Who are the nones and why are they important?

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Who are the nones and why are they important?

November 10, 2021 -

© patpitchaya /stock.adobe.com

© patpitchaya /stock.adobe.com

© patpitchaya /stock.adobe.com

If you’re not familiar with the term the nones, you should get acquainted with it. 

One of the best ways to do that is by reading Ryan P. Burge’s book, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.

The nones represent both the demographic group in this country most likely to be reached with the gospel and the group most resistant to its appeal.

The reason behind that apparent contradiction lies in a quirk in the way that social scientists describe religious affiliation in this country, generally placing Americans in one of seven categories:

  • Evangelical Protestant
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Black Protestant
  • Catholic
  • Jewish
  • Observant of other faith traditions
  • Nonaffiliated

These nonaffiliated Americans, the “nones,” are lumped together even though their situations differ. As a whole, they represent the fastest-growing category, and Burge is one of the leading experts on their rise. A pastor in the American Baptist Church, he is also a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University.

When raw data from the 2018 General Social Survey (GSS) came out, he began to crunch the numbers. “It had finally happened: the nones were now the same size as both Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants,” Burge wrote. “That meant that the religiously unaffiliated were statistically the same size as the largest religious groups in the United States.”

Burge put together a graph showing the trend, tweeted it, and, when he checked his phone later, found it had been retweeted almost one hundred times.

“What followed was one of the busiest periods of my life,” he wrote.

Reporters lined up to interview him. Most major news outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN, carried the story. C-SPAN interviewed Burge on Easter Sunday.

“Journalists, podcasters, and pastors were all asking me the same questions: How did this happen? And what does this mean for the future of American religion?” Burge wrote.

The Nones provides some of the answers, but there is still much to learn, including the number of nones. Estimates vary by as much as twenty million people.

Burge described the GSS as “the gold standard in measuring religious change in America,” largely because it has been asking questions about religious affiliation in basically the same way since the survey was created in 1972.

But it does not ask people who describe themselves as unaffiliated if they are atheist or agnostic. The Pew Research Center, on the other hand, offers three options for the religiously unaffiliated: atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.”

In 1972, just one in twenty Americans said they had no religion. In 2018, the GSS indicated that group had grown to one in four. As the group has grown, it has become more diverse and now represents every segment of our society.

Mainline Protestants have declined from 30 percent of the population to 10 percent in about four decades, but Burge said it would be too simplistic to give this as the sole reason for the rise of the nones. Many factors seem to be at work, including secularization, politics, and the internet.

However, he wrote, “In essence, moderate Protestants are going extinct, while conservative Christianity is holding the line.”

Instead of people growing up in a religious tradition, drifting away from it in their teens and twenties, and then returning to it as they age, Burge wrote, “More people are entering adulthood without a religious affiliation, and they become more likely to stay a none as they age.”

He continued: “It’s clear that every successive generation starts out less religious than the one prior, but that’s only a part of the puzzle. As these young people [have] become more outspoken about their move away from religious affiliation, that gave permission to older people who had been sliding to disaffiliation to finally declare their true religious attachments. If this is truly the case, then many more nominal Christians are going to check the ‘no religion’ box going forward, and that’s not necessarily true just among the youngest Americans.”

Atheists and agnostics are much more likely to be openly hostile to religion than Americans who would check the “nothing in particular” box. And that’s of more than academic interest.

Burge put it this way: “If one wants to identify the harvest for new religious converts, it can be found in the one in five Americans who say that they are nothing in particular.”

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