“Nones” rise again in the U.S.

October 25, 2014 • 10:17 am

The last time I looked, the proportion of “nones”—those people who don’t describe themselves as formally affiliated with a church and don’t usually go to church—was about 15% in the U.S.

Now, a new study suggests it can be as high as—wait for it—38%! I like that, for Professor Ceiling Cat long ago predicted that America was becoming more secular, and eventually, long after we’re worm food, I believe that the U.S. will be as godless as France or Scandinavia. Remember, though that a big chunk of that 38% is still religious in some sense. For among that 38%, a quarter call themselves agnostics or atheists (about 10% of the total population), 27% are churchless but identify with other faiths (e.g., Jews) or call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and 32% identify themselves nominally as Christians. Still, the failure to affiliate with a church, or to go to church, is the first step toward secularism.

For the overall view, read a new piece by Cathy Lynn Grossman in Religious News Service, “Secularism grows as more U.S. Christians turn ‘churchless.‘” The piece itself is based on a study by David Kinneman and George Barna (of the religious polling organization The Barna group) published in a book called Churchless, which amalgamates data from 20 recent surveys. Curiously, The Barna Group maintains no pretense of philosophical objectivity: it’s definitely pro-religious, so when it gives data showing growing secularism, you can be sure that the results don’t reflect pollster bias. You can see Barna’s bias in this blurb for Churchless:

Discover How to Lovingly Reach Today’s Unchurched

What causes people to stay away from church? What makes them feel welcomed and willing to engage?

Churchless is an up-to-the-minute snapshot of the perceptions, beliefs, behaviors, choices, experiences, expectations and hopes of a nationally representative body of churchless adults. Based on two decades of data and tens of thousands of interviews with unchuched people,Churchless compares the backgrounds, behaviors and beliefs of the churched and the unchurched.

But more than that, Churchless points to how you can build spiritually meaningful relationships with your unchurched family, friends, neighbors and coworkers. Because the truth is, most of them are already looking for a connection with God.

But for the salient data see the Barna group’s page “Five trends among the unchurched“, which summarizes the main results (indented wording below taken directly from the site). The word “post-Christian” refers to those who don’t adhere to a Christian religious tradition, as shown by 15 indices of faith or non-faith, including church attendance and beliefs about scriptures and God.

The conclusions:

1. Secularization Is on the Rise
Nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population (38%) now qualifies as post-Christian (measured by 15 different variables related to people’s identity, beliefs and behaviors. Read more about our post-Christian metric here.). That includes 10% of Americans who qualify as highly post-Christian. Another one-quarter is moderately post-Christian (28%). Examined over time, our research shows that the proportion of highly secularized individuals is growing slowly but steadily.

In other words, in spite of our “Christian” self-descriptions, more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice. If nothing else, this helps explain why America has experienced a surge in unchurched people—and presages a continuing rise in this population. . .

2. People Are Less Open to the Idea of Church
Barna research shows that the unchurched are becoming less responsive to churches’ efforts to connect with them. . .

Twenty years ago, two-thirds of churchless Americans (65%) were open to being invited to church by a friend. Today, that percentage has slipped to less than half (47%).

It’s not only the efficacy of personal invitations that is changing. Barna’s tracking data stretching back to the 1990s reveal a slow-growing calcification of unchurched people toward churches. For every outreach method surveyed, the unchurched are less open to it today than they were two decades ago.

3. Churchgoing Is No Longer Mainstream
Churchgoing is slowly but incontrovertibly losing its role as a normative part of American life. In the 1990s, roughly one out of every seven unchurched adults had never experienced regular church attendance. Today, that percentage has increased to nearly one-quarter. Buried within these numbers are at least two important conclusions: 1) Church is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to millions of Americans, and yet 2) the churchless are still largely comprised of de-churched adults.

4. There Are Different Expectations of Church Involvement
. . . In the early 1990s, our research showed that nearly seven out of 10 adults, if they were to visit a church, would be most interested in attending the Sunday service. Today, weekend worship services remain the most common entry experience, but only slightly; now, only 57% of churchless adults say they would be interested in Sunday worship as their starting point. Today’s unchurched are more likely to say they are simply not sure, reflecting their disinterest in churches generally, or are more likely to say they would prefer attending some activity other than the Sunday service.

Finally, and most heartening:

5. There Is Skepticism about Churches’ Contributions to Society
Although many of the churchless hold positive views of churches, a substantial number also have no idea what Christians have accomplished in the nation, either for the better or for the worse. When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community, while nearly two-fifths (37%) were unable to identify a negative impact.

(Read the Barna piece for a whole lot more data.)

If religion is important not only as a belief system, but—as Sophisticated Theologians™ tell us—as a social glue, binding people together for good, it will bind only if people perceive that religion does good things for them and for society. If churches are seen as not doing much good for society, that eliminates not only a reason to be religious, but also eliminates the need for “belief in belief”, the notion that even if you’re not religious, you can promote religion as good for society.

Has this secularization led to increased immorality, as the faithful would predict? I doubt it. One sign that morality is actually on the rise is the increasing recognition of rights for gays and other minorities. It’s only a matter of time, I think, before gay marriage will be legal in every state in the Union. That would be unthinkable in a nation of diehard Christians.

h/t: Douglas ~