Categorizing the ‘nones’ and why their numbers are rising

The rise in the number of people who self-identify as not being affiliated with any religion, popularly referred to as ‘nones’, is now a well-reported story. Richard Flory has been researching this phenomenon and has written an article based on his findings and says that the reasons for the rise are more complex than just the increasing secularization of society.

First off, what the people who self-identify as a none mean by the term is quite varied.

For example, in the course of interviewing many nones for our current research project on innovative religious and irreligious groups, we are finding that, for some, religion has no place in their lives; others may be marginally interested in religion but rarely if ever attend services. This group claims that religion still has some relevance in their lives.

Some others attend religious services on occasion, are generally open to the idea of the supernatural and believe in God or a higher power. However, they do not identify either as religious or following any particular religious tradition.

Still others say that they are “spiritual but not religious,” and there are those who dismiss the whole idea of “spiritual but not religious” yet maintain some religious and spiritual beliefs and practices.

We also talked to individuals who occasionally attend services, pray and meditate, but don’t think of these things as having any particular religious or spiritual content. In one of my interviews with a young woman, I asked whether religion had any relevance in her life, and she said,

“A little bit, maybe five percent.”

So what is moving them away from affiliating with institutional religions?

First, traditional authority structures, including religious ones, have been flattened through access to knowledge. As a result, everyone and no one is an authority, which reduces the need for traditional authorities of any sort. One pastor I interviewed told me that during Sunday services, her parishioners regularly fact-checked her sermons on their smartphones, rather than simply accepting what she said.

Second, fewer Americans view important social institutions – such as religious organizations, corporations and government – as having a positive impact in society.

Third, religion has a bad brand. From sex scandals across different religious traditions to the increasing association between evangelical Christianity and the political right, religion per se has taken a beating.

Fourth, increasing competition for people’s attention from work, family responsibilities, social media and other activities means that religion loses out to more pressing commitments.

Finally, personal choice is a bedrock feature of American culture. Individuals choose professional affiliations, diets, club memberships and myriad other associations, with religion being one more affiliation that is “chosen” by adherents. Many young adults have been raised by parents who have encouraged them to make up their own mind about religion, resulting in their choosing “none of the above” as they think about whether they want to affiliate or be identified with any religious tradition.

I was amused by the first item in which parishioners fact-checked sermons in real time. That should actually be viewed as a good thing by the pastor in that it shows that people are paying attention and not distracted or daydreaming. As a teacher and former lay preacher, I would be delighted if my students and congregation were following me that closely.

As to the last point, I have noticed that of the younger generation that I know personally who are in their 20s and 30s, the children of family and friends or friends of my children, almost none of them are affiliated with religion. Of course, this group forms a very narrow spectrum of socio-economic class of people like me, but I still think it is remarkable since when I was that age, almost all of my friends (and myself) self-identified as religiously affiliated.

The nones are seeking different avenues for the kinds of volunteering and social activism that religious institutions can provide. But politically they still remain a marginal force representing just 15% of the electorate compared with 52% who are Protestant, 26% who are white evangelicals, and 23% who are Catholic. And of course, they are a lot less vocal than those religious groups and less of a cohesive organized political force, as can be seen from the fact that only one member of Congress has self-identified as having no religion. We may suspect that there are more closeted nones among elected representatives but the fact that they choose to remain hidden is a telling sign that religion is still a dominant power in US politics.


  1. jrkrideau says

    I admit I found Obama’s conversion to whatever it was looked more like a political move than “true” belief. Probably a lot of Americans are the same. Atheists probably don’t get elected to the US presidency. Pity.

    I live in Canada. I was talking to a visitor from Baltimore (I think) who was here to visit his American mother and American step-father who had been transfered to a new post. IIRC, his step-father said it was the first place he’d ever lived where no one asked what church he attended.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    It seems to me that a lot of these surveys look at practices, rather than beliefs. I wonder whether or not they would even pick up someone like me. I’m still a closeted atheist to most of my family, so even though I don’t believe in any sort of deity, I am still a regular churchgoer due to family commitments that seem important to me.

  3. busterggi says

    Loss of membership started killing social organizations a few decades ago when being a Rotarian or Kiwanisian stopped meaning anything to most baby boomers who had other ways to socialize. Now that many are recognizing the threat of eternal damnation is BS its not surprising that religions are also declining.

  4. Brian English says

    This probably makes no sense, and I’m loath to seem to support religion, so don’t take this as support of religion.
    The atomisation or individualisation of society by the globalism or whatever it is where all you need is to purchase something and post a snapchat or status update seems now to be ersatz community, and religion was once one of the few sources of community. It seems to me that part of the explanation is that we’ve deliberately had society broken up, trade unions are moribund, political parties hollowed out and run by professionals. We’re marketed too, and sold too as individuals because that benefits the powers that be, and that includes politicians who can sway a divided, inchoate society.
    But that might only be a minor part of the explanation. I’m not offering it as an alternative, but addition to the above explanations.

  5. Brian English says

    Wow, I’ve used too in place of to twice. Need more coffee! Although it almost makes sense with too, almost…

  6. John Morales says

    Brian English, it’s certainly a factor, but again you’re discussing institutional religion.

    (The religious impulse is not beholden to that, it may well be personal and idiosyncratic)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *