'Nones' Rising: One in Five U.S. Adults Have No Religious Ties

October 11, 2012

By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources
General Board of Discipleship (GBOD)

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has issued its latest study on religious affiliation in the United States, and the findings are sobering. From 2007-2012, the percentage of people who claim no religious affiliation has risen by 30.7%, from 15% to 19.6% of the populations surveyed. That is a massive increase in non-affiliation in so short a period of time.
 
Meanwhile, from the same report, we find declines across the board in the rate of self-declared Christians (5% point loss), including, as hardest hit, predominantly white mainline Protestants (3% point loss) and white evangelical Protestants (2% point loss). Also on the losing end are Roman Catholics (1% loss). Mormons, African American Protestants, and Hispanic churches were generally stable, although when separated out by African American individuals, there was actually 2% point loss there as well (from 13% to 15% non-affiliated). The Orthodox were also stable, but their numbers are so low that they fall within the limits of the statistical error of the sample. Other religions (not other Christian-related denominations) together grew by 2% points.
 
But the fastest-growing group, by far, are those who claim no religious affiliation. And here the picture gets bleaker for religious groups in the US. 74% of the "Nones" had been raised with some religious affiliation, and a full 88% of the "Nones" are not "looking for a religion that would be right for" them. In other words, these aren't folks we "haven't reached yet." They are, by and large, folks we actually raised and who now don't care to have anything to do with us or any other religion.
 
This, in spite of all kinds of efforts during these past five years by many Christian denominations and movements to make their congregations healthier or more appealing in some way, or create a new worship service that targets this particular market niche, or to reposition their brand identity in the "religious marketplace."
 
And it might be a bit disingenuous to blame the economy. After all, really bad economic times or other significant crises are generally associated with increases in religious affiliation, not religious disaffiliation!
 
What's Causing This?
 
The full report from Pew includes four "leading theories" for this rise in folks walking away, along with an assessment of whether each of them is validated and to what degree by the datasets behind this report. They include political backlash (primarily against the "Christian/religious right"), the increasing average age of (first) marriage, the "Bowling Alone" effect, and the predictable outcomes of the global process of secularization (full report, pages 29-32).
 
Of these, the Pew data seemed to support both political backlash and the "Bowling Alone" effect, but did not correlate well with either the increased age of marriage or global secularization models. On political backlash, the vast majority of "Nones" tend to lean "leftward" on social issues where religious organizations tend to lean "rightward." "Nones" also skew significantly more Democrat in voter registrations than most religious organizations do (most skewing Republican). On the "Bowling Alone" effect, only 28% of the Nones indicated it was highly important to them to be part of a group of people outside their immediate circle of friends with whom they shared common values or worked for some common good, compared with 49% of the overall US population.
 
So, not only did we raise the Nones, and not only do they not want to be part of a religious organization now, they actually don't value being part of any social organization all that much.
 
So, What Now?
 
I think we know what our tendencies have been. We see reports like this, and then we decide we need to "reposition ourselves" again so we're "reaching" these folks better than we had in the past.
 
That might be a reasonable strategy were in not for one thing. These folks are us, for the most part! They know us. They've left us. They have very little interest in coming back.
 
I'm not saying we write them off. By no means.
 
But what if, instead of focusing on reclaiming those we're losing-- rapidly-- what if we focus on making it less likely we lose them in the first place?
 
And what if the losses we're seeing now at an ever-escalating rate may be the direct result of failing to live and pass on a compelling vision of Christian discipleship worth living, and dying, for?
 
This hypothesis is generally supported by the findings of the National Study on Youth and Religion documented in Kenda Creasy Dean's book, Almost Christian. Dr. Dean writes:
 
"The single most important thing the church can do to cultivate missional imagination in young people is to develop one as a church, reclaiming our call to follow Christ into the world as envoys of God's self-giving love."
 
And for us to develop such a missional imagination in youth, we need to have adults alongside them with both a missional imagination and a lifetime of experience-- or at least some significant experience-- living as disciples on mission with Jesus.
 
Dr. Dean believes, and I agree, that the dropout we're experiencing, especially among young adults (34% "Nones" in this age cohort, says Pew) may be less about political rebellion or anti-social attitudes (like, why do I need a group that meets in real time when I have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etc), and more about boredom-- that the 'moralistic therapeutic deism' we may have actually transmitted really isn't worth living or dying for, nor even the effort church actually takes.
 
We don't make it worth the effort by reducing the effort, by the way, but rather by actually being the church, teaching what the church teaches, and living the way of Jesus that has empowered saints and martyrs in every generation to live and to die under the reign of God, not the reins of "nice."
 
Saints and martyrs point the way. These are persons who knew (and know!) a faith worth living and dying for. Perhaps if we are also more in touch with their lives and stories-- from the early Church, from our own United Methodist heritages, and those who radiate the love and power of Jesus in our midst-- we may catch some of their compelling vision and pass it on among us and to those we are raising or may be blessed to raise.
 
Read the full report here.