Nones on the rise, Protestants in decline in new Pew study

Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press reports on a new study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

For the first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority, according to a new study. One reason: The number of Americans with no religious affiliation is on the rise.

The percentage of Protestant adults in the U.S. has reached a low of 48 percent, the first time that Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has reported with certainty that the number has fallen below 50 percent. The drop has long been anticipated and comes at a time when no Protestants are on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Republicans have their first presidential ticket with no Protestant nominees.

Among the reasons for the change are the growth in nondenominational Christians who can no longer be categorized as Protestant, and a spike in the number of American adults who say they have no religion. The Pew study, released Tuesday, found that about 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years.

Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post says that despite the name that has recently attached to them, "nones" are far from godless.

Many pray, believe in God and have regular spiritual routines.

Their numbers have increased dramatically over the past two decades, according to the study released Tuesday. About 19.6 percent of Americans say they are “nothing in particular,” agnostic or atheist, up from about 8 percent in 1990. One-third of adults under 30 say the same. Pew offered people a list of more than a dozen possible affiliations, including “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “something else” and “nothing in particular.”

She adds:

Members can be found in all educational and income groups, but they skew heavily in one direction politically: 68 percent lean toward the Democratic Party. That makes the “nones,” at 24 percent, the largest Democratic faith constituency, with black Protestants at 16 percent and white mainline Protestants at 14 percent. By comparison, white evangelicals make up 34 percent of the Republican base.

The report says that 32 percent of the religiously unaffiliated are between the ages of 18-29 and 21 percent are between 30 and 49.

Among the youngest Millennials (those ages 18-22, who were minors in 2007 and thus not eligible to be interviewed in Pew Research Center surveys conducted that year), fully one-third (34%) are religiously unaffiliated, compared with about one-in-ten members of the Silent Generation (9%) and one-in-twenty members of the World War II-era Greatest Generation (5%). Older Millennials (ages 23-30) also are substantially less likely than prior generations to be religiously affiliated.

But generational replacement is not the only factor at play. Generation Xers and Baby Boomers also have become more religiously unaffiliated in recent years. In 2012, 21% of Gen Xers and 15% of Baby Boomers describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, up slightly (but by statistically significant margins) from 18% and 12%, respectively, since 2007. The trend lines for earlier generations are essentially flat.

In addition, 88 percent of the religiously unaffiliated say they are not "looking for the religion that is right for them. "Nor are the ranks of the unaffiliated predominantly composed of practitioners of New Age spirituality or alternative forms of religion. Generally speaking, the unaffiliated are no more likely than members of the public as a whole to have such beliefs and practices," the report said.

Among the unaffiliated, 70 percent say that religions are "too focused on money and power," and 67 percent say that religions are too rule focused and too involved in politics. However, they also believe that religions strengthen bonds of community (78 percent) and play an important role in helping the poor and needy (77 percent), although at lower rates than the general public.

According to the executive summary, two-thirds of Americans, including 63% of the religiously unaffiliated, say religion is losing influence on American life. "A large majority of those who think religion’s influence is on the decline see this as a bad thing. But those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” are less inclined to view religion’s declining influence as a bad thing. And atheists and agnostics overwhelmingly view religion’s declining influence as a good thing for society."

Okay, church folks, what do we make of all of this?

Comments (17)

I am unsurprised and unconcerned. The church will survive. Besides, an increase in 'nones' means we have a growing mission field.

(of course, I have to wonder if we're ready to be a missionary church...)

The Episcopal dedication to the "via media" is an important message to get out to a world battered by extremism on all sides. We need to do a better job of the "E" word - evangelism.

Zoll has tweeted that she's updated her AP story. This seems to be the key change.

Pew said it had also previously calculated a drop slightly below 50 percent among U.S. Protestants, but those findings had fallen within the margin of error; the General Social Survey, which is conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, reported for 2010 that the percentage of U.S. Protestants was around 46.7 percent. Analysts disagree on whether the increasing numbers of nondenominational Christians should be counted as Protestant. Pew researchers do include independent Christians in their Protestant figure.

I'm not sure what to make of it, but as a humorous aside, the former Anglocatholic in me thought that from the title we were speaking about the minor afternoon office of "None" rather than "no religious affiliation." It did give me a momentary chuckle. : )

One of my initial thoughts was that the decrease in church affiliation for younger generations is partially due to the decrease in involvement by their boomer parents. However I saw in the National Catholic Reporter's coverage of this that 74% of adults who are now unaffiliated report that they were raised with some affiliation.

Another trend in American Christianity is increased mobility between denominations with less automatic identification with the denomination one was raised in. My take on this is that some of the mobility is simply moving away all together rather than moving to another denomination.

From this it seems to me that we need to focus more on what we can do in our Christian education and formation programs to help our children and youth, and also our young adults once they leave the house and graduate from college, to continue to connect with church, whether that be the denomination they are growing up in or another denomination.

Of the unaffiliated, 88% are not looking for a religion that is right for them. If the current trend continues, by 2022, about half of 18 to 22 year olds will be "nones."

The magnitude of this cultural shift is mind-boggling and no amount of marketing will succeed in reaching people who have no way of connecting with traditional religious languag

Jonathan, I am intrigued as to whether the current "nones" connect with traditional religious language or not. The study tells us that they are "far from godless" in the words of the Washington Post, and they aren't new age-y. So I'm kind of wondering what their prayer lives and spiritual lives are like. To your larger point though, yes, if the experience we offer remains the same, it will become increasingly difficult to interest people in it.

Old news. A part of this is the "poisoned well" from the evangelical right. Who wants to be a Christian when the culture associates the term with intolerance, rejection, and right-wing politicking of the most egregious sort?

Right on cue, there are recent examples of lunacy, like calling for the death penalty against "rebellious children" on Biblical grounds (here).

And part of it is the natural rumspringa of youth, who drift away and find no compelling reason to come back. (And weekend soccer games don't help.)

Susan Forsburg

Jim -- I think you point to an important question: what are the prayer and spiritual lives of 'nones' like?

It continues to be clear that change is inevitable in TEC: it's less clear what exactly will change, or how or when. I actually think a lot of 'nones' connect with traditional religious language, just not with denominational labels.

My lack of anxiety about the future of TEC comes from a recognition that many of the young adults I am around have deep spiritual lives, even if they don't identify with the particular religious categories we're currently comfortable with.

Maybe a different way to approach this is, what can we as church do to help the 'nones' better develop their prayer and spiritual lives without necessarily expecting them to join our particular franchise?

Susan Forsburg, I agree with you completely. (I am also concerned that the rumspringa will morph into a permanent separation.)

I think we need to consider a more "free lance church", if I can use the phrase. Less on bricks and mortar, more on relationships, community, hospitality, and liturgical expression.

...along with knowing what we believe and how to articulate it.

Kevin McGrane

Kevin, how might this relate to Bishop Whalon's comments on adding new models to to our definition of parish and mission church?

If I were a young person and I heard "supposed" scientists talking about womens' bodies not getting pregnant if they were raped and that the concept of evolution, embryology, etc "were from the pits of Hell" and they were on the congressional science commitee and they called themselves Christians,then I'd wonder if I really needed any church. Maybe we're all "taking a hit" from those who call themselves by Christ's name but are really just anti-intellectual bozos. We need to get the word out you "don't have to leave your brain at the door."

Lan Green

Having posted a non-serious reply, I went and read more of the original report. I think that the most important non-headline fact is that, of the "nones" only about 10% are "seeking" in the religious sense. Perhaps the best question that we might ask would be how to identify and reach out to the "seekers" in a more meaningful way. We first have to ask ourselves what do we really have to offer them, however? I am not sure what that is, in honesty.

David O: thank you for your question. I started to type an answer in Word, and I was up to half a page just on the models of parishes I think would be beneficial. I'm not sure if I can adequately answer your question in this format.

I came up with about 7 different kinds of "faith communities", from traditional parishes to domestic cells to new monastic communities to store-fronts and down-in-the-basement communities, with a multiplicity of liturgies. But they all revolved around liturgy, community, and hospitality.

I'd seriously reconsider how to educate and form clergy. Seminary Without Walls. Train them in the parishes, not on campuses. Like CPE in hospitals. Make it nearly free once someone achieve postulant.

Lay education and formation would be available and promoted. Live classes and online courses, with a preference for live courses. Hospitality would reign.

I would promote theological reflection and scholarship relative to the Five Marks of Mission, and design much of our theological training around them.

I think we should consider making a bishop a person who oversees ten "parishes", greatly increasing the number of bishops. I think this is a good thing, and may help a bishop draw closer to the community. I think many of them are drowning in bureacracy.

Go to one legislative house, with a PM and PB.

This is a start.

Kevin McGrane

I think a good part of the problem, as far as the younger end of the age spectrum is concerned, is strictly cultural. They move way more often, from city to city, state to state, which makes it hard to establish a sense of belonging to a larger communion than in "the olden days" when people tended to stay in the environs they were raised in, and regular church attendance meant you had a sort of second, bigger family. Also, so many jobs now demand that you remain connected 24/7 to work by e-mail and Blackberry. If Sunday is your only day of relative non-work, then it's the day you cram in a week's worth of grocery shopping and maybe a little recreation, or you're taking your kids to soccer practice.

I also agree with Lan Green's message above -- if what you hear about religion these days comes from crackpots and you think that walking in a church door means you would have to renounce everything you learned in science classes in school, or you're reading endlessly about the priests who abuse children, you probably are going to decide you want no part of church.

It remains to be seen if we can find ways to meet these younger folks where they are in their lives, and be relevant to them.

Sarah Ridgway

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