Depending on how you look at it, a report released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center on Americans’ religious affiliation shows that the rest of the country is either catching up to — or falling to the same depths — as Maine, one of the nation’s least religious states.
The study, ” ‘Nones’ on the Rise,” found that nearly one in five Americans has no religious affiliation, meaning they don’t identify themselves as members of a church, synagogue or mosque. That’s more than double the number who claimed no religious affiliation in 1990. Sixty-eight percent of those who told Pew researchers that they are unaffiliated with a religion still believe in God. The remainder of the unaffiliated are atheists or agnostic.
“That’s totally me,” said Rick Biskup of Freeport, who said he was brought up Catholic and attended parochial school for 12 years, but now considers himself agnostic.
“I’m hedging my bets,” he said, adding that the rest of his family remains religious.
Andy Verzosa of Portland said he, too, was raised Catholic but no longer goes to church.
“I definitely think that some religions are too engaged in the political sphere,” he said.
That was one of the major reasons cited by those surveyed about their lack of an affiliation. Other top reasons included a belief that formal religious groups were too concerned with amassing money or power, or were too focused on rules.
Verzosa said the Catholic Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage was a factor in his decision not to attend church.
Pew’s study suggests the increasing lack of formal religious ties could have political implications, finding that those saying they had no religious affiliations — sometimes referred to as “nones,” because that’s the box they would check if asked to indicate an affiliation — were overwhelmingly likely to vote Democratic and support issues such as same-sex marriage, which is on the Maine ballot this year.
Numerous studies have shown that Maine consistently ranks among the least religious states. A 2010 census conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies found that 72 percent of Mainers belong to no religious organization.
That census relied on church membership figures, while Pew’s study was based on a poll asking people their religious affiliation.
“These trends that Pew is picking up on are already well-established in Maine,” said Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. “That trend has only gathered strength in the last three decades.”
Brewer said the fact that Mainers are already less likely to claim a religious affiliation probably lessens the importance of religion in elections, since it’s already an entrenched fact here. But, he added, “religion is never going to be unimportant in politics. It will always be there to some degree.”
Bob Emrich, a church pastor and the chair of Protect Marriage Maine, which opposes same-sex marriage, said the Pew study’s findings reflect what he’s already seen in Maine. But his organization still looks first to churches to recruit volunteers.
Mainers’ tendencies to shy away from organized religion, Emrich said, “doesn’t really alter our campaign or our strategy.”
As in 2009, when the organization worked to overturn the Legislature’s approval of same-sex marriage, church members were relied on to gather signatures, urge friends and family to vote on the issue and then turn out in large numbers on Election Day, he said.
The same is true this time around, Emrich said. “The churches are our largest single base of support for a campaign such as ours.”
Same-sex marriage proponents know they will probably gain a lot of support from voters who lack a religious affiliation. Pew’s survey found that 73 percent of those who said they had no religious affiliation back same-sex marriage.
David Farmer, the spokesman for Mainers United for Marriage, said that doesn’t mean that his group, which supports same-sex marriage, takes the “nones” for granted.
“There are still votes to get there,” he said, noting that Pew found that “nones” are strongly pro-Democratic, but 20 percent of Democrats oppose same-sex marriage.
While Pew found a significant shift away from religious affiliations over the past two decades, that hasn’t necessarily translated into a seismic shift in attitudes on other issues, said Michele Dillon, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. She noted that opinions on abortion rights have not changed considerably in the past 40 years.
The fact that most polls show growing support for same-sex marriage is likely explained by more than an increase in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, she said.
“Its momentum has accelerated so fast in such a short period of time,” Dillon said, noting that the fundamental shift in opinion has far outpaced changes in religious beliefs and practices.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: