Why Are ‘Nones’ On The Rise In The U.S.?

Empty church pews
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry.)

Results of a new major study from Pew have been much-reported lately. The massive-in-scope survey shows that Christianity is on the decline in the U.S., while the unaffiliated (“nones”) have grown by leaps and bounds. Some publications tried to interpret the findings, some lamenting the trend and others celebrating it (I will do neither in this entry). But what did the study actually show?

Like many, I was curious not only about the findings, but about the reasons for the shifts.

◊ Some Things To Note About The Survey

• It was huge — more than 35,000 people participated.

• The study asked “would you describe yourself as…” and listed broad categories of religion; it didn’t tabulate actual church membership or attendance.

• It also didn’t report on beliefs, but affiliation (of course, at least some beliefs can be extrapolated from the affiliations)

• For “trends”, the survey’s results are compared to a similarly-sized survey from 2007.

◊ Relevant Results From The Survey

• Those identifying as “Christian” decreased in the U.S. from 78.4% to 70.6% — as a share of the total population.

• All major subcategories of Christianity showed decline.

• Extremely small groups (Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example) showed apparent growth that fell within the margin of error.

• Muslims more than doubled (to a still relatively small percentage), while there was a slight increase in followers of Judaism and “other world religions”.

• The biggest increases (in sheer numbers) came among those who answered “nothing in particular” (12.1% to 15.8%) and “atheist” (1.6% to 3.1%).

• Combining “nothing in particular” with atheists and agnostics gets a total of 22.8% — a group now called “the nones”.

◊ Who Are The Nones?

It’s the “nones” that everyone seems to be focusing on.

Because the study didn’t focus on beliefs, but on affiliation/identification, “nothing in particular” simply says they don’t identify with one of the religious groups listed, nor do they identify as atheist/agnostic, which were also listed as choices and both of which have specific definitions (atheist = “don’t believe”, agnostic = “don’t know”).

There are three major possibilities: (1) they actually are atheists/agnostics but don’t realize it, (2) they are atheists/agnostics by definition but avoid the terminology for whatever reason, or (3) they are believers but feel no need to associate their belief with organized religion or commonly defined religious groups.

Site of former Methodist Church
(Copyright © 2007 by Wil C. Fry.)

My assumption tends to fall into the latter camp, based on many anecdotal experiences. Numerous people I’ve known believe in a God very like the Christian God. If asked, they’ll tell you that he created the world and all of life (though perhaps not in six days), that he occasionally intervenes in world affairs and even in specific situations — as part of his “mysterious” plan, and that his rules for morality are very like the rules they think are laid out in the Bible — though very few of them have actually read the Bible. They don’t go to church, though they might have attended when they were younger. They have a negative opinion of “organized religion”, sometimes based on previous experiences but more often based on vague impressions they’ve picked up from others. Many of them have an oversimplified theology that “if you’re basically a good person, you’ll go to Heaven.”

Some of them feel no need to think about it regularly; others are uncomfortable discussing it.

This is not entirely an assumption on my part. Just last year, Gallup asked “Do you believe in God?” and 86% of Americans responded that they did, with only 11% answering in the negative. That means that of the 22.8% in the Pew survey, a good chunk of them believe in God — as many as half of them. The atheists don’t, and the agnostics aren’t sure, which means a bunch of the “nothing in particular” (15.8%) have such a belief.

◊ Why The Sharp Rise?

There is also a broad range of opinion as to why the number of “nones” is rising, something the study itself doesn’t address.

Columbia University Library
(Copyright © 2007 by Wil C. Fry.)

I don’t think it’s a matter of higher education (as Rick Santorum suggested). While there have been slight increases in the number of Americans getting college degrees, the percentage of unaffiliated rose by about the same amount for people with and without college degrees, and the increase of “nones” far outpaced the rise in degrees overall. (And, as this chart shows, Evangelical Protestants are more likely to have college degrees than the unaffiliated, though slightly less likely to have higher degrees.)

It’s not a gender thing either (example), because “the religiously unaffiliated are growing among women at about the same rate as among men”. And it’s not due to immigration, since the survey’s respondents who said they were born outside the country had a higher percentage of religious affiliation than did natural born citizens. Nor is the shift due to demographic changes in ethnicity: the percentage of the unaffiliated grew in each major ethnic group.

Though many point to the finding that “none” is most prevalent among younger adults — millenials, but also my own generation, lovingly referred to as “X” — it’s not entirely an age thing either. While “nones” among the older folks are somewhere between 11 and 17 percent (Generation X comes in at 23% and Millenials are at 35%), the percentage of the unaffiliated has grown even among the older generations. Almost all the “nones” report they were raised with religion. Also, Hindus and Muslims are, on average, younger than the unaffiliated.

Possible Causes, Suggested By Real People:

Rap Music: Pundit and war hero Bill O’Reilly said last week that rap music was to blame.

Economic Development: Another theory is economic development, and changes in the quality of life. But I’ve seen two sides to this. One author claims it’s the decline of the middle class that resulted in the decline of Christianity, while many others say nearly the opposite — that the U.S. is finally catching up to the worldwide trend of wealthier nations being less religious — as shown on this graph from a 2007 study.

Millennials’ Slow Maturation: This op-ed in the New York Times suggested that it’s partly due to Millennials taking longer to “grow up”. The writer claims it’s common for people to ignore their religion during young adulthood and then revert once they settle down and start families — and since Millennials are starting families later in life, the “reverting” is taking more time.

Church Politicization: Some political scientists have suggested (source) that “the Christian Right’s politicization of faith in the 1990s turned younger, socially liberal Christians away from churches”.

Fewer ‘Incognito Atheists’: One prominent Baptist said it’s a result of having “fewer incognito atheists”, which he called “a good thing”. He claims many of the “nones” were formerly identifying as religious out of cultural/societal pressure, something he calls “almost Christianity”.

Common Perception Of Christians: One religious blogger shared another possible reason: “Christians are seen as overbearing, uncaring judges rather than loving Christ-followers. When it comes to social issues, the world looks at how Christians react, or in many cases overreact, and does not see love, but only hateful judgment.”

The Internet: A few who have pointed to the rise of internet usage as a possible cause. (Here is one example, from before the Pew study was published, but there are others.) “For people living in homogeneous communities, the Internet provides opportunities to find information about people of other religions (and none), and to interact with them personally”, said one researcher.

◊ No Single Cause

I seriously doubt the changes can be attributed to any one factor; nothing happens in a vacuum. Of course each person who shifted his or her affiliation between 2007 and 2014 would have different personal reasons. Many of them might have difficulty describing their own reasons. Finding one possible cause and saying “This is it!” seems unreasonable, though clearly some of these had a more powerful effect than others.

Rap music? No. O’Reilly is grasping at straws here. Most rappers consider themselves believers. A huge chunk of them mention God and Jesus on every album, and thank God for every award they receive. Arguing that they encourage bad behavior is one thing, but they have nothing to do with people deciding to not be religious.

Wage growth in U.S., 1940s-2010s

Economics? It certainly doesn’t have a direct, immediate correlation. Wages in the U.S. have been rising steadily since the 1950s and ’60s, and women’s wages went up more steeply in the ’80s and ’90s, while everyone except the ultrarich has seen incomes decline since 2007. (According to figures found here.)

Millennials waiting to “grow up” also seems farfetched as an explanation. People are indeed marrying later (.pdf, 218kb), but not much later (27 for Millennials, 25 for my generation). And that trend began in the 1960s, not in the 2000s. And, while it’s certain that many people stop attending church during young adulthood only to return once they’re married and have kids, there is no evidence that they stop calling themselves “Christian” during that time.

The combining of right-wing politics with evangelical church groups rings true to me as a possible cause. Before the 1980s, they were not always synonymous, but today they’re often inseparable. But it seems to me that this might cause people to look for a new church or stop attending, but not cause millions of people to suddenly stop identifying with Christianity itself — unless they all had been fairly unsure all along. And it’s the more liberal church groups that have seen the greatest declines, while the more conservative groups are close to holding steady.

As for the “fewer incognito atheists” theory, this likely hits closer to the truth. The Christian Post asked Pew about this, and got the response that it was at least “partly” due to “weak identifiers no longer calling themselves ‘Christian’.” The Pew researcher “cautioned, however, that the decline in weak Christian-identifiers might not explain all of the overall decline in Christian identifiers, because ‘the religious “nones” aren’t just growing — they’re also becoming more secular as they grow’.”

WBC protest, Washington, D.C.
(Copyright © 2015 by Elvert Barnes,
Some rights reserved.)

If you combine that possible cause with the next one, it does make some sense. Many of today’s hot-button political issues highlight the negative reactions of some prominent Christians, especially to the younger generation. Marriage equality and LGBT rights in general are probably the most common today, but there are others like abortion, euthanasia, government assistance for the poor, separation of church and state, healthcare, the environment, stem cell research, scientific funding, etc. Fundamental Christians, as a group, have had trouble falling on the winning side of these questions, and have trouble appearing kind and loving when commenting about them. Some claim that the media is misrepresenting their message, while others say the message itself is bigoted.

Thinking of the “numerous people I’ve known” (mentioned above), they likely would have answered “Christian” in such a survey years ago, but now might answer “none” or “nothing in particular”. In the past, “Christian” was simply the accepted answer to the question, but now they associate the word with organizations, churches, TV preachers, and right-wing politicians whom they increasingly see as counter-productive, holding back social progress. It doesn’t mean beliefs have changed, just the willingness to identify with particular groups.

However, the perception of Christians as backward or bigoted can’t be responsible for all of the shift to “none”; the denominations experiencing the greatest declines are generally those that have accepted equality and other progressive ideals; the ones that are holding steady are those that are widely perceived as the most hateful. (This makes me wonder whether the more “liberal” churches are occupying an untenable middle ground, holding on to forms and rituals while shedding many of the specific beliefs that secular society finds so distasteful.)

Perhaps more than anything, I accept the internet as a major cause — especially for the Millennials — combined with several of the other causes listed above.

◊ How The Internet Can Change Minds

Imagine a child growing up in a village 500 years ago. The only beliefs and practices they’ve heard of are those in their own town, along with a few rumors about outsiders. The same is true for most adults in the village. If they do ever hear of another belief system or moral code, they think of it as absurd or evil.

The printing press did something to change that, allowing for a much wider dissemination of ideas, as did radio and TV, but none of them had the profound, world-spanning reach, or pervasive nature of the internet. And, for the most part, people in each region of the world still heard and saw information that was tailored to their own viewpoint — perhaps even cementing the illusion of homogeneity. (And each of those media gave rise to backlashes, including censorship, book-banning, and boycotts of commercial sponsors of “immoral” content.)

Today, unlike any other period in history, we have access to information from all viewpoints. But more than that, we have access to the billions of other people. This is what has changed the dynamic in my opinion.

I’ll use Flickr as my example, since it was my first true social media experience, but I use it to represent the whole of the internet experience. I joined Flickr just to host photos for my website and blogs. Soon, my contact list had grown to a few hundred photographers from around the world. I just wanted to enjoy photography. Instead, I learned about people. Some were rude and abrasive; I soon ceased interaction with them. Others were kind and inquisitive, informative and helpful. It turned out that these people were from all walks of life, from all the populated continents, with widely varying political and religious views.

I never would have met these people face-to-face, because I lived in a town with one religion (Christianity), one accepted sexual preference (hetero), and three ethnic groups (white, black, Native American).

It’s much more difficult to hold in contempt other cultures, practices, or beliefs when your social circle includes representatives from each. And, especially for younger people, social circles are increasingly online. For many, including me, these friendship are just as “real-life” as relationships with people I met face-to-face.

In addition to wider circles of information and friendships, the internet can provide a sounding board for one’s own ideas and viewpoints. Platitudes and memes that easily survive homogeneity can encounter heavy criticism — or at least sincere questioning — when exposed to the light of day.

This is one reason I’m heavily in favor of comment sections on news sites, bloggers allowing comments from just about anyone, and the forum sites where users can discuss anything and everything. I don’t refer to the trolling, ad hominem, rudeness, and invective that so often manifest in these places; those we can do without or at the very least ignore. Instead, what I’ve seen is: Person A makes a statement, which they assume is true for no reason, and Person B asks, “Why do you think that?” or simply says: “I’m not convinced that’s true, because [reasons].” In countless cases, Person A will not respond well at that moment, but they’ve been given cause to question their own thinking. I’ve been Person A in that scenario on multiple occasions.

It doesn’t necessarily mean your beliefs or affiliations will change, but it certainly raises awareness of what the rest of the world is like, that other people believe different things for different reasons. It lets you know how others perceive your beliefs and viewpoints, something you wouldn’t otherwise learn. But for many, especially those on the fence, it does result in changed beliefs and affiliations.

◊ Final Thoughts

The 2014 study alone sheds light only on the current makeup of U.S. society. But when contrasted with the 2007 study (by the same organization, with a similar number of people, asking the exact same questions), it shows a trend.

Of course, it’s difficult to extrapolate a longer-term trend from just two studies. We don’t know what the numbers would have been in 1993 or 2000, and we don’t know what they will show in 2021 or 2028. Will the rise in “nones” reach a plateau, or grow at a sharper rate? Will certain slices of Christianity shed only the “weak identifiers” and then level off, or begin to grow again? Will Muslims double again? We don’t know.

Whether you liked or disliked the trend, there is no question the information can be useful.

Some other findings in the Pew survey:

• Ethnic diversity has increased among Christians, which mirrors the increasing diversity in the overall population.

• Inter-religious marriage has increased — more than doubling since 1960 — reflecting that marrying into the same group isn’t as important as it once was.

• The median ages of Protestants (52) and Catholics (49) are higher than before, while the median age of the unaffiliated has dropped to 36. (The median age of the overall population is 46.)

• The adult population of the U.S. increased from 2007 to 2014. The 78.4% in the earlier survey reflected 178 million Christians, while the 70.6% in the newer survey represents 173 million Christians, a net loss of 5 million. (Between 2.8 million and 7.8 million, when including both surveys’ margin of error.)

• The greatest loss of Christian adherents came from “mainline Protestant” groups, which include Methodists, some Baptists, Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopals, among others.

• Historically black Protestant church populations have remained relatively steady.

• “Evangelical Protestant” groups (including other Baptists, pentecostal groups, Churches of Christ, other Lutherans, etc.), appear to have actually grown slightly in number during this same time period, while declining slightly as a percentage of the adult population.

• The “nones” (22.8%) are now the second largest group in the U.S., behind Evangelical Protestants (25.4%).

EDIT, 2016.12.25: In December 2016, a Gallup survey found very similar results.

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