Reconsidering the rise of “No Religionists” in America

Percentage of Americans identifying with a religion (as opposed to "no religion") | ARIS/WikimediaMore and more Americans say they have no formal religious affiliation. National surveys, scholarly findings, and media coverage make that clear. Those identifying with “no religion”—often termed “nones,” “no religionists,” or the “unchurched”—jumped from 8.2 percent of the public in 1990 to just over 15 percent in 2008.

This trend causes some observers to cry out in alarm and others to rejoice. But the transition is far more complicated than a mere movement from faith to non-belief implies. For instance, increases in the number of “nones” were most dramatic in the 1990s and have slowed significantly since early in this decade. In addition, while the proportion of those professing “no religion” continues to rise, Americans seem to be praying more, and the vast majority continues to profess belief in God. The United States still remains at or near the top, by many measures, in the rankings of the most religious developed nations. In contrast, however, the single fastest growing “religious” group in America is the “no religionists.”

Yet these historic developments have not garnered enough scrutiny. The premonition of America becoming more godless is a kind of third rail for politics and churches everywhere. So, who are the individuals who with increasing regularity identify to pollsters and social scientists as having “no religion”? What do they seem to believe? And what are we to make of the implications of the rising number of “nones” in American society?

My purpose in this essay is to build on a spate of recent studies to reconsider the historical and contemporary rise of “no religionists” in America. In the following subsections I will address this in three ways: by laying out the contours of the recent developments, by posing preliminary answers to the above questions, and by exploring other perspectives related to the longer historical view.

My interpretations are greatly indebted to the earlier and current work of superb scholars. Several recent analyses shed significant light on the subject of this essay: Barry A. Kosmin and Ariel Keysar’s exceptional “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population” [pdf], Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer’s outstanding “Unchurched Believers: Political Tension and Generational Succession,” and Tom Smith’s impressive “Religious Change around the World” [pdf]. All three studies present a great deal of data and their own (sometimes conflicting) explanations. Nevertheless—as the organizers of this discussion have rightly noted—despite a plethora of data and opinions, our knowledge of the actual contours and of the potential impact on public life of the “no religionists” remains nebulous and speculative. These three reports, however, are an excellent place to start our exploration of this topic, and I will draw on them throughout my analysis. If you are interested in more detail, see the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) and the General Social Survey, as well as various local and national media polls and professional surveys.

I. Demographic Profiles

Who are the “no religionists”? They are a heterogeneous group, and more so than in the past. The category includes those identifying as atheists, agnostics, humanists, seculars, or simply as having no formal religion. This group also represents a vast array of beliefs and comprises members of every ethnic, regional, urban/rural, educational, socio-economic, and generational demographic category.

A few commonalities do emerge, however. “No religionists” tend to live in the West or in New England.  They are often younger Americans. The single largest bloc is comprised of young males; nearly one quarter of all men between 18 and 34 identify as having “no religion.” Indeed, “no religionists” are five years younger on average than the aggregate adult American public. As Kosmin and Keysar note, “Whereas Nones are presently 15% of the total adult U.S. population, 22% of Americans aged 18-29 years self-indentify as Nones.” One peculiar characteristic about the group is its significant gender imbalance. As of 2008, 60 percent of no religionists were male (while only 49 percent of the population as a whole was male).

In terms of race, the “no religion” collective is similar to the population at large, although it skews white. Self-identified “white” Americans tend to be more likely to claim “no religion” than other ethnicities, while those who identify as “African-American” tend to be less so. As of 1990 the racial breakdown of “nones” was as follows: 80 percent white, 10 percent African-American, 6 percent Asian, and 4 percent Hispanic.  In 2008 the “nones” group was 72 percent white, 8 percent African-American, 12 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, and 5 percent other. Perhaps surprisingly, 33 percent of “nones” identify as of Irish ancestry (a section of the report by Kosmin and Keysar is devoted to this subject).

Plurality of religious preference by state | ARIS/WikimediaThe most dramatic change in the racial breakdown of “no religionists” since 1990 has been highlighted widely. In 1990, self-defined “Hispanics” constituted 6 percent of U.S. adults, while only 4 percent of them identified as having “no religion.” By 2008 self-defined “Hispanics” had doubled their percentage of the U.S. population to 13 percent and tripled their proportion among no religionists. As Kosmin and Keysar observe, this eighteen year trend demonstrates that “Hispanics are not only the fastest growing racial group in America in general, but are the fastest-growing minority group among Nones.” Indeed, because so many Hispanic-Americans are Catholic, if there is a connection between the explosive growth of Hispanics in the population and increasing movement away from Catholicism, then the implications are significant for the future of the Catholic church in America. As of 2008, Catholics, in fact, continue to switch from their religious affiliation to “none” status in large numbers and 35 percent of “nones” are former Catholics, the most by far of any “switching” group. So, if Hispanic Catholics continue this trend their ranks may help to swell the numbers of “non religionists.” (For more detail on this, see Kosmin and Keysar.)

Contrary to one persistent assumption, higher education is not strongly correlated to a “no religion” affiliation. While there are still more university graduates who are “nones” than there are in the overall population, the gap has narrowed significantly. In 2008 31 percent of “no religionists” had college or advanced degrees, compared with 26 percent of the overall adult population with college or higher educational attainment levels.

Another finding contravenes the public caricature of “nones” as individuals who express “no religion” is that they are bold atheists who espouse such clearly defined views as “God is dead” or “there is no God.” In contrast, fully 45 percent of the group “strongly agree” that God exists and another 22 percent “somewhat agree” with that proposition. Overall, more than 50 percent of “nones” count themselves, or have been classified by social scientists, as either “deists” or “theists.” Thus, the relation of “no religionists” to certain recognizable forms of religious belief is more complex and perhaps closer than it might at first appear, but remains far from the traditional formula for organized religious belief and practice.

To sum up, these “no religionists” are an expanding demographic, particularly among the young. They will likely have a powerful influence on politics and society in the near future, given their estimated growth to as much as 25 percent of the American population within another two decades. Ultimately, other than modest regional, age, and gender imbalances, and a skewed racial distribution, this group is basically no different from America’s aggregate population in terms of socioeconomic standing, education, and a wide range of behaviors and opinions.

II. Origins and Trajectories

Where did the “no religionists” come from? How has “no religion” changed over time?

As an historian considering the latest reported increases in the numbers of no religionists, I must add that there is much excellent scholarship regarding the rise of alternative religions, secular thought, and predictions of godlessness in America. Here I dramatically abbreviate this work. Stipulating that we have little reliable long-term survey data and limited source bases regarding personal religious beliefs by which to benchmark the apparent novelty of recent developments, I nevertheless believe we can establish a few baselines to make sense of the developments over at least the past half-century.

Census and government-compiled information (particularly the off-year Census of Religious Bodies, or CRB) forms an excellent empirical resource for discerning longer trends in the religious affiliations of Americans. This data is imperfect and the best of it derives from the post-WWII period. Sources support the conjecture that earlier in the twentieth century more coherent and influential denominational and community-religious structures in public life combined with a sense of cultural conformity to religious norms to undercut the reporting of “no religion.” In turn, these cultural factors appear to have contributed to respondents assenting to be measured by denomination (e.g., Southern Baptist) or faith (e.g., Catholic). These forces seem to have persisted with overwhelming influence at least through the 1960s, when societal changes lifted some barriers to explicitly expressing a “no religion” preference, which coincided with new social scientific scholarship on questions of religious identity and the effects of cultural liberalization.

Historical data, while incomplete, suggest tantalizing similarities to current demographic patterns. Younger men, for example, have been and continue to be the most likely to report “no religion.” This was anecdotally true in nineteenth century American accounts of heretics, unbelievers, and freethinkers; it certainly has been confirmed since social scientists and pollsters began to ask the question of religious affiliation. One interesting, if unanswerable, question is whether many in the current generation of “nones” will “find” religion as they age.

The best historical example of earlier polling of “no religionists” arose in the process of testing an explicit religion question for the 1960 national census. A 1957 nationwide survey to test religion questions was undertaken by Robert Burgess, director of the Bureau of the Census, and demographer Conrad Taeuber. The poll found that 2.7 percent of respondents expressed “no religion” (75 percent of whom were men), while another 1 percent did not reply to the question.  After a substantial battle waged by religious as well as secular groups, no such question was placed on the national census and, as historian Kevin Schultz has shown, the 1960 census was the last time there was a serious debate over measuring religion on a national basis via the census. (For more, see Kevin Schultz’s “Religion as Identity in Postwar America: The Last Serious Attempt to Put a Question on Religion in the United States Census” in the Journal of American History [sub. req.].)

Overall, a look at the longer view from 1957 to the present reveals the more modest—and more recent—character of the trend toward “none” status. From 1957 to 2008 the total increase was 13 percent of “no religionists” in the adult American population. The most significant historical upsurge, however, occurred since the mid-1980s (from 7 to 15 percent of the population). In total numbers this group made enormous recent gains: it comprised roughly 14.3 million Americans in 1990 and stood at over 34 million by 2008. (See both Hout and Fischer and Kosmin and Keysar for additional analysis of this data and the trends since the 1990s; see especially Smith on these transformations in a global perspective.) Although future increases are likely to continue at a slower pace, the underlying trend appears stable; yet it also depends on deep cultural transitions that are difficult to discern with analytical precision though they clearly have laid the intellectual groundwork for individuals to publicly reject formal religion in ways that previously were virtually unthinkable.

III. Categories and Labels

Now let us consider terminology. Shall we call this group the “unchurched,” the “nones,” or the “no religionists”? Or something else altogether? Each of the terms obscures at least as much as it illuminates.

To classify individuals who state “no religion” status as “unchurched” implies that they were or could become “churched” and that they are only temporarily without a “church” affiliation. Since the surveys reveal that most of this group considers their current status unchanging and many of those less than fifty years of age claim that they were raised by parents who were not religious (32 percent of “nones” identified as such at age 12), to call them “unchurched” is to adhere to an a priori binary understanding of faith as either “churched” or “un-churched.” Judging by the ambiguity of their stance toward religious belief and institutional affiliation, it would seem that those reporting in this way do not want to assent to a church-centric model of faith.

In addition, and without pushing the point too far, properly pluralist or ecumenical language would dictate that in the very least we consider “un-synogogued” and “un-mosqued” among other possible formulations of this nomenclature. We should be far more cognizant of the myriad attendant concerns related to which faith or faiths should be the terminological de facto alternative in American religious life. When possible I believe faith-neutral language should be selected. Given all of these problems, I find “unchurched” to be the most problematic of the terms.

“Nones” is shorthand for “no religionists,” so I shall treat them together. The central conceptual problem with the terms “nones” and “no religionists” is similar to that with “unchurched.” In this case, it is misleading because it homogenizes a diverse group and implies a concordance of opinion when, in fact, there is little such uniformity. It implies that all “no religionists” share a negative belief, that is, their “no religion.” Such an assumption or implication is patently false, as survey after survey has shown that most “nones” do believe in God or at least consider themselves “spiritual” without being “religious.” In some ways their religious differences divide them as much as unite them, given that the category covers a belief spectrum that ranges from deist to humanist, from agnostic to theist, and including atheists. Still, if we must lump this group under some rubric, “no religionists” works passably well.

Furthermore, something else is at work here beyond mere “non-belief.” Hout and Fischer hit the conceptual nail on the head when they observe that the “combination of affiliation and unbelief used to be quite common, but is far less so these days.” To this they add a temporal comparison: in the “early 1970s 20 percent of American adults had a religious preference but did not believe in life after death; in 2006 and 2008 this figure was 12 percent.” [See Hout and Fischer’s “Unchurched Believers.”] Developments have outstripped our categories. A new hybrid has emerged in which individuals declare no formal religious affiliation, but adhere to some (or mixed) spiritual beliefs.

This brief critique of our current labels reveals a more subtle flaw in our epistemology. Namely, many of our contemporary modes of analyzing religious engagement confound traditional understandings of the nexus of belief, practice, and identity. Religious change is a complex and variegated phenomenon for which simple explanations and descriptions such as “secularization” and “believing without belonging” are inadequate. In short, scholars and citizens need a clearer lens to examine and understand the beliefs that approximately 34 million Americans hold. How do we designate the group of people who are spiritual in certain and richly varied ways, but do not adhere to organized or other recognized formal (or even informal) religious faiths? The old categories and binaries that pit belief versus unbelief in a zero-sum game get in the way of making sense of these recent trends and what I see as the Jamesian pluralities of religious experience thriving in America today. I leave explicit theorizing for another time and welcome thoughts on better terms for and methods of interpreting the data.