millennium?
That may be the biggest mystery raised by the latest report from the American Religious Identification Survey. ARIS is among the very best of the polls about faith in America because the survey size is unusually large and because many of the questions have been repeated in 1990, 2001, and 2008.
The researchers, primarily Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College, have spent years pulling interesting nuggets from the data. Their latest analysis is of the Nones – those who tell the pollsters that they do not belong to any particular religion.
And what the ARIS data says is that the percentage of Nones leaped from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 14.1 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2008. Looking at the raw numbers, about 1.3 million adults moved from some religion to None each year during the 1990s. Since 2001, the annual shift has been about 660,000. Which still ain't chopped liver, but is a dramatic fall-off.
Before digging into the mystery, let's explore some of the implications of that 15 percent. Who are these folks? What do they look like? How do they vote? Much of this report tracks what other recent surveys of the Nones have found.
ARIS says that the Nones are getting more and more like everybody else. By race, education, income and marital status, Nones look pretty much like the general population. The younger you are, however, the more likely you are to be a None. And that trend has accelerated since 1990.
As with other surveys, ARIS says that most Nones aren't atheists or even agnostics. Most are deists or profess other hard-to-pigeonhole forms of faith.
Not surprisingly, most Nones are former Catholics. It's not surprising because Catholics are the largest potential pool of switchers.
More surprisingly, people of Irish, British and Italian descent are disproportionately None. For the Irish and Italians, that may be linked to the number of formerly Catholic Nones.
Here's one explicitly political bit of data. The party affiliation of Nones is substantially different from the general population.
For the U.S. as a whole in 2008, the ARIS report has it 34 percent Democrat, 24 percent Republican, and 31 percent independent (with 11 percent not answering). For Nones, ARIS says it's 34 percent Democrat, 13 percent GOP, and 42 percent independent (with the same 11 percent not answering).
If trends continue, then the GOP is in big trouble. The independent vote broke strongly Democratic in the last election. And the GOP's strongest base is among people who regularly attend religious services – which pretty much excludes the Nones.
But will trends continue? Remember the faux Elvis. Which means we need to get back to the mystery of why the growth of Nones hit the wall after the ball dropped to start the new century.
I asked Kosmin for his thoughts. He looks to the Catholic data for clues. After all, that's where a lot of the Nones are coming from. And he thinks that maybe the potential pool of disaffected Catholics – pushed away by theology and sex scandals – started to dry up.
He may have a point. The sex scandals stayed hot through 2002, but largely fell out of the headlines after that.
Here's another hypothesis: Nones may have come close to maxing out their market share. Just as only so many people are going to buy a Coke or a Ford, no matter how slick the ad, there are only so many Americans who are even interested in going None. After a decade of unprecedented growth, maybe it's not so shocking that the growth would slow?
But that still leaves the question largely unanswered of what happened in 2001. Is the answer the most obvious one? The attack that "changed everything?"
Christopher McKnight Nichols is a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America's Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day." He leans toward what I'd call a "no atheists in foxholes" explanation:
"One prominent and convincing hypothesis argues that this is largely due to the ramifications of three interrelated challenges -- September 11th, 2001, the on-going war on terror and geopolitical uncertainties, and the economic downturn -- which have been the sorts of crises that have historically led individuals and groups toward sources of meaning, community, and security for uncertain times and away from the sorts of individualism and skepticism associated with secular, atheist, agnostic, and humanist worldviews."
Translation: In times of profound instability, people reach for what stability they can find. And religious institutions offer some stability – even for some people who might otherwise be leaning None.
He offers another point:
"During the Cold War, American politicians, intellectuals, and citizens identified the nation as religious in contrast to an atheist enemy, but in today's geopolitical environment in which America's most avowed enemies are Islamist extremists it is unclear if the distinction of defining the nation's "other" partly in terms of religion will continue or will influence American levels of religiosity in the short or long terms."
Translation: Back when the Bad Guys were Godless Commies, profession of faith was tantamount to patriotism for many Americans. These days, when our most visible enemies often claim to be acting in the name of God, religiousness may seem less necessary to some people. Which may help explain why there continues to be a steady growth of Nones that is less than during the 1990s but very high by any historical measure.
Which leaves us with a mystery on the one hand but a certainty on the other. No matter what the explanation for the reduction in growth, there is no question that a greater percentage of Americans reject any faith label than any time in our history. Whether or not that percentage soars or merely floats, the direction is clear.
And there is this about trends: Sometimes they are flat out great predictors.
A few years ago, I got to know something about how meteorologists predict the path of hurricanes. Even back then, they had several excellent computer models that crunched data and produced potential paths that pushed out several days.
But one of the scientists confided in me that one particular model was still the best at projecting where a storm would be in 24 hours: A straight line from the previous 24 hours.
Whether the future of the Nones is more like fake Elvis or more like tropical cyclones, America's sociological and political map has already been dramatically changed. I'll give Prof. Nichols the last word:
"What may be most interesting from my perspective is a contrast: American public discourse remains remarkably hostile to atheism and non-belief, see for example the public professions of faith by politicians that is an almost sine qua non to run for office, and yet the numbers of Americans who feel free and are willing to identify to social scientists and pollsters as non-believers in organized religion are vast and increasing.
"So, what do we do with these seemingly conflicting trends? The central conundrum that this data poses for American democracy hearkens to an age-old question: what is the proper place for faith in American public and political life?"