Opinion

Religious ‘nones’ a complex group, hard to pigeonhole

Few concerns in religion have been as remarked upon and puzzled over lately as the rapid rise of "nones," those who claim no religious affiliation. I've written about this before, I realize, but it's a news story that just keeps developing.

The latest development is a new study by the Pew Research Center, which finds that 28% of U.S. adults are now religiously unaffiliated. (See: tinyurl.com/3k9uua5x)

That doesn't mean the remaining 72% of Americans are pious, or even sporadic churchgoers; it just means they have at least a nominal relationship with a faith group.

Twenty-eight percent might not sound like a lot, but by comparison, as recently as 2007 nones were only 16% of the population. Half-a-century ago they were 5%.

They've become the largest cohort in America, surpassing Catholics at 23% and evangelical Protestants at 24%, NPR points out. (See: tinyurl.com/5y4fw95v)

So this is a huge shift -- and ongoing. Experts can't say yet whether the ranks of nones will continue to grow or has plateaued.

This rise of the nones worries a lot of Americans who believe organized religion, for all its faults, tends to pull us together as communities, provides us a common morality and stokes political participation.

But it's not as if armies of hostile unbelievers are suddenly springing up, intent on stamping out everyone else's beliefs. Indeed, "most 'nones' believe in God or another higher power," the Pew report points out. "But very few go to religious services regularly."

As an aside, I may -- or may not -- have witnessed the early foreshocks of this trend toward religious disaffiliation as far back as 1982, when I was a first-year graduate student at the University of Kentucky, earning my keep by teaching English composition to teenage freshmen.

One day in class, during our discussion of some literary essay or other, a reference to religion popped up. I then referred to a basic Christian story, maybe the Good Samaritan or Jesus multiplying loaves and fish. I can't recall the specifics.

But I remember how surprised I felt when so many of my students clearly had no clue what I was talking about. I might as well have referred to Gilgamesh.

I said something like, "You know, it's one of the Bible stories you heard in Sunday School."

Blank stares.

Finally, I asked for a show of hands: How many of you went to church or Sunday School when you were a kid?

To my surprise, it was less than 50% of the class. This in Lexington. Which is in Kentucky, a proverbial buckle of the Bible Belt. In 1982.

I'd grown up in a Kentucky county that then had roughly 17,000 residents. It boasted 20-some Baptist churches and a Baptist college, not to mention Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterians, Catholics. No exaggeration, everybody I knew went to church (or at least claimed to).

As I surveyed my students' raised hands I recall thinking: Something is shifting.

OK, maybe my little assembly of 25 freshmen wasn't the harbinger of a coming nationwide apostasy. More likely it was just that the place I came from was way more religious than a lot of other places. Still, my students' reaction got my attention.

The current, well-documented growth of nones is complex. If you're interested, the best breakdown of the new report I've seen comes from the Washington Post's religion writer, Michelle Boorstein. Check it out. (See: tinyurl.com/ycxmduh6)

Briefly, here are a few takeaways from the study:

Nones fall into three groups: atheists, agnostics and "nothing in particular." The latter make up nearly two-thirds of nones (63%), and tend to have a different demographic profile.

For instance, "atheists and agnostics, on average, have more education than religiously affiliated Americans," Pew says. "By contrast, people who describe themselves as 'nothing in particular' tend to have lower levels of educational attainment than religiously affiliated U.S. adults."

A surprising portion of nones actually believe in God, especially those who are "nothing in particular." While only 13% of nones believe in the God described in the Bible, 56% have faith in a higher power -- a total of 69% who believe in some type of supernatural being.

While nones may be skeptical of organized religion and disconnected from it, they don't necessarily regard religion with hostility.

Fourteen percent say religion does more good than harm, and 41% say religion does equal amounts of good and harm. Forty-three percent believe it does more harm than good.

Two-thirds say their main reasons for not being religious are that they question religious teachings and/or don't believe in God. Nones also commonly cite their dislike for religious organizations and their bad experiences with religious people.

There are a lot more. One thing's for sure. The religious and irreligious landscape in America is changing dramatically. Religious groups need to reconsider how they interact with a society in which even the largest of them -- Catholics, evangelicals -- are now a spiritual minority.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. You can email him at

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