About a year and a half ago, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published an extensive study on the religiously unaffiliated, commonly referred to as the “Nones.”

An empty church.

An empty church. Photo by Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons.

Their headline-grabbing finding: The number of Americans not identifying with religion is growing quickly, particularly among Millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s). Per Pew, about one in five Americans—and, notably, about one in three under the age of 30—are now Nones.

This continues to inspire panic among some religious people and institutions, excitement among some atheists, and confusion among many others.

Understandably, then, the Nones have become the topic of many editorials, blog posts, articles, and magazine pieces. (Yes, I’ve previously written on the religiously unaffiliated in this column.) But in their efforts to understand and contextualize the growing exodus from organized religion among Americans, a number of people get some things wrong. Here are three of them.

1. The rise of the Nones isn’t (just) about atheism.

A few days ago Jezebel published a piece on the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans. Its title? “This Is Why We’re the Atheist Generation.” While writers often don’t always choose their own headlines, and the piece itself acknowledged many of the nuances among the Nones, the headline represents a common problem.

I keep seeing this “generation atheist” frame, and it’s quickly becoming a popular caricature of the complexities of Nones. This equation of Nones with nontheism is not limited to headlines and articles, either; I also see it employed by some atheists who point to the growth of the religiously unaffiliated as evidence that atheism is rapidly rising.

But the number of atheists seems to have only increased a small amount. Pew reports that, as of 2012, less than 2.5 percent of Americans identify as atheist. That is an increase of 0.8 percent from 2007, but it’s still just a fraction of the approximately twenty percent of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated. In fact, Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found in 2012 that, even combined, atheists and agnostics only make up just over one-third of Nones.

Atheism is indeed growing, but not at the same rate as the Nones. It’s simply incorrect to call Millennials the “atheist generation” or to argue that the rise of the religiously unaffiliated is largely about atheism.

2. Nones resist easy categorization and complicate the relationship between belief and affiliation.

If most Nones aren’t atheists, what do they believe? The short answer: It’s complicated.

According to Pew, about 70 percent of Nones believe in a God or universal spirit, and a new study by Carnegie Mellon University has found that 62 percent of all Millennials say they talk to God. What they mean by “God” or “universal spirit” is an important but difficult question; PRRI found that about two-thirds of Nones say that God is either a person or an impersonal force.

So while Nones may not identify as religious, many clearly do maintain some beliefs and practices commonly associated with religion. In fact, Pew’s 2010 report on religion among Millennials argued that “Millennials [actually] remain fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices.” From their report:

Young adults’ beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today, [and] the number of young adults who say they pray every day rivals the portion of young people who said the same in prior decades.

Some are “unattached believers” and others are simply “not religious.” But no matter what you call them, many Nones reject the idea that belief or practice require religious affiliation.

Rather than reinforcing a false dichotomy between belief and affiliation, we should keep asking questions about how Millennials conceive of religion, God, and spirituality; about religious hybridity and multiple religious belonging; about spiritual but not religious identification; and more. Resisting a binary, the Nones present an opportunity to challenge our thinking around belief, affiliation, and how to categorize people.

3. Nones aren’t “actually religious”—they’re Nones.

This leads to my final point. I’ve heard some religious people condescendingly argue that many of the religiously unaffiliated are “actually religious,” and that they’re just disaffiliating out of youthful rebellion or a desire to be unique.

“They’ll be back,” this argument implies. “They’ll outgrow it.” “It’s a phase.”

But that is far from a sure thing. According to Pew, the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans are not actively seeking a church or other religious group. Putting aside atheists and agnostics, Pew reports that only 10 percent of Nones say they’re looking for a religion that’s right for them. On the other hand, fully 88 percent of Nones say they aren’t.

They’re not religious, they have complicated beliefs, most of them aren’t atheists, and whether or not they’ll ever return to religion or traditional religious communities remains a big question.

So who are they, and what exactly do they believe? The answer to that question will only come from listening to the perspectives of Nones.

Instead of telling the Nones that they’re “actually religious,” or assuming that because some believe in God they should be, or inaccurately characterizing many of them as atheists, let’s allow them to speak for themselves—and listen to what they have to say.

14 Comments

  1. As a Pagan myself, I’m usually lumped into the Nones even though I do have a religious affiliation. It’s just not an affiliation that is usually an option I can mark when I have the opportunity to do so. I look forward to more surveys that target Nones more specifically to help tease apart our specific idiosyncrasies.

      • (@moderators – I click the “report abuse” button by accident. Sorry!)

        Sure does! It’s hard to pin down exactly what Pagans and Paganisms are because of our overall youth and the individualistic style that we all bring to our faith practices. Put 10 Pagans in a room and ask a question, you’ll get 12 answers; two will change their mind while the conversation happens.

        The short version is that Pagans are those who seek spiritual inspiration in religions of the ancient world, especially those of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. This inspiration usually takes one of two forms: reconstruction of ancient faiths using primary sources, like the Norse Eddas or the writings of the Greeks and Romans, or new religious movements that try to incorporate the mythologies of the ancient worlds into a more modern context. Once you drill down, though, you’ll find that there’s a lot of different faiths and faith practices that we cram under a Pagan umbrella term sometimes simply for lack of a better one.

        Track me down if you have any additional questions! Google “dashifen.” You’ll find me :)

  2. Alexander Griswold

    I think just because many millennials report NOW that they aren’t looking for a religion doesn’t mean they won’t “outgrow” it or look later. How many religious people are there today where, if you polled them in their teens and 20s, would have answered the same way? Probably a great deal. And there’s truth behind the cliche that “I didn’t go looking for God, God found me.” That’s often how it is for some people.

    • Sorry, Alex, but the numbers don’t bear that out. If you look at polls taken over the last 50 years (they’re referred to in that Pew survey), then one thing that is striking is just how consistent the proportion of “nones” is per generation as they age. In other words, if 10% of one generation is non-religious when they enter adulthood, when you come back and ask them again 50 years later, the number is still around 10%. It’s been that way since the surveys began back in the 1960s.

      Thus you should take the nones at their word. They aren’t looking, and they’re not likely to be looking in 20 years time.

  3. Neurologists are doing a better job explaining God than the Priests are.
    God is just Dad & Mom.

    We are biologically ‘programmed’ by evolution to look for our parents
    when we are born and this childish feature would die off – like baby teeth – if we allowed it.

    Preachers and such simply keep it going…and it is a huge industry!

    The JOY one feels in prayer is real – it is like “knowing your parent will always protect you” – the “confidence” that you will be safe.

    But it is delusional. And it isn’t good for you.
    The NONES are getting an inkling of some of this science.

    Just like explaining baby teeth and belly buttons, it will be standard science education in high schools everywhere – and that will be the final blow to religion. For goodness sake.

    God is a delusion.

  4. Most of my contemporaries would qualify as “nones” but would probably still identify culturally as Christian (out of habit I guess). They believe in a higher power but see the church as a man made institution that is mostly corrupt or irrelevant in their lives. The typical stance of most denominations against homosexuals and women’s reproductive rights also drives them away. They certainly don’t see the bible as infallible truth. I don’t know why they recognize the man made church but not the man made god.

    I think the church has an uphill battle holding on to future generations in the age of the internet. Questioning authority is second nature to people with access to information. I hope they’ll eventually lose the imaginary friends too but I won’t hold my breath.

  5. It’s worth noting the increase in nominal “atheists” from 1.7 rot 2.5 amounts to an increase of 47% over that time period. That is astonishing growth that should not be trivialized. This is especially so, considering the a-word has been continuously defamed for centuries (and is now defamed by both theists and by non-religious liberals). 47% growth in spite of widespread negative views of that label- note I mean the label, not the philo/theological orientation. That means we should expect, a priori, those numbers to be under-representative of what beliefs are like among Americans. Such surveys are corrupted by social desirability bias and demand characteristics.

    • Indeed!

      I wear “ATHEIST” proudly. It is a most honorable position to hold.
      I do not believe God is real.

      Religions are cultural superstitions, fantasies and delusions – passed on through the generations because of deep fear and superstitions.

      We will be better off when religion is abandoned someday.

      • I have no problem with atheism, but a lot of atheists sound as bad as religious fundamentalists. Not everyone has to be exactly like you for the world to progress. In fact, progress depends on a diversity of perspectives, and some form of religion or spirituality is not going to go away any time soon. Apart from which, your second-guessing of people’s motivations for having a religion is wrong – to the extent that it’s correct at all, it’s only correct for a small percentage of people who are religious or spiritual.

        • When people abandon ‘faith in things for which there is no evidence’ (religion) things will get better.

          We have too many problems created by religion and its adherents:
          middle east conflicts, terrorism, climate change deniers, women’s rights, genital mutilation, organized pedophilia, ritual sexual slavery of girls in Togo, Benin and Ghana, …etc.

          I don’t share your disregard of these problems. Religion is at the root of them and they will only go away when religion is abandoned.

    • The Great God Pan

      “That is astonishing growth that should not be trivialized.”

      Welcome to Chris Stedman’s column. He is the atheist who trivializes (or worse) atheists at every opportunity.

  6. I am not a millennial – I’m at the tail end of the Baby Boom – but I have pretty much always been a “None.” I’m definitely not an atheist – I simply feel that my understanding of God is between me and God, and doesn’t require a middleman. I also talk regularly with people of all different faiths and consider all those perspectives valuable and enriching. Moreover, I’m a lifelong student of science and have never considered science to be at odds with my spirituality as do both atheists and religious fundamentalists – they’re apples and oranges, as far as I’m concerned.

    Most people I know who aren’t affiliated with a religion are pretty similar: not confused, not looking for a religion, mostly not atheist (though some are agnostic). Just not binary. It’s not really that hard to comprehend but like you say, people need to come up with a headline and usually come up with something really simplistic and divisive. It’s not as if we aren’t real people who can’t actually be asked about our beliefs. ;)

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