‘”Nones” on the rise’ in US

October 9, 2012 • 8:46 am

by Greg Mayer

A new study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports that the proportion of Americans who do not belong to any particular religion has grown noticeably:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.

Trend in religious affiliation over time. Data from the General Social Survey. (Figure by the Pew Center, but not from the Pew data, which is for a shorter period (2007-2012), but shows the same trend).

Most news media attention has focused on the fact that Protestants are no longer a majority (for example, at NPR), while mentioning the increase of the unaffiliated as a cause. The “none” are mostly theists of some sort; 68% profess a belief in God in the Pew survey.

51 thoughts on “‘”Nones” on the rise’ in US

  1. The numbers add to 94% which means 6% of those interviewed includes all the Buddhists, Baptists (who are a separate Christian sect, neither Catholic nor Protestant), Muslims, UUs and other religious affiliates.

    While i believe the numbers are suspect, the number of non-religious is on the rise.

    1. Baptists are Protestants, in fact one of the largest Protestant denominations in the US. UUs might be included in the Protestant number as well– you’d have to check the GSS for survey details. I took a quick look, and it seems that for UUs it would depend on self identification (I know some UUs think of themselves as Protestants); there are no instructions about how to score UUs in the poll-taker’s questionnaire, but I haven’t looked to see if UUs are mentioned in any of their reports.


      1. Some Baptists claim they are part of a separate Christian tradition that predates Protestantism, but AFAIK the historical evidence doesn’t bear that out.

        1. Agreed, but facts are often ignored when people self-classify; e.g., the doctor who dissed evolution calling himself a scientist.

      2. In my haste to comment I failed to modify my response with “many of the Baptists I know…”

        In fact the most hard core among them do not consider Catholics Christian.

        Still, for “the 6% of those interviewed includes all the Buddhists, Muslims, UUs and other religious affiliates” seems low.

        As for UUs, in our congregation we have them all including a Wiccan.

        1. “In fact the most hard core among them do not consider Catholics Christian.”

          This fairly common for many, perhaps most, protestant denominations…and they’re not all necessarily hardcore.

          1. My reference was to the few hard core Baptists I know. Have never met a Christian from another denomination that considered Catholics non-Christian so it may be common to you, but it is non-existent to me.

      3. Many UUs in the NorthEastern United States identify as Christian but that decreases the further west you go. There is also a sense that Unitarianism ceased to be generally defined as Christian movement sometime in the second half of the 19th century.

        (I am involved in a local UU church, but I do not identify as Unitarian!)

        1. “I am involved in a local UU church, but I do not identify as Unitarian.”

          This speaks to many, maybe most, in our church. I identify as a UU who is a Methodist, but a non-theist, as I consider John Wesley’s obsession with learning and his advocacy to “think and let think” appropriate.

    2. I dug a little deeper in the Pew report, and it agrees with the GSS data in the figure reproduced here: about 6% of Americans are neither Protestant, nor Catholic, nor unaffiliated. That 6% includes Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. The 6% also includes Unitarian Universalists, who were insufficiently numerous to round up to 1%, but were noted in the Pew report as a volunteered response that was not classified as ‘Protestant’. Baptists were classified as Protestants.


      1. Thanks. My thoughts were off the top as one of uncertainty. In checking with the Pew Forum I found this which Christian (78.4%), Other Religions (4.7%), Unaffiliated (16.1%) and Don’t Know/Refused (0.8%).

        The Unaffiliated includes ‘Nothing in particular’ (12.1%) split almost equally between ‘secular unaffiliated’ and ‘religious unaffiliated’.

        Note: If my attempt at an HTML tag fails, it’s at http://religions.pewforum.org/reports

  2. You know, I think there’s a great deal of value to self-identify not as an atheist, not as an agnostic, not as an humanist, and certainly not as a Bright / A+ / New Atheist / other flavor of the day…but, simply, as a “None.”

    First, there’s the self-deprecating shock comedic value.

    God-botherer: So, like, what are you?

    Person: I’m a “None.”

    God-botherer: Really? (snickers) So, where’s your habit?

    Person: I’m a nail-biter — but that’s “none,” as in, “None of the above.” I don’t have any religious affiliation. Don’t really want one, either.

    God-botherer: Oh. I see. So…you’e an atheist?

    Person: Whatever. Don’t know. Don’t care. As I said, I’m “None of the above.”

    There’s also the advantage that it’s much more inclusive. The Nones include not merely all active non-believers, but also all those who just don’t give a damn. If you don’t care whether or not there really are any gods, if all you want is for the god-botherers to stop ramming their Jesuses down your throat…you’re a None, and you most want the exact same thing that all those Evil Atheists most want as well.



    1. I think you’re right.

      My god-botherer cousin (who changes churches about as often as I change socks because of ongoing disagreements over theology with each and every minister she encounters) is like that. If you say to her “I’m none of the above,” she’s likely to give you a pass.

      But if you declare “I’m an atheist,” she’ll be all over you in a heartbeat.

      Of course, the Pew people also find that even the “nones” are likely to report that they believe in a “higher power”. So, it’s not that simple.

      1. Of course, the Pew people also find that even the “nones” are likely to report that they believe in a “higher power”. So, it’s not that simple.

        You know? That’s just fine.

        Non-descript “higher powers” generally don’t prefer batshit insane faery tales over solid science; they rarely give a damn about public policy; and they’re all but guaranteed to not want people to kill and die on their behalf. They’re also not so much into being jerked around by sympathetic magic (aka “the power of prayer) and would rather see people help their own damned selves than be relied upon to save the day.

        Give me a “higher power” over an honest-to-god god any day of the week — and twice on Sunday.



      2. Of course, the Pew people also find that even the “nones” are likely to report that they believe in a “higher power”.

        And is Ceiling Cat not a manifestation of the Noodly Appendage? (Note the universal feline fascination with things resembling the NA : string, wool, mouse tails. QED)
        I’m a rock solid atheist (granulite-grade early Proterozoic basement, if you want geological precision), and I believe in the existence of a higher power. I feel it’s warmth on my face, occasionally, and see it’s effects on the world in the driving rain and clinging fog. It is, indeed, the largest thermonuclear reactor in the vicinity.

        1. Well, yeah. Of course.

          Who isn’t a Sun worshipper?

          I mean, even the Christians are, though they won’t admit it, for whatever bizarre reason.

          Are you gonna tell me that the Lord’s Prayer isn’t a paean to Sol Invictus? And Jesus — water into wine, walking on water, victory over death? Those’re the very calling cards of the terrestrial incarnation of the Sun.

          Your own FSM is itself obviously another incarnation of the Sun. You’ve got the circular central meatball with the coronal rays of the pasta; how much more obvious does it get?

          And, as for me, it’s absolutely no coincidence that I live on Apollo Avenue, in the City of Tempe, in the Valley of the Sun, or that my roof is covered with photovoltaic and water heater panels.



          1. P.S.

            As Dr. Sagan so wonderfully put it, we are star stuff.

            And, within any reasonable rounding error, all life on Earth is 100% solar powered.


            P.P.S. One of our biggest looming challenges is that almost all the food we eat isn’t just directly solar powered, it’s also powered through long-stored solar power in the form of petroleum-based fertilizer. And we’ve used up all the cheap petroleum. Dr. Sagan addresses some of our other non-Sun-based challenges at the link above b&

          2. Good point. There was a hymn we used to have to sing in church, with a really dreary tune, which had a verse that went:

            “Dark and cheerless is the morn
            Unaccompanied by thee
            Joyless is the day’s return
            Till thy mercy’s beams I see”
            (continues in like vein)

            If that ain’t sun-worship, in a supposedly Churchian hymn, wot is it?

    2. Just be careful that “none” doesn’t get mixed up with “nonce” (as I originally misread the title of this post).

      1. That’s a purely British thing, and one that I hadn’t even heard of until recently. Here, “nonce” is almost exclusively used in a quasi-archaic form of, “for the nonce,” meaning, “for the time being.”



    3. Whatever. Don’t know. Don’t care. As I said, I’m “None of the above.”

      wait… you think this a position of value?

      for what?

      seems pretty useless to me.

      1. If you don’t understand the utility in lessening the influence and respectability of religion in the States, then I ain’t got nothin’ for ya’.


        Maybe you should spend some time in Talibama, get a feel for what it’s like in the real world.

        For bonus points, wear your A+ shirt and tell everybody you meet how you’re a capital-A Atheist plus you support gay marriage and free abortions for the asking. Who knows? Some kind fella may just gift you with a rope necktie, and even assist you in putting it on. They’re quite the fashion rage, you know.



    4. You’re absolutely correct this is how a lot of atheist leaning people would behave – IF confronted face to face. But to an anonymous pollster over the phone their eagerness might swing the other way.
      In any case, I suspect the number claiming to be outright atheist to be fairly accurate. That figure doesn’t display the same flexibility as the number for unaffiliated over a span of time. And being atheist does take assiduous reasoning and implementation of a host of cognitive tools. There just aren’t too many atheists out there 🙁
      That said people have their guard up when asked a direct question. Their answers tend to be in concert with a view of their own esteem and their group allegiance. I remember an Economist magazine survey of top-drawer economists about presidential candidates (McCain vs Obama). The survey did not ask who would make a better leader. It asked “Which candidate would you most like to work for?” Obama won that by near unanimity. I wonder if Pew employs such an approach that cleverly lets a respondent lay bare their belief while containing other biases.

  3. I know at least one “none” who was one of the most religious people that I was close friends with. She simply didn’t like any of the churches that she went to.

    1. Did she still self-identify as Christian? If so, I don’t think she’s be included in the “None” category, but rather something like “non-demoninaional Christian.”


      1. You need to be more careful about offending Tpyos, the god of typos, Ben. Either that, or something was trying to get out a message about a ‘demon in a ion’ that is known as Al. 🙂

  4. So after all the scandal with the Catholic leadership in last few decades, their percentage remains more or less static in the US since 1972? What the heck is wrong with those people?!

    1. They love the church. They may not like some of the people who run the church, they may disagree with some of the teachings of the church, they may not share all the beliefs the church professes as its core beliefs, but whatever is left after all that, they love.

      Doesn’t make any sense to me either.

      1. An old undergrad acquaintance of mine is like that. He’s an active liberal, ran for state senate as a DFLer, most of his FB posts are rants about how the current Catholic bigwigs have got something wrong – and the rest of his posts are committed Catholic nonsense: St. Augustine said this, St. Aquinas said that, Pope Benihana XXX said the other, did you know it’s St. Frankenberry’s feast day today?!

        And then there are all the gay Catholics I know.

    2. There are a variety of reasons people stay with the Catholic church despite the high leadership, mainly–in my experience–to participate in the local church community which includes most of their family and many friends.

      When I assess the local social programs–food bank, free clinic, Peace Village, Prison volunteers, voter registration drives, soup kitchen, etc.–the predominant volunteers are church groups and members.

      That may not be a reason, but it seems to be a fact. Besides, the local parish priests I have known operated independent of their Bishops except when they couldn’t, which was seldom.

    3. The report notes that the Catholic percentage has been maintained through immigration, without which there would have been a significant decline.

    4. It’s also incredibly deeply ingrained in the culture of Italian and Hispanic peoples. 15 years ago I would have said the same of the Irish, but just recently Catholicism has precipitously declined in Ireland!!

    5. There are Jews who still believe in god and practice Judaism even after the Holocaust. As either Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi said (I’ve forgotten which one), “they must not have been paying attention.”

      If you’re into desperate attempts to hold on to religion in the face of all evidence, see:
      Excerpt: “Where was God during the Holocaust? As a people, we declare that God was right there – pleading with us to pay attention, never letting us forget how much work remains to be done in this world.”

    6. As someone else pointed out, immigration. Catholics are leaving the church; however, a very large percentage of new immigrants to this country are Catholic so the percentage remains the same. Beside those who formally leave, a large number may retain the name but have ceased to be actively involved (or maybe show up for Christmas).

  5. The ‘nones’ figure for young people in the UK (can’t remember the actual age range) was 75%. This was in a poll for a BBC program a few weeks ago.

  6. The actual number of Nones might be a lot higher than the survey shows.

    Only about 25-35% of xians bother to attend church.

    A lot of people are just box checkers, census xians.

  7. Also buried in the numbers of the Pew report but not explicitly written out is that within the unaffiliated “Nones”, the fractions of atheists and agnostics is marginally rising, and the fraction of nothing in particular is relatively declining (though still increasing in absolute terms). Linear fit gives on the order of two decades before the NIP-fraction falls below half, though.

    I still think we should revive the colonial-era term “Nothingarian”; the Catholic penguins leave the term “None” confusing in spoken conversation.

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