In the various demographic posts I’ve done I’ve mentioned that the significant change since the mid-90’s in American religious makeup is the rise of the Nones. This is a group that not only includes atheists and agnostics but also those somewhat religious but turned off from organized religion. My sense, perhaps incorrect, is that were we to include those people who are Protestants, Catholics or other sects but who know little about their faith and rarely participate that the size of the Nones would be significantly higher. According to Pew only about half of those who seldom or never attend religious ceremonies self-identify with a particular religious affiliation. This is a drop of 10 points from 2002 to 2012. As Pew notes, “Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.”
With regards to Mormons it’s hard to know how many of those who leave Mormonism move into the Nones. That’s partially due to the very nature of Mormonism such that there are numerous converts. While I don’t know the exact statistics it’s usually thought that the majority of these converts don’t stay within Mormonism for long. A better figure are those raised Mormon. Most studies put Mormon retention of raised members between 64% and 72%. Of those approximately 30% who leave Mormonism Pew has about half (14% of total) joining the Nones. So about 14% of Mormon end up joining the Nones, ignoring those long term converts who choose to leave. I’m not sure it’s fair to count recent converts who don’t stay in Mormonism as leaving Mormonism in any strong sense.1 However people who’ve been a member for over eight years who leave do seem more significant. I’ve just not seen any statistics on this group. I’d expect the rates to be below the retention of raised members simply due to the changes that happen in ones early 20’s in terms of forming ones own beliefs and identity. That’s just a guess though.
As I’ve noted before, the rise of the Nones is very much a generational shift. For my generation of the 90’s about 20% are not affiliated. More significantly this isn’t changing with time, unlike past generations. With each newer generation religious affiliation is significantly reduced. If Mormons continue to be affected by the shift to the Nones along with other Christians we should expect that the rate of 14% shifting to the Nones will increase.
The Nones should really be broken up into those who are secular and those somewhat religious but who are in flux. Those in flux are sometimes called liminals from the anthropological term when people are in the middle stage of rituals – no longer the uninitiated yet not having the status of those who’ve completed their rituals. I think the term applies not because of the parallel to ritual but due to their having an ambiguous place and not yet assimilated socially. Whether the term is appropriate or not (and it seems a tad dismissive to me) many of those among the Nones really aren’t secular in a normal sense. They are people who likely would have identified with religion in the past but now don’t feel the need. Most of this group likely were always somewhat nominal in their religious associations.
What’s causing this change? Phil Zuckerman at Psychology Today suggested several reasons.
What is causing this recent growth of irreligion? A variety of factors are working simultaneously: a backlash against the religious right (many Americans are rejecting the identity of “Christian” because they don’t want to be associated with the likes of Ann Coulter, Michelle Bachman, or Phil Robertson), a backlash against the pedophile priests scandal within the Catholic church (many American Catholics have become ex-Catholics as the extent of the criminal activities have become widely publicized), a result of more women working outside of the home and functioning as primary household breadwinners (women tend to be the purveyors of religion in most homes, and so when they go off to work in significant numbers, religion starts to fade), the delaying of marriage and having of children (both life cycle events are correlated with increased religious involvement, so as they are postponed, religiosity suffers), the popularity of numerous television shows that are flippantly critical of religion (think Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, “South Park,” “Family Guy,” “House,” etc.) and finally, the ubiquity of the internet (no single technology so clearly increases individualism, and individualism and secularization go hand in hand).
Pew in their study on the Nones listed several possibilities as well. They note that while affiliation has changed, the number who say prayer is important is about the same now as 25 years ago at 76%. Those who say religion is important (58%) is about the same in 2012 as 2007. The big difference is a change in those who doubt the existence of God. (88% never doubt in 1987 with only 80% in 2012 – with the drop mainly coming after 9/11. Those who identify with the Nones at significant rates say religious organizations are too focused on money and power (70%), focus too much on rules (67%), are too involved with politics (67%). Surprisingly they do think religious organizations bring people together and strengthen community bonds (78%) and play an important part in helping the poor and needy (77%). Only half the of unaffiliated say that organized religion protects and strengthens morality. Most significantly only 10% of the unaffiliated are looking for a religion. These are not religious seekers just unwilling to associate with any particular religion as yet.
Their theories for causes are thus political backlash due to social conservative activism. The authors of American Grace take this position as one cause as well. Undoubtedly social issues like gay rights are, as they note, a large part of this. Marriage delay and decline is an other issue. It’s well noted that after marriage and especially upon having children people at a minimum think about religion more. How much of this is correlation versus causation isn’t clear to me. i.e. are those religious more apt to marry or does marriage make people more religious? I suspect that in part the rise of singleness – especially among men – is tied to the shift away from religion. Pew also notes that the rise of the Nones is “just one manifestation of much broader social disengagement.” Only 28% of the unaffiliated say it’s important to belong to a community that shares their belief as compared to 48% of the population at large. It’s interesting that of those most active religiously they are also most likely to be involved in volunteer or community groups including sports, arts and hobbies. Finally there is the rise of secularization which is what most blame.
An other thing to keep in mind is that one shouldn’t assume that the identity of the Nones is the same over time. That is the Nones captured in these studies is an aggregate group. Much like the 1% in economics whose actual makeup shifts with time, the makeup of the Nones is rather frothy. Most of the Nones were raised in religious homes for instance (American Grace, 147) ¾ of Nones had religiously engaged parents. Further Nones appear to shift in and out of self-identifying as Nones.
As I’ve noted I think people attribute secularization as the major cause of the rise of the Nones and the decline among the religious too much. Certainly it’s understandable given the trends in Europe after the war and certainly after the social upheaval of the late 60’s. It makes sense that the United States may follow Europe and these trends were merely delayed in coming to the United States. I think, however, that many simply treat any movement from formal religion as secular. I think Pew and ARIS have done a good job showing that things are much more complex.
According to Pew only 5% of the population say they don’t believe in God or an universal spirit but of that 5% only 24% are actually willing to call themselves atheists (with 15% saying agnostic). Now I’ve often noted that in terms of content the line between deist, liberal theist, atheist and agnostic is exceedingly blurry. What term a person chooses doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot about overall trends beyond naming trends.
Even figuring out what secular means isn’t exactly clear to me. If only because of fuzzy concepts I tend to try and avoid playing the secular card too much.2 It does seem clear though that each generation sees religion as less important than the generation before. I’d be shocked if over the next 10 years we don’t see the Nones increase further in size. The big question is whether Mormon retention will remain about the same with around 15% joining the Nones or if we see more leaving Mormonism. While the Nones are increasing the rate of increase has slowed with the past generation. It may be that the changes due to social shifts with the internet, delaying marriage, and having fewer children have largely happened. If this was an adjustment to a new equilibrium we should see that in the next ARIS report.
From the above I think we can form three tentative conclusions. First a significant portion of the Nones are people who were only nominally associated with the religion they left. That is they were always much more members in name only. Second a lot of the Nones shift in and out of religious identification even if their actual behaviors don’t change. Finally while nominally associated with any particular religious tradition this doesn’t mean they have no religious beliefs or practices. A large portion simply form a middle ground between the very religious and the very irreligious. It’s thus fair to say that much of the rise of the Nones is less a shift in religious practice or makeup than a shift in religious identification or self-naming.
In a subsequent post I’ll examine the portion that really are shifting in a more substantial fashion.
Edit: The version of this post that originally posted was an earlier draft form rather than the completed post. My apologies if you initially read that version.
- While I don’t have contemporary statistics some studies published in the 90’s suggest over half go inactive and most of those within the first 8 months. ↩
- After all there are many who are quite religious but see religion as more private and think public society should be “secular.” Are these secularists? The terminology can get confusing fast. I think it more helpful to just ask what role religion plays in people’s personal and public lives. ↩