Phil Zuckerman on the rise and influence of the “nones”

December 24, 2020 • 9:30 am

The other day a friend asked me if I thought that religion would show a big resurgence in America after the pandemic abates. I said that I doubted it on two grounds. First, the pandemic, in which many people died without obvious goddy reasons, should dispel any idea of a loving and powerful deity. More important, religion in America has been on the wane for decades, and I expect that the trend will continue. (If you want reasons why, read Steve Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now.)

We heard yesterday that black voters were crucial in Biden’s victory. Today we hear from Phil Zuckerman that one could make a similar case for secular voters. Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in California, is the author of a book I like a lot, Society Without God (2008, second edition 2020), showing that Denmark and Sweden function very well without religion, thank you. He also founded the first secular studies program in the U.S., allowing students to major in that field.

If you want to be heartened about the increasing influence of the nonreligious in America, read this short article published by Zuckerman in The Conversation, and, surprisingly, widely reprinted in U.S. newspapers.

The graph below shows the rise of the “nones” since 1970, with “nones” being those Americans who profess no religion in particular. You can’t really call them nonbelievers or atheists, as some of them do believe in a higher power, but they don’t belong to a regular church. Still, the group is largely secular in outlook. And they’ve increased in the last 50 year from about 5% of Americans to about 23%—a remarkable change in a largely religious country. (The graph is interactive on the Conversation site, so you can get exact figures.) The “nones” are represented by thick red line. Note that their rise has largely been at the expense of mainline Protestants, with the rest of the faiths holding steady or showing a slight decline.

Zuckerman’s point is that although religious voters have been called “values voters”, secular voters have their own humanistic values, and, as he says, “this played out in November in a number of ballot initiatives that have flown under the national media radar.”

These include a referendum in Washington state requiring that students receive sex education in the public schools, and Washington, with over a third of its residents being “nones,” is one of the least religious states in America. It’s known as well that nones tend to favor sex education in school more than do believers.

In Oregon, voters passed a first, Measure 110, which “decriminalizes personal possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, including cocaine, heroin, Oxycodone and methamphetamine. It also reduces the penalties for possessing larger amounts.” Oregon, too, is a relatively secular state, and secularists are far more tolerant of drug use than are believers: “a 2016 study from Christian polling firm Barna found that 66% of evangelicals believe that all drugs should be illegal as did 43% of other Christians, but only 17% of Americans with no religious faith held such a view.”

“All drugs”, of course, includes marijuana.

Finally, California, a relatively secular state, passed a proposition supporting the funding of stem-cell research, an area supported far more strongly by secularists than by religionists.

Zuckerman’s view that secularism played a role in passing these referendums is, of course, speculative, but as the nation becomes less and less religious, we’ll see the effect of humanism in our laws. Phil also notes that secular Americans are significantly more likely to support same-sex marriage than are believers (especially white evangelicals). The same goes for initiatives involved in women’s reproductive rights, the DACA program, and assisted suicide, while secularists are more opposed to the death penalty than are believers. (Zuckerman gives links to all these claims.)

Two more points. The first is the argument that secular voters made a difference in the election.


According to Eastern Illinois University professor Ryan Burge’s data analysis, around 80% of atheists and agnostics and 70% of those who described their religion as “nothing in particular” voted for Biden.

This may have been decisive. As Professor Burge argues, “it’s completely fair to say that these shifts generated a two percentage-point swing for Biden nationwide. There were five states where the gap between the candidates was less than two percentage points (Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina). Four of those five went for the Biden – and the nones were between 28% and 37% of the population in those key states.”

Second, Zuckerman reports an analysis of Hemant Mehta showing that every member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus was re-elected, and ten new state senators who are openly secular were voted into office, making a total of 45. Not surprisingly, they’re all Democrats!

If you want more data on the rise of the nones, click on this article from HuffPost:

h/t: Barry

31 thoughts on “Phil Zuckerman on the rise and influence of the “nones”

  1. As long as the nones are split between parties, and a large number of them are willing to vote for theocratic Republicans, then “the rise of the nones” means nothing.

    1. But isn’t that what the article says is not happening – not an even split between parties. Also the percentage of nones goes up with the younger people (generational). The more atheist the better. I suspect allot of this result is the difference within the family. A good portion of the younger generation escapes the brainwashing that parents do to continue the religion and belief. The breakdown of the “normal” old fashion family values as they like to call it means that many younger people escape this religious cycle. That is a good thing.

      1. Absolutely. Absolutely, Mr. Schenck. The kids ARE alright and a greater % of them have no time for the dangerous nonsense of iron age fairy tales. RUN from those “family values” kids, RUN!

        In the 2016 election if only the under 30s voted HRC would have won by a landslide. This, as Obama said in a speech then, is a very good thing when we look to the future.

        D.A., 50 (Gen X)

  2. First, the pandemic, in which many people died without obvious goddy reasons, should dispel any idea of a loving and powerful deity.

    Confirmation bias laughs at your logic. Plagues are exactly what the bible says we should expect from god. I am sure there is some family out there that lost multiple members, and is thanking god for the miracle that Covid spared the rest.

    1. I am sure there is some family out there that lost multiple members, and is thanking god for the miracle that Covid spared the rest.

      To add to the miracle, any such family is obviously severely deficient in infection-control procedures, mask-use, glove-use, hand-washing, etc and possibly has an asymptomatic spreader in a “caring” position – a COVID-Mary so to speak. So the survival of any members becomes more surprising.
      I don’t recall the press having found a “COVID-Mary” to lambast. Yet. I’m slightly surprised about that – it seems an obvious headline for the editors to hammer a case into fitting.

    1. India seems to be going backwards with the BJP and that clown Modi but throughout the Islamic world secularism is on the rise also. It is harder there because Islam is baked into the societal cake more thoroughly than Christianity is in the West.

      The utter failure of Islamic regimes in recent decades (Iran, Taliban, ISIS, the Somali movements, even Morsi’s Egypt) to deliver anything but misery, poverty and disfunction provides examples of how terrible religion is as a societal software. Where there is even a hint of democracy Islamic parties are in decline (with some exceptions, sectarian Lebanon).

      In many Islamic countries the mosque was the only place allowed to function in opposition to the (often Socialist/Ba’thist) non-religious dictatorships which gave an impression political Islam was more popular than it actually was: it was just the only “other” game in town.

      D.A., B.A., (Middle East politics & psychology), J.D.

  3. The biggest loss to Christians if from the Mainline Protestants. This suggests that Mainline really means not too serious about the whole thing. Never was, never will be. But, they are tired of getting dressed up and going to church just for belief in belief.

    1. How quickly a Protestant denomination is losing members is a good measure of how liberal it is. The situation is similar with Catholics.

      Unfortunately, not going to church makes it easier to go fully woke.

  4. … the group is largely secular in outlook. And they’ve increased in the last 50 year from about 5% of Americans to about 23%—a remarkable change in a largely religious country.

    We’ve come a long way, baby, since the days when Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a lonely voice in the wilderness.

  5. The number of people who do not believe in a deity has increased from 2% in 2006 to 5% in 2018 ( That’s not the same increase as seen in the “None” label. There’s a large percentage of the “None” group who still hold to theistic ideas.

    The “None” label is rather vague. It doesn’t mean that these people don’t have religious inclinations. It seems only to indicate that these people do not formally act on those inclinations.

    Perhaps we need a more rigorous definition of secular and to separate out the truly atheist and strong agnostic from the other labels.

    1. Equally important would be statistics on how many think believing in God isn’t important when it comes to morality, citizenship, or good character.

      While there may be good and practical reasons for atheists to argue against the existence of any and all gods, a fervent Christian who’d have no problem voting for atheist candidates would be politically preferable to a not-quite-agnostic believer in Ineffable Spirituality who nevertheless considers atheism and atheists both intellectually and ethically bankrupt. If that’s a significant factor we’d want to know about it.

    2. What is wrong with “atheist” versus “theist”. It’s not as if “atheist” carries any bad connotations in English.

  6. a 2016 study from Christian polling firm Barna found that 66% of evangelicals believe that all drugs should be illegal as did 43% of other Christians

    “All drugs”, except ethanol and nicotine, I suspect.
    Since those are “natural” drugs in some sense, another interesting couple to consider would be pscilocin-containing mushrooms (“magic mushrooms”) and … I was going to say “peyote”, but that’s another mushroom. How about the unmodified coca leaf? That grows “as god intended”, and delivers a substantial hit which wasn’t known to the “Mayflower” generation.

    1. Peyote is the button from a cactus — at least back when Someone Who Isn’t Me ate some. SWIM was reading those Carlos Castaneda books around that time.

    2. Exceptions indeed. Opium, a distillate of poppy juices, seems every bit as natural as whiskey or vodka. The criminalization of opium in the US makes for interesting history. Legality and illegality seem to track much more closely with who uses and sells a drug, than with its God-given naturalness or its effect on the human body.

      1. Legalize it. All of it. Substance abuse is a socio-medical issue, one the criminal-justice system is ill-equipped to address.

      2. Opium, a distillate of poppy juices

        Raw opium is the dried exudate from the seed heads of the Opium Poppy – no “chemical” processing other than collecting it and making it into lumps.
        Are you thinking of laudanum – a popular tipple from about 1770 to 1880, maybe 1900? It is raw opium dissolved in high grade (distilled) alcohol and sold as a liquid containing essentially all of the many and varied opium compounds.
        One of these days I’m going to find a Soxhlet apparatus and find out what hashish-laudanum is like. For some reason they’re not common in car boot sales or auction jumble rooms.

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