One is the rise of the so-called "nones," meaning the religiously unaffiliated. The other is the persistence of efforts by people who would call themselves conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist to work against same-sex marriage, which the U.S. Supreme Court has said is legal in all 50 states.
The connection, the researchers say, is that in states where there is the most opposition to same-sex marriage, the increase in the percentage of the population identifying as religiously unaffiliated is greatest.
In other words (and perhaps oversimplifying the results), conservative religious political engagement seems to drive people out of institutional religion.
The press release to which I linked you in the first paragraph says, in part:
"The study, which was co-written by University at Buffalo political scientist Jacob Neiheisel, includes the following findings:
- The movement to set state constitutions against same-sex marriage, which began in 2004, made the religious right more visible to the public, especially in states considering LGBT marriage bans.
- By 2010, same-sex marriage bans were in place in 29 states. These states were more likely to be evangelical and had smaller percentages of nones compared to the other states.
- From 2006-10, the gap between the nones in marriage ban states and those in states with no marriage ban had been cut in half, decreasing from 3.1 percent to 1.4 percent over that period. In other words, a greater percentage of people left the church in states where the religious right is most active.
“'Regardless of which measure of religious right activity in the states that we used, in states that saw contentious fights over same-sex marriage, the political presence of right-leaning religious groups tracks with the rate of religious nones. So we like to say that salient controversy is the key link that’s connecting politics and religion here,' says Neiheisel, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences. . .
"The study’s corresponding author is Paul Djupe, an associate professor at Denison University. Kimberly Conger, an assistant professor at University of Cincinnati, is a co-author."
All this is intriguing, but some caution is warranted. First, there are lots of reasons people abandon institutional religion, and this study focuses on just one. It would be interesting, for instance, to know whether this same correlation could be found in states where there are lots of conservative Christians lobbying against the teaching of evolution in public schools or in favor of prayer in schools.
Second, the phenomenon of people leaving religion has been happening across Europe for decades, and without any seeming connection to conservative opposition to same-sex marriage in the U.S. Part of the problem in Europe has been the inherent weakness of state-established churches. Religion seems to be stronger when it stands on its own without direct support from any government.
So let's look at this supposed connection again in 10 or 20 years and see if it holds water. Some, I'm guessing. But not a bucketful.
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A SAD START TO RAMADAN
Islam's holy month of Ramadan is under way, but this year Muslims around the world enter it mourning the deaths of Palestinians this week at the Israeli-Gaza border in the midst of protests over the U.S. moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That move removes any role the U.S. might have played as a neutral party to Israeli-Palestinian talks. And although one can hope for light at the end of this tunnel, it's really, really hard to see right now.