The Rise of the “Nones”

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace according to new research by the Pew Research Center released last week.  One-fifth of the U.S. public, almost 46 million people – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.  In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults.

These findings represent a continuation of long-term trends.  The number of religiously unaffiliated adults remained below 10% from the 1970s through the early 1990s. The percentage of religiously unaffiliated respondents began to rise noticeably in the 1990s and stood at 18% in 2010.

This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.

With few exceptions, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

But at the same time, a majority of the religiously unaffiliated clearly think that religion can be a force for good in society, with three-quarters saying religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds and a similar number saying religious organizations play an important role in helping the poor and needy.

The growth of the unaffiliated has taken place across a wide variety of demographic groups. The percentage of unaffiliated respondents has ticked up among men and women, college graduates and those without a college degree, people earning $75,000 or more and those making less than $30,000 annually, and residents of all major regions of the country.

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans is largely driven by generational replacement or the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.

Religious affiliation is declining among Americans who do not have college degrees, as well as among college graduates, which suggests that the trend is not solely a result of attitudes toward religion on college campuses. Nor are the unaffiliated composed largely of religious “seekers” who are looking for a spiritual home and have not found it yet.

When it comes to race, however, the recent change has been concentrated in one group: whites. One-fifth of (non-Hispanic) whites now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, up five percentage points since 2007. By contrast, the share of blacks and Hispanics who are religiously unaffiliated has not changed by a statistically significant margin in recent years.

While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown significantly over the past five years, the Protestant share of the population has shrunk. In surveys conducted in the first half of 2012, fewer than half of American adults say they are Protestant (48%). This marks the first time in Pew Research Center surveys that the Protestant share of the population has dipped significantly below 50%.  The decline is concentrated among white Protestants, both evangelical and mainline. There has been no change in minority Protestants’ share of the population over the past five years.  The Catholic share of the population has been roughly steady over this period, in part because of immigration from Latin America.

The vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans are not actively seeking to find a church or other religious group to join. Leaving aside atheists or agnostics, just 10% of those who describe their current religion as “nothing in particular” say they are looking for a religion that is right for them; 88% say they are not.

Source: Excerpts from the Executive Summary of “Nones on the Rise” released October 9, 2012 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Download a copy of the full report here.

Other articles of interest on the “Nones”

“Meet the Nones”

“Who are the Nones?”

The Emerging Social, Political Force: ‘Nones”

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