Invasion of the Nones

The Pew Research Center reports an increase on Americans who have no religious affiliation. Is this an alarming trend?

From 2012: The Pew Research Center reported an increase of Americans who have no religious affiliation.   Some of these “nones” are atheists, some are agnostics, but many are folks who simply prefer to “roll” their own religion. Is this an alarming trend?

I started blogging seven years ago. The biggest trend I have seen in those seven years is the startling rise of the “nones” in America, those who say they have no particular “religious preference,” whenever polls are conducted. I call it the “Invasion of the Nones.”

In 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that the number of Americans who have no religious affiliation had grown to its highest percentage ever of the American population. One in five Americans marked “None” on questionnaires when asked about religious belief or association with a church. Over the previous five years, prior to 2012, the number of “nones” had increased from 15% to 20%…. and these are not ladies wearing black dresses with white trimming.

Subsequent research has shown that the growth of Protestant evangelical Christians; that is, those who hold to a high view of Scripture, as the written Word of God, has pretty much remained stable, during this time frame. But the latest 2019 Pew Research study shows that the American culture, more broadly speaking, is growing less and less Christian, with every passing year.

Several new highlights standout regarding the latest Pew study:

  • The percentage of the American population, that claims to be either Protestant or Roman Catholic, is shrinking, as well as in terms of absolute numbers.
  • All categories of those who mark themselves as “None,” with respect to religious preference, including those who adhere to no particular expression of faith, those who are agnostics, and those who are atheists, are continuing to rise.
  • Church attendance in the United States continues to decline, except for those who identify themselves explicitly as Christians.
  • Younger generations of people are less inclined to identify as “Christian” as are older generations.
  • Women are generally more religious than men (Christian are attracting less and less men to church).
  • While there is some decline among Republicans who profess to be Christian, the greatest decline of professing Christians is among the Democrats.

What is the takeaway from this latest research? While the percentage of Protestant evangelical Christians continues to be pretty much the same, adherents to more nominal forms of Christian faith, among certain Protestants and Roman Catholics is dropping rapidly. Another way of putting it is this: mainline liberal Christianity, in particular, Protestant mainline Christianity, is in steep decline.

 

In U.S., smaller share of adults identify as Christians, while religious 'nones' have grown

I find it helpful to take the long view and consult some church history, with respect to these type of statistics. They did not have public opinion polls a few hundred years ago, so sociologists and historians often come up with varying numbers. Nevertheless, there is much to consider.

Looking back into the colonial period, sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Starke argue in the Churching of America that “religious adherence” has enjoyed a long period of sustained increase. Church affiliation of some kind today is significant for about 6 out of every 10 people. But contrary to much popular belief, and despite the fact that most of the original thirteen colonies explicitly promoted Christian faith, our colonial forefathers were generally not involved much in church life, When America was founded as an independent nation in the 1770s, only one in five Americans were involved in any kind of church.

However, some find that even this early American figure is optimistic. A few years ago, I recall historian Mark Noll pointing out that only about  10% of the population attended a church during the period from the Revolutionary War to the 1790s.

Wow. We have come a long way since then.  If you put that in perspective, the situation now does not look so bad.

However, Starke and others contend that the growth trend for “religious adherence” has leveled off in recent decades. Other scholars say that the problem is actually worse. For example, I highlighted the contribution of former Mormon and late historian Grant Palmer in another Veracity post regarding Mormon history. Palmer has argued that in the year 1800, only 7% of Americans were going to church. It was not until the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century and the explosive growth of the Methodist movement before Americans would become predominantly a church-going people. By the eve of the Civil War in 1861, about 61% of Americans were involved in church life. Palmer goes on to observe that this percentage has been in a slow decline ever since. For Palmer, the trend even appears to be accelerating over the past ten to twenty years. This trend appears to be in perfect sync with the rise of the Internet, in particular, with the pervasive influence of social media. As Palmer puts it, “the Internet is killing organized religion“.

In a related Pew Research survey, it appears that very few teenagers growing up in evangelical Christian homes are actively sharing their faith with their friends, but that they are more likely to invite their friends to a youth group meeting than are their mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic friends. Also, one in ten kids growing up in evangelical Christian homes are home-schooled.

What can we learn from all this?

  • The history of Christianity shows that there have been ups and downs in story of how God’s Kingdom has expanded throughout the world. Nevertheless, God is in control.
  • Nominal Christianity is dying off in the West, but perhaps that is not such a bad thing.
  • The shallowness of faith among many Americans demonstrates just how important apologetics is in the life of Christian personal discipleship (by the way, that is why the Veracity blog exists in the first place, folks!)

 

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

6 responses to “Invasion of the Nones

  • fred nice

    Sad trending 😕

    Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      Freddy,

      It is sad. Which is all the more reason why we need to take statistics like this seriously, and become more intentional in how we address these concerns.

      Like

    • Diana Fenger

      I was surprised about the “one in five” and the “ten percent” history of church attendance. Growing up in the 30’s to 50’s in outskirts of Philadelphia I didn’t know anyone who didn’t go to a Protestant or Catholic church. Of course, that didn’t make them Christians and it was probably political in many instances for them.

      I’ve gotten to the point where I believe only the return of Christ will bring true unity, peace and love to this ungrateful world.

      Veracity is one of my favorite blogs and thank you Clark for all your research and interest in helping us with theological issues.

      Diana

      Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      Thanks, Diana, for commenting at Veracity.

      Context is important for properly interpreting these statistics. With respect to the 2019 Pew Research Study, that one in five describe themselves as “None,” when it comes to their religious preference, would indicate that the 30’s to 50’s practice, near Philadelphia, where “everybody” went to church, simply does not hold true anymore. As both of my late parents can attest, in those days, “everybody” went to church, as it was the expected, cultural thing to do. But our world today is a lot more secularized and pluralistic, than the 30’s to 50’s were. On the upside, it does mean that those who actually do go to church today are more likely to be committed to their faith, as compared to previous generations, whereby church attendance was simply the normal, expected thing to do.

      The probable fact that only “10 percent” of Americans during the American Revolution actually attended church, is quite different, in that many churches ceased to have weekly worship observances, during wartime. A lot of American preachers actively participated in war efforts. It was not until the establishment of the U.S Constitution, in the late 1780s, that involvement in church started to pick back up again. Within a few decades, America witnessed perhaps the greatest revival of evangelical faith observed anywhere in church history, the so-called “Second Great Awakening.”

      Who knows?? We could be on the verge of yet a “Third Great Awakening,” within the current generation!! This is something we should all pray for.

      Thanks again for commenting, Diana!!

      Like

  • Clarke Morledge

    Disturbing. Then again, certain theologians in the 1960s predicted the “Death of God,” but apparently that did not happen, when it was expected:

    Like

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