It is commonly thought that Europeans are godless. In fact, as Grace Davie and Andrew Greeley in independent work have confirmed, more than half of Europeans believe in God, but they do not belong to any religious denomination. Davie calls this “believing without belonging.” We might call it “spiritual, but not religious.”
As I discussed yesterday a rising percentage of Americans belong to no religious denomination. Many might assume that these American are atheists or agnostics, but as Putnam and Campbell argue in American Grace, a very small percentage of this group fall in the category of atheists or agnostics. They are classic believers who do not belong.
Most interesting, at least to me, is that the principal cause of joining this group is political. Jose Casanova has argued that a principal cause of Catholics leaving the Church in Europe was its tight connections with corrupt dictators and kings. There is an irony here. The Church often maintained these connections in order to receive privileges to aid its evangelization. But doing so had huge anti-evangelical effects. Of course, sometimes it was more complicated. The Church sided with Franco in part because the socialists were killing priests (I am not sure if the Church ever considered being neutral). In any event, anticlericalism is a significant aspect of those who belong to no church in Europe.
The rising number of those who belong to no religious group in the United States is also politically motivated. According to Putnam and Campbell, it is primarily a reaction against the religious right. There is a strong tendency among young people (the largest component of this group) to associate organized religion with the religious right and a tendency to see the religious as hypocritical, judgmental, homophobic and insincere.
The sociology of religion suggests that as people grow older and have children, they turn to religion (though the Europeans do not fit that pattern). If the young turn to organized Christian religion in the U.S. when they have children, they are likely to turn to mainline Protestant churches rather than to Catholic or evangelical churches. If immigration is not considered, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has already experienced a percentage decline equivalent to that of mainline Protestants. It may not get better for the Catholic Church. Putnam and Campbell argue that churches that are distant from the political right have a recruiting opportunity with this increasingly large group. If in Europe those who do not belong are anti-clerical; in the U.S. those who do not belong are opposed to conservative views of sexuality in general, and conservative views of same sex relations in particular.
Update: It turns out that those without a religious home tend to stay that way even after having children. Indeed, the percentage of those leaving this category is lower than any of the major religious traditions. By contrast, 60% of Anglo Catholics leave the Church entirely or are only nominal Catholics. Importantly, the retention rates for Latino Catholics is far higher, a factor that will become more and more significant in the future.