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'Nones' may be influential swing voting bloc

No political party should take the “nones” for granted, new research suggests.

Atheists are very likely to identify as liberals and vote Democratic. To a lesser extent, so are agnostics, someone who neither affirms nor denies belief in a deity.

But a study of more than 4,000 Americans found the majority of adults who identify their belief system as “nothing in particular” are in some ways more similar to religious folks than other nones such as atheists and agnostics in their attitudes toward politics.

For example, nones who did not identify as atheists or agnostics were significantly more likely to say the Republican Party represents people like them and about twice as likely as atheists to have voted for Donald Trump.

These nones are still more likely to trend Democratic, but the evidence indicates they are not as ideologically committed to one party.

“Nones now have the potential to rival evangelical Protestants as a politically relevant constituency,” University of Nebraska sociologist Philip Schwadel reported recently in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

All nones are not alike

Developing research on the religiously unaffiliated is starting to tease out differences among members of this group who have risen rapidly in recent decades to by many estimates represent more than a fifth of the U.S. adult population.

Think of the nonreligious, and many people’s minds leap straight to atheism, and maybe to prominent figures such as the biologist Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” notes sociologist Lois Lee of the University of Kent.

“They are important, yes, but they represent an infinitesimal part of global nonreligion,” she writes.

It may be more helpful, she says, if we think about the nonreligious in terms of “denominations” of believers, distinguishing among such groups as nonreligious humanists, non-theists, agnostics and those who say they are spiritual but not religious.

Discerning these differences among nones offers “a crucial vantage point on the regional and geopolitical tensions around religion, political secularism and democracy that we are experiencing today,” states Lee, author of “Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular.”

In his study, Schwadel sought to expand the research on nones and politics by analyzing data from Wave 23 of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, conducted November 29 to December 12, 2016, among 4,183 respondents. The panel provided 13 measures of political attitudes and behaviors.

The study found several key differences among atheists, agnostics and nones who identified with neither group.

The findings include:

Who loves politics?: “Atheists stand out when it comes to conversations and confrontations about politics,” Schwadel notes. They are likely to follow political news and have had both major and minor arguments about the 2016 election. In contrast, Americans who say their religion is nothing in particular appear relatively uninvolved in politics.
Party loyalty: All three groups of nones were less likely than those affiliated with religious groups to identify as Republican. But nones who described their beliefs as nothing in particular were more likely to be Republicans or lean toward the GOP.
The ideological divide: Atheists are by far the most likely to report being liberal, while agnostics were much more similar to nones with no stated beliefs in being far lower on the liberal scale. The latter nones also were much more likely to identify as conservative.

The study concludes that not only are religiously unaffiliated Americans in many important ways politically distinct from those with a religious affiliation, “but, more importantly, they are politically distinct from one another,” Schwadel states.

“Religious nones are not a monolithic group.”

Mobilizing nones

What are the implications at the ballot box?

The fire that atheists show for politics and liberalism seems to portend well for liberal Democrats.

As they become more organized and active, atheists “may become a potent factor in local and national politics,” Schwadel states.

But what some refer to as the “softer” secularism of the much larger number of nones who do not identify as either atheists or agnostics suggests they may be in play for both parties.

“It is possible that a sizable segment of the NIP (nothing in particular) community may eventually become an important part of the Republican constituency,” Schwadel says, “if the Republican Party can effectively mobilize them.”

Image by Voice of America, via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Image by Phil Roeder, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

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