Religious “nones” increase in America

July 25, 2012 • 7:57 am

According to USA Today, a new survey by the Pew Forum brings the welcome news that the proportion of “nones” in America—that is, those who identify as either agnostics, atheists, or lacking religious belief—has jumped to an all-time high of 19%, a threefold increase in the last 22 years.

Barry Kosmin, co-author of three American Religious Identification Surveys, theorizes why None has become the “default category.” He says, “Young people are resistant to the authority of institutional religion, older people are turned off by the politicization of religion, and people are simply less into theology than ever before.”

Kosmin’s surveys were the first to brand the Nones in 1990 when they were 6% of U.S. adults. By 2008 survey, Nones were up to 15%. By 2010, another survey, the bi-annual General Social Survey, bumped the number to 18%.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church, the nation’s largest religious denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, Methodists and Lutherans, all show membership flat or inching downward, according to the 2012 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.

The 19% count is based on aggregated surveys of 19,377 people conducted by the Pew Research Center throughout 2011.

Where do the “nones” come from?

Two forces could hold Nones’ numbers down. First, they are disproportionately young, often single, and highly educated — all groups with a low birth rate. Second, the number of believers who immigrate to the USA from particularly religious nations, such as Catholics from Mexico, fluctuates with government policies and economic issues, Chaves says.

But the chief way the category grows is by “switchers.” A 2009 Pew Forum look at “switching” found more than 10% of American adults became Nones after growing up within a religious group.

This underscores the fact that a combination of rationality and immersion in religious nonsense is a good path to atheism.  And it convinces me that the public statements and presence of New Atheists, combined with the irrevocable path of secularism in other Western countries, will ultimately lead to the demise of religion in America. Just not in our lifetime.

Caveat: I haven’t found anything on the Pew site verifying these data. Presumably a formal report is in the offing, which I’ll highlight when it appears.

57 thoughts on “Religious “nones” increase in America

  1. Free flow of information is deadly to religion. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the generation that grew up with the Internet happens to be less religous.

    1. Actually, the data in the GSS suggests it probably is; the trend to “less religious” has apparently been going on generation after generation since circa 1880. See more details down at comment 13.

      Of course, this may be an impact of free flow of information having steadily increased since then; but in that case, the Internet just is more of the same steady progression in communication technology since around the invention of the telegraph (or earlier).

      1. What does this “sub … sub” thing mean?

        That you’re subscribing to this blog because of the content of this posting (but you’re both already subscribed!)?
        That you’re submitting to the authority of the poster (well yes for JAC, but that’s not an appropriate response to a scientist generally)?
        An acronym I haven’t yet worked out?
        something even more bizarre.

        I very rarely see it elsewhere, and haven’t been able to work out what it means from context.

          1. Yes, it’s a subscription for email notification of messages in this thread. Some blogs let you subscribe without posting, but this website doesn’t, so if we have nothing (yet) to add to the discussion but want to see where it goes, we post sub or something similar.

          2. It is a lot easier than posting “Ignore this comment because I only put it here so that other people’s comments will be emailed to me.”

  2. Wondering if anyone has also seen this survey : “Study: Atheists Have Lowest ‘Retention Rate’ Compared to Religious Groups” (Christian Post, July 11, 2012) – link
    First paragraph : “Those who grow up in an atheist household are least likely to maintain their beliefs about religion as adults, according to a study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).”
    Does this conflict with the Pew results, is it even reliable I have been wondering?

    1. This is not surprising. Kids grow up to absorb the values of their community, their friends and school mates not their parents.

      1. The report does not show what religion the atheists are converting to. In other words an agnostic or a none that grew up in an atheist household is counted as a loss.

    2. A survey in the hands of a Catholic university might be biased (consciously or not) against atheism.

      Is “Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate” objective about religious trends? Hmmm.

    3. It’s pretty consistent. The GSS data for the “Nones” (a broader category) shows similar results.

      From what I can tell from other studies, such as the Hunsberger/Altemeyer “Atheists” study, it’s because atheists don’t tend to worry about their kids coming to the exact same conclusion, but rather focus on their kids developing “critical thinking skills” so that they can come to their own conclusions. This produces a greater tendency for slight drift — kids raised by atheists ending up an agnostic or nothing-in-particular, say. That atheists parents are raising kids in a comparably more religious country is probably also a factor.

      Some of the presentation of the numbers may be a bit biased, but the underlying numbers look to be sound.

    1. That makes two of us – as I can remember sitting thru “confirmation” classes as a fourteen year old in 1960, bored out of my skull,and then later having a girl friend whose father planted further seeds of doubt in my mind with his views on religion and churches – my first exposure to “atheism”!

  3. The spaghetti monster has crapped out. This is our only life. T.S. Elliot was right. ” We are born with the dead, see,they return, and bring us with them.” That is the finality of it. We all get thrown out with the trash.

    1. Heretic!
      Give the heretic a good serving of meatballs and spaghetti, then take him on a tour of the beer volcano and stripper factory (every one new and sealed in plastic, for you and only you to unwrap ; 72 per believer per day). Then give him/her/it this belt to support their expanded waist line and send them out into the world to proselytize.
      Burning is such a waste of a good heretic.

  4. ” a combination of rationality and immersion in religious nonsense is a good path to atheism.”

    I agree; although if you are raised immersed in religion, it can be very hard to free yourself of it all, even when you have stopped believing.

    1. I agree. It reminds me of the old Jesuit maxim “Give me a child for the first seven years, and you may do what you like with him afterwards.”

  5. Yes, I do believe that the New Atheists are having an impact. In the middle of a cultural revolution it is often hard to see changes that are obvious in hindsight. I don’t think it is a coincidence that CNN now runs a Belief Blog and the Washington Post has an On Faith forum, for example. Religion and its disastrous effects have become a hot topic, and websites like WEIT, RDnet, Pharyngula, and Sam Harris, not to mention books by the Gnus, have had and are continuing to have a major impact. Truth and reason are on the side of the New Atheists whereas an imaginary God and lunancy are on the side of the religious.

    1. Well, to be fair, religion also has many methods of conditioning and coercing compliance evolved over thousands of years of practice on its side as well.

  6. I suspect that people are far more willing to say check None than Atheist. Of course Atheist is the same as Not Religious, which is the same as [None as pertains to religious persuasion], but saying that you’re an Atheist probably has a connotation that you spend time being Not Religious, going to meetings etc. For a great number of people, None is simply just that. They aren’t, and don’t spend time being non-religious.

      1. I’m pretty sure he means many people don’t spend time being “overtly” non-religious. As in they don’t advertise it, don’t go to meetings about it, and it is not something they generally think about throughout an average day.

        1. No doubt you’re correct.

          My own take on the motive for being “None” instead of “Atheist” is fear of being ostracized. Saying you are “None” is less provocative than saying you are an atheist, even though the meaning is identical. Like, in the past, it was less of a problem to be a “confirmed bachelor” than to be “gay”.

          1. Not identical.

            “What is your religion?” “None.” =/=> “Do you believe in [a] God?” “No.”


          2. Oh, actually, I may be hyper-correcting. Rereading Jerry’s original post, I see the third category of “Nones” is “‘lacking’ religious belief” (is it really a “lack”? 😉 )

            “‘Lacking’ religious belief” is stronger than “having no religion” (⁓ “not belonging to a [recognised] religion”) & would imply atheism in the weak/generic/broad sense.


            I’d be interested to know what %age of “Nones” believed in other supernatural woo, though. For some people, one kind of superstitious nonsense may replace the other.


          3. Yeah. “Atheist” has been so freighted with additional negative baggage by believers and accommodationists that many people are reluctant to admit that the label fits.

            Personally I think that is just letting the religious have their way, lending legitimacy to their claims. I do understand it though. But, I think it is better to deny them any legitimacy by admitting to fit the definition of “atheist” and then decisively countering their false claims about what that means about me. And, if warranted, maybe top it off with a little ridicule.

          4. Actually, the questions used are slightly different. “None” is a response to religious preference; EG:

            What is your religous preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?

            However, if you ask

            Please look at this card and tell me which statement comes closest to expresing what you believe about God: 1. I don’t believe in God. 2. I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out. 3. I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind. 4. I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others. 5. While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God. 6. I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.

            …something like third answer with #6, and only a tenth answer with #1.

          5. Er, a third and a tenth of the “Nones”. It’s higher/lower in the overall population, unsurprisingly.

        2. Yes to darelle. And besides (this just occurred to me), None is more all-inclusive. If the alternative to Religious (then what kind?) is Atheist, then the followup is Ordinary or New? 🙂

          1. Just imagine all the Schisms that will occur now that atheism is on the rise. I want to be a Primitive Gnu Atheist! I’m not sure what that could mean, but it sounds kind of cool.

          2. 1. Two doors on the front of the meeting house.
            2. No preachers – all the old guys are “Elders”.
            3. All-Day-Science-and-Dinner-on-the-Grounds.
            4. No air conditioning.
            5. “Old Book” singing once a year (selected atheist-friendly songs only, like this one):

            “My thoughts that often mount the skies,
            Go, search the world beneath,
            Where Nature all in ruin lies,
            And owns her sov’reign, Death.”

            (That’s a real hymn by the way. Sacred Harp #300).

            I’ll bring the fried okra and coconut cake.

          3. I’ll join if I can bring grilled okra instead.

            The coconut cake sounds delish!

    1. Sadly, some people who check “None” will say things like “I believe in God but I don’t have any religion” or “I believe in Jesus but I don’t have a religion.” It’s theism lite.

      It means they can distances themselves from the excesses (and the moderations) of organised religion, and feel good about that, without having to work out any alternatives or take the leap into (horrors!) unbelief.

  7. “He says, “Young people are resistant to the authority of institutional religion, older people are turned off by the politicization of religion, and people are simply less into theology than ever before.””

    This seems like a non-explanation. Are young people really more resistant to existing institutional authority than they used to be? Is religion really more political than it used to be, and if so, would that actually cause more people to throw up their hands and say ‘to hell with all of this’? And were people ever into theology?!

    We know from the gay pride movement that societal acceptance increases with visibility. It would be surprising indeed if that didn’t apply to ‘Nones’ as well. The only thing that has really changed is that the internet lets you know that you are not alone more effectively than just about anything else!

    1. I agree except for the “Is religion really more political than it used to be, and if so, would that actually cause more people to throw up their hands and say ‘to hell with all of this’?” question.

      At least here in the USA, religion is far more political than it was when I was young. (I’m in my early 60’s). This partly accounts for the revulsion of many young people. But you are right… the Internet and the “outness” of gnu atheists is very, very, important.

  8. The anti-reality, anti-gay, anti-choice bloviators are doing as much as (maybe more than) the atheit movement to drive intelligent young people away from religion. I also suspect this has a lot to do with the bubble in accommodationist blather – trying to keep the babies from being thrown out with the bath water.

    1. I really don’t understand why atheists have such hatred towards the Westboro Baptist people. We should be sending them gift baskets. “Hey, when you’re done protesting that soldier’s funeral, mind coming over here a pushing this kid out of her wheelchair?”

  9. Dan Dennett thinks information is mostly destructive to the more toxic religions and less so to healthy religions.

    I think that’s true, but would add that the healthier religions have much less staying power, possibly since they don’t traffic in moralistic guilt-trips that “hook” the unwary into their spiritual black holes.

    It’s not just information that helps, but freedom from neurotic moralism and disordered !*patterns*! of thinking.

  10. If you put “None” as your religion on Facebook, you find you have lined up with people who pray the Divine Office, including Nones, prayers for the ninth hour after dawn, 3pm.

  11. Independent support to the Pew study conclusions is available using the data from the General Social Survey that the USA today article mentions. EG, using the Berkeley SDA interface, run RELIG versus RELIG16 and filter YEAR(2010), checking the box for “total” in the percentages. The resulting table indicates about 17.8% of the country were “Nones” in 2010, but only 4.5% were thus by age 16 (presumably mostly by being raised that way), leaving about 13.3% as switchers. (The 2012 GSS results due out next year will probably continue the trend.)

    However, I’ll note that calling the New Atheists “leaders” seems to overstate matters; they look more like bellwethers. The demographic shift involved here started long before the New Atheists showed up on the scene. Comparing levels of religious “nones” in RELIG and RELIG16 versus birth COHORT, the trend appears to have been to a slow but (almost) steady increase in the number of the Nones all the way back to the adolescent faiths of those born in the 1900s — and thus, the likely adult religion of parents born in the 1880s.

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