The Nones Become Many More

Tom Flynn

A survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in late September suggests that the “secularizing of America” that Free Inquiry readers have been eagerly anticipating, religious traditionalists have been dreading, and sociologists such as Rodney Stark have dismissed as a hoax is really taking place. Moreover, while nobody was looking, it seems to have gained enormous momentum. The title of the survey, which was partly funded by the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, reflects its explosive contents: “Exodus: Why Americans Are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back.”

Since 1990, Free Inquiry has been covering the rise of the Nones—the sustained growth in the numbers of Americans who, when asked by pollsters for their religious identification, answer “None.” Over that time, the number of U.S. adults who identify as Nones has ballooned from about 8 percent to 22.8 percent. That figure comes from 2015’s Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center.

With the “Exodus” study, the proportion of Nones has reached a new record. According to this study, Nones now make up 25 percent of all Americans. Moreover, Nones are the largest single religious or life-stance group, outnumbering Catholics at 21 percent and white evangelicals at 16 percent. Among young adults, things are even more lopsided: 39 percent of adults ages eighteen to twenty-nine are Nones, dwarfing any other religious or life-stance affiliation.

It’s important to remember that not all of the Nones are atheists or agnostics or secular humanists. Those constitute only a subset of the population claiming no religious identity, which also includes some number of believers. But the “true unbelievers” constitute a significant subset: Religion News Service reported that 13 percent of the study’s respondents self-described as atheists, a surprisingly high number.

What else does the “Exodus” study reveal? Here’s a partial list:

  • Only 18 percent of Nones call religion important in their lives.
  • Only 7 percent say they’re looking for a religion or faith community to join.
  • More than half of Nones say they are neither religious nor spiritual.
  • Only about one in five say belief in a god is necessary for morality.

Researchers Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox, Betsy Cooper, and Rachel Lienesch found that the Nones fell into one of three categories based on their answers to two broad questions: whether religion was important in their lives and whether they thought religion was socially beneficial or more harmful than good.

  • The Rejectionists (58 percent) said religion was not important in their lives and that it was harmful.
  • The Apatheists (22 percent) thought religion unimportant but not harmful.
  • The Unattached Believers saw religion as important and not harmful. In this category are found the denomination-shoppers, the spiritual “seekers,” and many (though not all) of those who believe in some kind of god. They number only 18 percent.

In other words, in the “Exodus” survey more than four-fifths of the nones are effectively atheist, agnostic, or strongly secular. No previous survey has found a larger plurality among the Nones scoring that way. And it suggests that despite recent media fascination with initiatives such as Sunday Assembly, secular humanists who disdain the trappings of church or synagogue life in their humanist gatherings apparently outnumber so-called congregational humanists and religious Humanists by a significant margin.

Perhaps the most surprising finding to emerge from the survey concerned respondents’ motives for renouncing religion. Many have assumed that, especially among the young, factors such as hidebound church teachings about homosexuality, the clergy sex-abuse scandal, traumatic life events, or too much pulpit politics drove disillusionment with faith. “Those things matter,” PRRI Research Director and study coauthor Daniel Cox told Religion News Service, “but they are dwarfed by this central idea that people no longer believe in religious teachings.”

Think about that. Six in ten respondents said the reason they became Nones was simply that they just “stopped believing” in church doctrines (See figure 1).

The news for seculars gets better yet. Historically, Nones had one of the lowest retention rates among all life-stance groups. That is, the odds were good that a person who was a None during childhood would adopt a religious identity by adulthood (See figure 2).

Today’s Nones also have a higher rate of coupling with other Nones than in the past. In the 1970s, only 37 percent of Nones reported having a spouse or partner who was another None. In the “Exodus” study, 54 percent reported having a spouse or partner who shared the respondent’s life stance.

For secular people, this study is excellent news, suggesting that nonreligious Americans are consolidating the gains of recent decades and attaining higher levels of social stability. Which is to say that as much as religious traditionalists might wish otherwise, Nones are here to stay. In fact, they may be headed toward a demographically dominant position in American society. And a comfortable plurality among them holds attitudes friendly toward stances such as naturalism, atheism, and secular humanism.

Of course, no survey of the Nones is complete without its share of weirdness. In a sample among whom only 18 percent of respondents called religion important in their lives and 53 percent declared that they were neither religious nor spiritual, almost six in ten claimed to believe in a god of some type. Twenty-two percent claimed to believe in a traditional, personal god; 37 percent believed in a god whom they envisioned as an impersonal force. Go figure!

Among all the good news, there was one cautionary note. Politically, the Nones skew more liberal than the population as a whole. But fewer Nones are registered to vote than is the case among members of many religious communities. As I write this, the presidential election hasn’t happened yet. So this worries me a great deal!

It will be intriguing to see whether future studies by other survey organizations using different methodologies find results similar to the “Exodus” study. From the high percentage of Nones to the startling number who just “stopped believing” the teachings of their childhood faith, whenever a single study places so many variables in record-setting territory, the results are best embraced with an undercurrent of caution. (Then again, the rise of the Nones since 1990 has been marked by successive studies from different survey organizations, using diverse methodologies, reporting an ever-rising proportion of Nones.) If further studies support the “Exodus” study’s findings, we can have additional confidence that we’re observing a trend, not an error or a fluke.

Finally, there is one question the “Exodus” study did not tackle: What methodology for guiding people away from a childhood faith is most effective? Why did the majority of respondents who “just stopped believing” do so? How many engaged in an intellectual process of inquiry and decided that the teachings of their church were not credible? And how many had simply drifted away from religious commitment so completely that church teachings became irrelevant? In other words, how many rejected religion’s answers, and how many instead lost interest in its questions?

We can’t blame the “Exodus” researchers for neglecting this point—until they crunched their own data, they couldn’t have known how important a variable it was. But now that this immense group who “just stopped believing” has emerged from the “Exodus” data set, the race will be on among other researchers to probe into the dynamics of this apparently huge retreat from belief.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

“Why did the majority of respondents who ‘just stopped believing’ do so?”

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