Something incredible has been happening in the United States in the past twenty or so years: the number of adults who reject religion is skyrocketing. Such a radical shift toward a naturalistic worldview can substantially change U.S. politics, and therefore policy, for the better. But that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. Nonreligious Americans are still punching well below their weight at the polls. As the nonreligious population grows, it also becomes more diverse and therefore more challenging to organize. It will take a sophisticated message to reach this expanding demographic.
According to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), in 1977 a mere 6 percent of the U.S. adult population was religiously unaffiliated (often referred to as the Nones). This figure held steadily under 10 percent until 1996, when the percentage of Nones rose to 12 percent, beginning a fantastic rise that continues today. The most recent GSS data, collected in 2018, show that the Nones have, at long last, become the largest “religious” bloc in the United States.
Yet, these rejecters of religion aren’t showing up at the polls relative to their share of the population. That’s a shame, because a voting bloc of Nones could influence U.S. policy for the greater good. Of any religious demographic, Nones place the most emphasis on fairness, inclusion, compassion, and evidence-based policy that works for everyone.
For example, a 2018 Pew survey found that by huge margins, Nones are the “religious” demographic most likely to agree with statements such as, “the growing number of newcomers from other countries strengthens American society,” “our country needs to continue making changes to give black people equal rights with whites,” and “when it comes to giving women equal rights with men, the country has not gone far enough.” A powerful secular voting bloc would do more than merely remove religion’s influence from government. It would replace that influence with governance that is better for all Americans, including the religious.
I know I’m not the only one salivating at the prospect of a truly secular United States where our constitutional separation of church and state is fully upheld and religion can’t be used as a weapon to harm people. But how do we get there from here? It’s a timely question, because for many Americans, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Consider cases in which pregnant women suffer life-threatening complications and are denied an emergency abortion because it offends someone’s “religious conscience.” It’s a tragic fact that, in some countries, women in this circumstance have already been allowed to die. For example, in Ireland, Dr. Savita Halappanavar was killed by religious privilege when the state’s Eighth Amendment forbade the abortion that would have saved her after she miscarried in 2012. In another example, in Paraguay a ten-year-old girl was denied an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. In 2015, the state refused her mother’s administrative request despite the grave health risks associated with childbirth at such a young age. According to the World Health Organization, adolescent mothers are at greater risk of maternal death, eclampsia, puerperal endometritis, and systemic infections. In addition, their newborn children are at increased risk of low birthweight, preterm delivery, and severe neonatal conditions.
Systematic religious discrimination threatens the health and safety of other groups too. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that a 2017 Pew survey found that 84 percent of white evangelicals believe that gender is assigned at birth. Biblical references are often used to justify this belief. For example, evangelical theologian and blogger Kevin DeYoung has argued from Genesis that God chooses our gender at birth. In fairness, Nones should not escape scrutiny here, as 37 percent also reported a belief that gender is assigned at birth. Both figures are unacceptable, because belief in this myth fuels incredible hostility toward transgender people, especially youth, who are subjected to bullying, harassment, family rejection, and violence. As a result, the risk of suicide for LGBTQ youth remains tragically high. An October 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 50.8 percent of transgender boys reported a suicide attempt.
Organized Christian Nationalism Is a Growing Threat
An increasingly well-organized coalition of Christian nationalism seeks to impose its religion on the United States through a comprehensive effort targeting all three branches of government.
In the executive branch, Christian nationalist policymaking is guided by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which in 2017 issued a memo directing all other federal agencies to categorically privilege religious discrimination. Already, the Department of Health and Human Services has issued new regulations that allow health care providers and associated entities to deny potentially lifesaving treatment and to discriminate in hiring against LGBTQ people, women, the unmarried, nonbelievers, and whoever else they please. Other agencies are likely to follow suit with regulations of their own.
In the legislative branch, bills flood into Congress that would explicitly associate the U.S. government with Christianity, carve unique religious exemptions from hard-won civil rights protections, and allow tax-exempt churches to accept billions of dollars in dark money while directly intervening in our elections.
In judicial affairs, Supreme Court decisions in cases such as Trinity Lutheran, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and Trump v. Hawaii are being used to justify religiously motivated government policies and government funding of religious activities.
A strong voting bloc that rejects religion could go a considerable way toward combating these attacks on the separation of church and state.
Who Are the Nones?
Because religion is such a complex social, political, and cultural phenomenon, defining the Nones can be tricky. Religious demographics can be measured in at least two different ways: by nominal affiliation to a religious denomination or by the prominence of religious beliefs and practices in one’s life. In truth, both measures are needed to properly capture the religious diversity of a population because these values don’t always overlap. For example, according to the Pew Research Center in 2018, despite the Vatican’s unflinching opposition to abortion in any circumstance, 51 percent of self-identified Catholics agreed that abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Likewise, not all people who oppose abortion on religious grounds identify as Catholic or even as Christian.
Most survey data measure religious affiliation. In these surveys, respondents are asked if they identify with a religious title such as Evangelical, Catholic, or None. Such surveys clearly show a rapid rise in the percentage of Nones since the mid-1990s.
A few surveys instead measure the character of respondents’ religious beliefs. For example, in a 2018 survey, Pew used statistical analysis to identify patterns in respondents’ religious belief and practice (“typologies”). Using this method, Pew identified seven religious typologies into which most Americans fall. Of these seven, two typologies are explicitly nonreligious. These two nonreligious typologies, which account for 29 percent of Pew’s respondents, do not subscribe to religious beliefs or practices.
One of these nonreligious typologies, which Pew labeled “Religion Resisters,” describes people who reject the god of the Bible and think that organized religion does more harm than good. Nevertheless, many Religion Resisters are open to the possibility of an unspecified higher power, and some subscribe to New Age beliefs such as astrology. This surprised me because so many nonreligious people pride themselves on their fact-based worldview, but it goes to show that there is more than one way to be nonreligious.
The other typology, “Solidly Secular,” describes people with a rigidly empirical worldview. The Solidly Seculars hold virtually no religious or New Age beliefs. Almost all Solidly Seculars reject astrology, psychics, “spiritual energy,” and reincarnation.
So depending on how you ask the question, around 23–29 percent of U.S. adults are nonreligious. And as I mentioned above, Nones are the religious demographic most likely to support government policies that stand up for everyday people against powerful forces of oppression and bigotry.
By looking closely at the data, we can tell quite a bit more about the Nones than just their percentage of the population. When we examine this data, some implications reveal themselves for the way forward in building a strong electoral bloc of Nones.
For one thing, the generational gap in the respective percentage of Nones is getting wider. In 1986, the percentage of those unaffiliated among adults ages eighteen to twenty-nine was separated by a seven-point differential from that of adults over sixty-five: the unaffiliated were 10 percent of adults ages eighteen to twenty-nine and a mere 3 percent of adults over sixty-five. By 2016, this differential increased to twenty-six points as the percentage of young Nones surged to 39 percent while the percentage of Nones over sixty-five increased only ten points to 13 percent. Since older Americans are already more likely to vote than younger ones, secular voter organization will largely be about reaching young people.
We can also confirm that, as with religious people, the affiliations and beliefs of Nones do not completely overlap. Even among the Solidly Seculars, there are people who hold no religious beliefs and yet maintain a religious affiliation. You may be familiar with the concept of “cultural Judaism” in which many self-identified Jews no longer believe Jewish theology but retain a strong attachment to the practices, rituals, and values on which they were raised. As it turns out, there are cultural Christians too. Nine percent of Solidly Seculars identify as Catholic, 8 percent as other faiths, 4 percent as mainline Protestants, and 2 percent as evangelicals. Of course, the vast majority of Solidly Seculars, 76 percent, remain unaffiliated. Nevertheless, we’ll need to be sensitive to these distinctions as we seek to expand our ranks.
Nones: Diverse but Also Kind of Homogenous
We can go deeper still. Pew chopped up their religious typology data to see how the typologies overlay on other important demographics. Perusing the crosstabs, one can’t help but notice that Solidly Seculars were the most white, male, educated, and affluent of any typology. Pew gave titles to their data tables such as “Eight-in-ten Solidly Secular Americans are white” (79 percent, while other typologies range from 67–43 percent), “Nearly half of Solidly Seculars earn more than $75,000” (specifically, 46 percent of us, while other typologies range from 33–11 percent), and “Solidly Seculars are the only majority-male group” (This is a slight misstatement from Pew—53 percent of the “Relaxed Religious” are male, but at 65 percent, the Solidly Secular are nearly two-thirds male). As a Solidly Secular straight white man who is mindful that the facts don’t care about my feelings, I must admit that these statistics are not especially promising for increasing the Nones’s share of the electorate. White, college-educated, affluent men already tend toward the highest voter participation of any demographic. There’s not that much electoral juice left to squeeze from us.
Meanwhile, the U.S. electorate becomes more diverse with each passing year. In addition, younger generations are diversifying more rapidly than elder ones. If we’re serious about helping Nones find their voice in the electorate, a much more diverse group of nonbelievers will need to take our mantle as today’s Solidly Seculars age out of it. Besides, a narrow emphasis on the interests of today’s Solidly Seculars would obscure much of the dynamism and experiential insight that the rising Nones can offer in the years ahead.
What Do We Do Now?
The diversity of today’s Nones shows that a successful mobilization will be achieved through broad appeals rather than narrow ones.
In the past, secular activism has sometimes found success in creating controversy: ridiculing believers of religious myths; confronting believers with blasphemy; holding debates that never seem to resolve the questions at hand. While those tactics still have their place, a secular politics of resentment and contrarianism won’t drive more Nones to the ballot box. Instead, we’ll need to embrace the better angels of our nature. We’ll need to help Nones from all walks of life feel comfortable and welcome as a part of this group. To begin that process, we’ll need to ask them what they value. Let’s show Nones on the fence that we value perspective over pedantry.
As a rapidly expanding population, Nones will need to answer many questions like this before we can realize our full electoral potential. As the share of nonreligious Americans grows, we’ll inevitably become less and less homogeneous. The secular movement can best take advantage of this trend by rolling out the welcome mat. While Christian nationalists define themselves through a holy struggle against the rest of society, let us define ourselves as supporters of freedom and equality for everyone. Let us take that mantle.