Has the rise of the nones in religious demographics come to a close

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Has the rise of the nones come to a close?

May 22, 2024 -

Woman with boots is standing on asphalt next to arrow signs of words atheism and religion. By mirsad/stock.adobe.com.

Woman with boots is standing on asphalt next to arrow signs of words atheism and religion. By mirsad/stock.adobe.com.

Woman with boots is standing on asphalt next to arrow signs of words atheism and religion. By mirsad/stock.adobe.com.

The rise of the “nones” in the religious demographics of our society has been among the most troubling trends for many Christians across recent decades. The group is typically comprised of those who do not claim membership in any religious tradition, though there is variation at times as to whether atheists and agnostics are considered part of the nones or their own categories.

However, the latest data points to an interesting and encouraging trend:

  • When the General Social Survey (GSS) first began to follow the nones back in 1972, they comprised roughly 5 percent of the total population.
  • The nones stayed in the 5–6 percent range until 1991 when they began a rather precipitous and steady rise that reached as high as 30 percent by 2013 and 35 percent by 2019.
  • However, the nones haven’t really grown in the last five years, ranging between 34–36 percent of the total population.
  • And, what’s perhaps most encouraging, their numbers have actually started to fall among the younger generations.
  • Similar findings have also been reported in both the Cooperative Election Study and in Pew’s latest research.

As Ryan Burge—who has studied and written about the nones for many years—concludes, “The rise of the nones may be largely over now. At least it won’t be increasing in the same way that it did in the prior thirty years.”

That’s good news. Yet, as he goes on to note, the more pertinent question is why.

Building on bedrock

One of the dangers with placing too much emphasis on trends is the temptation to think that they’ll continue unabated into the future. That danger has led to quite a bit of hand-wringing in Christian circles as report after report detailed the rise of the nones across the last thirty years.

And that’s understandable.

After all, the rise of the nones was one of the leading causes that burst the bubble of how Christians viewed our place in the culture. The ensuing angst was the result of the thought that Christians were leaving the faith in droves and the cascade of doubts that followed.

However, looking back on it now, it seems clear that the issue was less about genuine believers leaving the faith—though that does happen at times—as people growing increasingly comfortable with being honest about their faith (or the lack thereof).

And, as Burge writes, the fact that the percentage of nones in our culture has leveled off in recent years likely means that we’ve reached the point where “The loose topsoil has been scooped off and hauled away, leaving nothing but hard bedrock underneath.”

So now that we’re back to the bedrock, how do we build from here?

The scariest passage in Scripture

As Dr. Jim Denison notes, only 17 percent of the nones are atheists. The rest range from agnostic to spiritual, with as many as 69 percent claiming to believe in God or some higher power. In short, most of the nones today would have probably called themselves Christians fifty years ago, with the biggest difference being that many of them would have gone through life thinking that their claim to be a Christian was true.

Jesus spoke to the danger of such an approach toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount.

In Matthew 7, Jesus warns the crowds—many of whom considered themselves to be his followers—that:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21–23).

At first glance, this passage is perhaps the scariest in all of Scripture for those who claim to be Christians. However, if you read this text and are concerned that it might be talking about you, then chances are good that it’s not.

That’s not a guarantee, as it could be that God is using these verses to alert you to the fact that you do fall among those who have served the Lord without having a personal relationship with him. But it’s important to remember that the people about whom Jesus speaks in this passage were genuinely surprised when he rejected them. It had never occurred to them that they might not be saved because they were certain that their good works were enough to merit that salvation.

And it is that latter category that stands in dire need of the true gospel today.

Share the whole gospel

As our culture becomes increasingly accepting of the decision to reject religion—and Christianity in particular—there will be fewer people who go to church on Sundays and claim to follow Jesus because it’s simply the acceptable thing to do. And the research across the last few decades bears that out.

Still, it would be naïve to think that everyone with whom we worship on Sunday morning is going to heaven. Odds are that there are still some in our communities of faith who think themselves saved but who lack a personal relationship with Jesus.

So whether the nones are our coworkers, neighbors, or the people sitting next to us at church, Christ’s call is the same: go and make disciples by sharing the gospel—the whole gospel—with those who need to hear it (Matthew 28:19–20).

How can you carry out that calling today?

Quote of the day: 

The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. — C.S. Lewis

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