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Month: July 2023

Homophobia and Religion

Homophobia and Religion

Two weeks ago I published an excerpt from Probably Overthinking It where I presented data from the General Social Survey showing a steep decrease in the percentage of people in the U.S. who think homosexuality is wrong.

Last week I followed up to answer a question about data from Pew Research showing a possible reversal of that trend.

Now I want to answer a question posed (or at least implied) on Twitter, “I’d love to see all this, including other less-salient changes, through the lens of the decline of religion.” If religious people are more likely to disapprove of homosexuality, and if religious affiliation is declining, how much of the decrease in homophobia is due to the decrease in religion?

To answer that question, I’ll use the most recent GSS data, released in May 2023. Here’s the long-term trend again:

The most recent point is a small uptick, but it follows an unusually large drop and returns to the long-term trend.

Here are the same results divided by strength of religious affiliation.

As expected, people who say they are strongly religious are more likely to disapprove of homosexuality, but levels of disapprobation have declined in all three groups.

Now here are the fractions of people in each group:

The fraction of people with no religious affiliation has increased substantially. The fraction with “not very strong” affiliation has dropped sharply. The fraction with strong affiliation has dropped more modestly. The most recent data points are out of line with the long-term trends in all three groups. Discrepancies like this are common in the 2021 data, due in part to the pandemic and in part to changes in the way the survey was administered. So we should not take them too seriously.

Now, to see how much of the decline in homophobia is due to the decline of religion, we can compute two counterfactual models:

  • What if the fraction of people in each group was frozen in 1990 and carried forward to the present?
  • What if the fraction of people in each group was frozen in 2021 (using the long-term trend line) and carried back to the past?

The following figure shows the results:

The orange line shows the long-term trend (smoothed by LOWESS). The green line shows the first counterfactual, with the levels of religious affiliation unchanged since 1990. The purple line shows the second counterfactual, with affiliation from 2021carried back to the past.

The difference between the counterfactuals indicates the part of the decline of homophobia that is due to the decline of religion, and it turns out to be small. A large majority of the change since 1990 is due to changes within the groups — only a small part is due to shifts between the groups.

This result surprised me. But I have checked it carefully and I think I have an explanation.

  • First, notice that the biggest shifts between the groups are (1) the decrease in “not so strong” and (2) the increase in “no religion”. The decrease in strong affiliation is relatively small.
  • Second, notice that the decrease in homophobia is steepest among those with “not so strong” affiliation.

Taken together, these results indicate that there was a net shift away from the group with the fastest decline in disapprobation and toward a group with a somewhat slower decline. As a result, the decrease in religious affiliation makes only a modest contribution to the decrease in homophobia. Most of the change, as I argued previously, is due to changed minds and generational replacement.

Backlash of Homophobia?

Backlash of Homophobia?

Last week I published an excerpt from Probably Overthinking It that showed a long-term decline in homophobic responses to questions in the General Social Survey, starting around 1990 and continuing in the most recent data.

Then I heard from a friend that Gallup published an article just a few weeks ago, with the title “Fewer in U.S. Say Same-Sex Relations Morally Acceptable”.

It features this graph, which shows that after a consistent increase from 2001 to 2022, the percentage of respondents who said same-sex relations are morally acceptable declined from 71% to 64% in 2023.

Looking the whole time series, there are several reasons I don’t think this change reflects an long-term reversal in the population:

1) The variation from year to year is substantial. This year’s drop is bigger than most, but not an outlier. I conjecture that some of the variation from year to year is due to short-term period effects — like whatever people were reading about in the news in the interval before they were surveyed.

2) Even with the drop, the most recent point is not far below the long-term trend.

3) Last year was a record high, so a part of the drop is regression to the mean.

4) A large part of the trend is due to generational replacement, so unless young people die and are replaced by old people, that can’t go into reverse.

5) The other part of the trend is due to changed minds. While it’s possible for that to go into reverse, I start with a strong prior that it will not. In general, the moral circle expands.

Taken together, I would make a substantial bet that next year’s data point will be 3 or more percentage points higher, and I would not be surprised by 7-10.

The Data

Gallup makes it easy to download the data from the article, so I’ll use it to make my argument more quantitative. Here’s the time series.

The responses vary from year to year. Here is the distribution of the differences in percentage points.

Changes of 4 percentage points in either direction are not unusual. This year’s decrease of 7 points is bigger than what we’ve seen in the past, but not by much.

This figure shows the time series again, along with a smooth curve fit by local regression (LOWESS).

Since last year’s point was above the long term trend, we would have expected this year’s point to be lower by about 1 percentage points, just by returning to the trend line.

That leaves 6 points unaccounted for. To get a sense of how unexpected a drop that size is, we can compute the average and standard deviation of the distances from the points to the regression line. The mean is 1.7 points, and the standard deviation is 1.3.

So a two-sigma event is a 4.2 point distance, and a three-sigma event is a 5.4 point distance.

Of the 7-point drop:

  • 1 point is what we’d expect from a return to the long-term trend.
  • 4-5 points are within the range of random variation we’ve seen from year to year.

Which leaves 1-2 points that could be a genuine period effect.

But I think it’s likely to be short term. As the Gallup article notes, “From a longer-term perspective, Americans’ opinions of most of these issues have trended in a more liberal direction in the 20-plus years Gallup has asked about them.”

And there are two reasons I think they are likely to continue.

One reason is the expansion of the moral circle, an idea proposed by historian William Lecky in 1867. He wrote:

“At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.”

Lecky, A History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne

Historically, the expansion of the moral circle seldom goes in reverse, and never for long.

The other reason is generational replacement. Older people are substantially more likely to think homosexuality is not moral. As they die, they are replaced by younger people who have no problem with it.

The only way for that trend to go in reverse is if a very large, long-term period effect somehow convinces Gen Z and their successors that they were mistaken and — actually — homosexuality is wrong.

I predict that next year’s data point will be substantially higher than this year’s.

Here’s the notebook where I created these plots.