“The Churchless”: Not Just Atheists

If “twenty percent” leaves you troubled—it’s doubled!
The “churchless” are very near forty percent!
It’s all in the way things are measured—so, treasured
Assumptions of culture are apt to get bent!
A third claim they’re Christians! The label’s a fable,
Cos frankly, they say it from habit, or less
They don’t go to church, and their bible is liable
To sit there, unread, like it came off the press

The atheists make up a quarter—these sort are
The skeptical types, and they’re sharp as a tack!
Some 16 percent just stopped showing—quit going
To church at one point and then never came back
The rest of them, given their druthers, are “others”
Like Muslims or Jews, or some seeker in search;
Not “godless” but “churchless”, we see them as heathen
They’ll all go to hell if they’re not in our church.

There’s a new term, including more than mere atheists, more than just heathens, but which is an important addition to our vocabulary, because someone has a new book out.

If you’re dismayed 20 percent of Americans are “nones”—people who claim no particular religious identity—brace yourself.

Try 38 percent, the figure religion researcher David Kinnaman calculates when he adds “the unchurched, the never-churched and the skeptics” to the nones.

He calls his category “churchless”—the same title Kinnaman has given his new book. By his count, roughly four in 10 people living in the continental United States are actually “post-Christian” and “essentially secular in belief and practice.”

I must admit, I am a little bit confused, though. That 38% includes some strange bedfellows:

About a third (32 percent) still identify as Christian. They say they believe in God, but they’re wobbly on connections. Kinnaman calls them “Christianized but not very active.”
• 25 percent are self-identified atheist or agnostics. Kinnaman calls them “skeptics.” And their ranks have changed in the last two decades. The percentage of women is up to 43 percent from 16 percent since 1993. Highly educated and more mainstream than before, “this group is here to stay,” he said.

• 27 percent belong to other faith groups such as Jewish or Muslim or call themselves spiritual but not religious.

• 16 percent are Christians—people with a committed relationship with Christ, Kinnaman said—who don’t go to church anymore.

32 plus 25 plus 27 plus 16… ok, that’s everybody (of the 38%). They are not all atheists, though–somewhere between fewer-than-25% (many agnostics won’t identify as atheists) to over 50% (if we arbitrarily include the “accidental atheists” from the first category), and some are explicitly and admittedly “true Christians”–others (category 3) may be every bit as devout, but in a different religion. So… what is the common denominator? They are not going to church. Some are believers, the majority claim tribal identity with Christians… so why is the “churchless” category important?

The article doesn’t actually say–it simply describes the categories. And I am not nearly cynical enough to suggest that it comes down to the fact that it is much harder to put your money in when they pass the plate.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    “He calls his category “churchless’ ”


    ” 27 percent belong to other faith groups such as Jewish or Muslim”

    Wait…so his definition of church excludes synagogues and mosques? Because I’d say Jews and Muslims have waaaaay more in common with Christians than they do with us. For that matter, they probably have more in common with Catholics than they do with Unitarians. I’m not seeing these categories.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    Clearly, if they are going to temple or mosque, they are not going to *his* church.

    Thus, “churchless”.

    Duh. I mean, really! Since his is the right one, the dichotomy makes sense.

  3. says

    It could certainly be a useful statistical group. Churches are Christian sects pass along and maintain their orthodoxy. This shows that less people are beholden to these group dogmas and are probably more likely to create their own, individualized version of Christianity than they may have done before. This means that a lot of the deeply ingrained bigotry within religions will be harder to maintain and we may find that doing things “because of my religion” becomes about the same as “because I feel like it.” Maybe the handful of conservative pastors and priests will also lose political power if their flock diminishes enough that standing up to them won’t mean being slandered by the representative of God to such a large bloc of voters.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    Michael Brew–this brings up an interesting twist. We’ve all seen various sects be very inclusive when they want to puff up their numbers (say, to show how many “Christians” there are in the armed forces), and very exclusive when disagreeing on some matter (suddenly, Catholics are not real Christians to [some] Protestants, and Protestants are those who have left the one true church, to [some] Catholics). Depending on the criteria employed, we could see the “Churchless” numbers rise to 80% or more!

  5. machintelligence says

    You may be on to something there.

    His findings reveal that the actual rate of church attendance from head counts is less than half of the 40% the pollsters report. Numbers from actual counts of people in Orthodox Christian churches (Catholic, mainline and evangelical) show that in 2004, 17.7% of the population attended a Christian church on any given weekend.

    And I’d be willing to wager that it hasn’t improved in the last decade.

  6. says

    @ Michael Brew

    create their own, individualized version of Christianity

    Actually this is inevitable given the internet. If one isn’t forced to spontaneously and absolutely bow one’s knee to the local religion monger, one can always look elsewhere for validation. You can pretty much cobble together anything from the same original god-documents.

  7. Ed says

    The practicing members of non-Christian religions certainly don’t belong in the “churchless” category which seems to in context refer to people of who have adopted a secular way of life and/ or belief system. I’m not sure I’d even count people who are likely to be only unchurched only temporarily.

    If someone professes orthodox Christian or slightly heretical but recognizably Christian-based beliefs, they may easily find their way into a church at some point soon (same goes for self-identified Muslims, Jews, etc. in the same situation, with the appropriate term for a place of worship replacing church).

    Another thing to consider is that a lot of Protestants have embraced the evangelical non-denominational identity and aren’t all that concerned with formal ties to an organization. I’ve noticed that people in that category join (or regularly visit) and quit churches fairly frequently and go through significant periods of non-attendance. I’d put non-practicing but theologically conventional Christians(or other believers) in more of a grey area.

    Someone who is “spiritual but non-religious” definitely belongs in the unchurched category because they have explicitly rejected traditional religious practices and organizations even if they are still theists of some kind.

  8. The_L says

    My father used to insist we went to Mass every Sunday. Even if we were on vacation–sometimes even while still enroute to our destination!–we would stop off at a Catholic church on Sundays for Mass. Despite having never known anyone who lives in Finley, OH, I’ve been to its Catholic church more than once. If we were set to leave on Sunday morning, we still didn’t get out of weekly Mass, because then we had to go to the one on Saturday night. (We weren’t allowed to go to Saturday night Mass, or the Sunday afternoon Mass some churches had, under any other circumstances whatsoever. It was Sunday morning, whichever service made CCD/PSR most convenient.)

    It wasn’t about the offering plate for him–he seemed deeply contemptuous of the Easter/Christmas crowd, as if one couldn’t be devout if one ever missed Mass during Ordinary Time. When (if!) he retires, he’ll probably be the weekday-Mass type.

    I, of course, hated this from the very beginning. At 5, it was because I didn’t like wearing dresses and thought 80% of the service was boring. (I liked the transubstantiation part of the Eucharistic Prayer, and loved the hymns and CCD, but the rest of Mass was pointless to me.) At 14, it was because I was starting to have nagging doubts about the whole “hope” thing in general, and Jesus in particular. (“The priest doesn’t know. None of them know. Oh god why am I thinking like this I am SO going to hell…”) In college, it was because I was pretty much churched-out.

    Even before I went Pagan, I started skipping Mass a lot in college. By the time I was finally ready to move out, the only reason I continued to go was because (at age 25) going to Mass every single Sunday was a condition of remaining in my parents’ house rent-free. An hour a week seemed a small price to pay for being able to amass a decent savings so I could Get Out.

    As the Pagan wife of a Conservative Jew with a few vaguely Reform leanings, I’ve agreed that any kids we have are going to temple on the high holy days, and that they’ll learn what their Christian grandparents believe for the purpose of surviving public school. (The school may not push a religious agenda, but the students sure as spit will!)

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