The ‘Nones’ are now the single largest group

There is a new survey out that shows the continuing growth of those people who, when asked about their religious affiliation, reply ‘None’. What is significant in that they are now the single largest self-identified group, beating out Catholics and evangelicals Protestants.

When Americans are asked to check a box indicating their religious affiliation, 28% now check ‘none.’

A new study from Pew Research finds that the religiously unaffiliated – a group comprised of atheists, agnostic and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – is now the largest cohort in the U.S. They’re more prevalent among American adults than Catholics (23%) or evangelical Protestants (24%).

Back in 2007, Nones made up just 16% of Americans, but Pew’s new survey of more than 3,300 U.S. adults shows that number has now risen dramatically.

Most Nones believe in God or another higher power, but very few attend any kind of religious service.

Note that the number of self-professed a theists and agnostics is fewer. That may be because people seek external meaning to their lives and having a deist belief in a god can satisfy that need. Also there is still some stigma attached to those two labels and saying one is so can cause friction among family members and friends, so saying “I’m not religious” may be a more comfortable way of avoiding conflicts and becomes the way of thinking of oneself.

The survey also looked at some of the characteristics of this group.

They aren’t all anti-religious. Most Nones say religion does some harm, but many also think it does some good. Most have more positive views of science than those who are religiously affiliated; however, they reject the idea that science can explain everything.

This idea that ‘science can explain everything’ is an irrelevancy. I doubt that many of the most die-hard supporter of science believe such a thing. Of course science can’t and it never will. What is correct to say is that there is no area that science cannot investigate and create theories and draw inferences about.

What about their politics?

The political power of white Evangelicals has been well-reported in recent decades, but their numbers are shrinking while the number of the more liberal Nones is on the rise.

Nones are also less civically engaged than those who identify with a religion – they’re less likely to vote. So, while they identify as Democrats, getting them to the polls on election day may prove to be a challenge.

Within the Nones, however, atheists and agnostics are more likely to be politically and civically engaged, whereas those who responded that their religion is ‘nothing in particular’ are far less likely to vote.

Pew also found that, overall, Nones are less likely to volunteer in their local communities than religiously affiliated adults.

What guides the moral thinking of the Nones?

While many people of faith say they rely on scripture, tradition and the guidance of religious leaders to make moral decisions, Pew found that Nones say they’re guided by logic or reason when making moral decisions.

“And huge numbers say the desire to avoid hurting other people factors prominently in how they think about right and wrong,” says Smith.

People of faith also say they use logic and the avoidance of harm to make decisions, but those factors are in concert with religious tradition and scripture.

What about their demographics?

Nones are young. 69% are under the age of fifty.

They’re also less racially diverse. 63% of Nones are white.

Similar studies by Pew and other groups such as the Public Religion Research Institute have found that people of color are far more likely to say religion is important in their lives.

But Smith says to keep in mind that the Nones are comprised of three distinct groups – atheists, agnostics and those who describe themselves as ‘nothing in particular.’

Nones who describe themselves are atheist or agnostic are far more likely to be white.

“People who describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular’ are more likely,” says Smith, “to be Black or Hispanic or Asian.”

At first glance, Nones appear to be evenly divided be gender. But digging deeper into the data shows that men are significantly more likely to say they’re atheist or agnostic whereas women are more likely to describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular.’

I am not surprised that people of color tend to be more reluctant to declare themselves to be atheist or agnostic because religious traditions tend to be strong in those communities and it is not easy to declare oneself to be outside the group. I recall an interview in which a gay Black atheist said that it was much harder for him to come out to his mother as an atheist than to tell her that he was gay.


  1. lanir says

    Content warning: nonspecific mention of sexual abuse of minors

    The demographics and age feel like they make some sense. I grew up Catholic and most people there were white. What the religion offered was boring and pompous rituals, some really disgusting and self-serving views like their push to outlaw birth control, and straight up awful crimes that go against everything they say they stand for. Magdalene laundries. Re-education camps for Native American populations. Hiding pedophiles and gaslighting their victims.

    The religion only really offer two positive things. Group dynamics but you can get that from any group of roughly similar size. And they have lots of variations on “God is love” and similar stuff. But while you can mostly assume that’s in a “love thy neighbor” vein, sometimes it will be more of a “love the little children by the dozens before the accusations pile up and you’re shuffled off to another parish.”

    Some of this is specifically Catholic but other religions seem to be in a similar position.

    Put all that together and where’s the appeal? A bunch of nasty evil business, a bunch of bad takes, and a handful of platitudes to try to cover it all up? The bad and evil stuff is much less hidden now when anyone can pull a phone out of their pocket and look it up on the spot.

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