The religiously unaffiliated are an increasingly important part of the American religious and cultural landscape. They account for nearly 1-in-5 American adults, and although they turn out to vote at lower rates than other religious groups, they are having a profound effect on American electoral politics, accounting for one-quarter of Obama's vote in the past election.
Yet, although the politics of the unaffiliated -- comparatively liberal on cultural questions and increasingly Democratic in voting preferences -- suggest that they are a fairly homogenous group, there are actually three subsets among the unaffiliated that are demographically and socially distinct. In 2012, the American Values Survey identified three distinct groups among the unaffiliated: secular Americans (39 percent), self-identified atheists and agnostics (36 percent), and unattached believers (23 percent). The accompanying report detailed the significant religious differences between these groups, but there are major socio-economic differences separating them as well.
One of the more notable findings from this analysis is that atheists and agnostics have significantly higher socio-economic status than either secular Americans or unattached believers. Nearly half (45 percent) of atheists and agnostics have at least a 4-year college education, compared to 27 percent of secular Americans and just 17 percent of unattached believers. Similarly, 45 percent of atheists and agnostics have household incomes of at least $75,000 a year. Less than 3-in-10 secular Americans (28 percent) and roughly 1-in-5 (21 percent) unattached believers have household incomes in this range. Finally, nearly one-third (29 percent) of atheists and agnostics report that they are upper or upper-middle class, while only 28 percent say they are working class or lower class. Only 11 percent of secular Americans and 13 percent of unattached believers identify as upper or upper-middle class. Half (50 percent) of seculars and nearly 6-in-10 (57 percent) unattached believers identify as working class or lower class.
Why are atheists and agnostics so much more economically advantaged than their unaffiliated counterparts? Older scholarship pointed to the role that higher education plays in undermining traditional religious beliefs, but recent research has found that higher education mostly affects religious participation, not belief. A more recent theory, developed by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, proposes that populations with a greater degree of economic uncertainty tend to have higher rates of religious observance. Norris and Inglehart argue that "societies where people's daily lives are shaped by the threat of poverty, disease, and premature death remain as religious today as centuries earlier." The authors were primarily interested in making cross-national comparisons, but the theory can be applied to subnational communities as well.
Although it raises interesting questions, however, it would be premature to conclude that higher socioeconomic status is the catalyst for religious apostasy or non-belief. It is possible that the relationship is mediated by intervening experiences. For instance, prosperous parents often adopt differing parenting styles than those of more modest means. Affluent parents tend to stress values of individuality, creativity and autonomy, while less well-off parents tend to embrace more authoritarian approaches that emphasize the value of conformity and control. Some scholars argue that authoritarianism has been shown to be strongly associated with religiosity.
Understanding these differences is important because the media narrative about religiously unaffiliated Americans tends to focus on atheists and agnostics, to the exclusion of secular Americans and unattached believers. Indeed, some reports suggest that unaffiliated Americans all look like atheists. As we continue to monitor the growth of the religiously unaffiliated and develop a better understanding of their impact on American culture and politics, the unique profile of atheists and agnostics remains an important part of the story. High levels of education make atheists and agnostics a more influential political force -- for example, they vote at much higher rates than seculars or unattached believers. And their relative wealth will allow them to have a more sustained cultural footprint. Yet, atheists and agnostics account for only about one-third of the religiously unaffiliated. Attending to the distinctiveness within the unaffiliated puts us in a much better position to understand what impact they will have on the future of American religion.