Back when I taught middle school, the fifth graders had a math project. They’d pass out surveys to fellow students and teachers. We would check little boxes next to options for our favorite pizza toppings, sports, school subjects.
After collecting all their data, the fifth graders would apply what they had learned about percentages and fractions to generate graphs that showed their survey results. In the meantime, we would try to predict what options would get the most votes – pepperonis or sausage, baseball or hockey – until one day their math teacher would post the colorful pie charts and bar graphs on the dark blue wall by his classroom door. (I don’t think anchovies – a common option for pizza toppings – ever got a single vote.)
One such survey asked for my favorite kind of soda pop. The surveyor had ten or so popular brands and types and even had the foresight to include an “Other” option. But I couldn’t really put anything down. I just don’t like pop. It makes me feel sick. I needed an option for “None”, but the survey had no such option.
For what kind of survey would you want a “None” option? What are your reasons?
I was reminded of all this by a recent report from the Pew Research Center – “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” The report shares Pew’s survey findings on religion in the USA, especially 2007 through 2012, and outlines in detail the growth of a group they call the “Nones”. These are the people who don’t affiliate with a religion. When surveys ask what their religious affiliation is, they check “None”. Throughout this article, I’ll mainly call them unaffiliated, and the statistics and trends I cite are based on Pew’s report.
According to the report, just under 20% of adults surveyed in 2012 said they don’t belong to a religion, up nearly 5% from 2007. That means about one in five adults now fit into the unaffiliated category. That’s compared to less than one in six in 2007, and if we go all the way back to 1972 surveys, it was about one in fourteen.
Now before we get carried away, we should realize that the USA is still very religious as countries go, much more so than most European nations. But I wonder whether the current trends in our country don’t mirror trends that took place in those nations decades ago. I hope our readers share any good research they’ve come across on this topic.
The growth of “Nones” raises important questions for our nation’s religious institutions. Who are the Nones? What experiences have they had with religious groups? Are they looking for one to call their own? What are their reasons for remaining unaffiliated?
Getting to Know the “Nones”
This growth of unaffiliated people is especially focused in younger age groups. In 2007, about one in four adult Millenials (i.e. people born after 1981) were unaffiliated, compared with one in three now in 2012. Also, percentages of unaffiliated Gen Xers (born 1965–1980) and Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964) have both crept up three points in the last five years. Still, Millenials are the only generation where anywhere near one in three people are unaffiliated.
The growing percentage of unaffiliated Americans is represented among people from diverse walks of life. Pew reports that the unaffiliated are on the rise for both genders and among Americans from various income and education levels.
Many of the unaffiliated grew up in homes that weren’t. About three in four “Nones” grew up in homes with some religious affiliation. So it’s not as though it’s a group of people who have had minimal experience with religious groups.
Nor are they completely averted to religious ideas. A strong majority of them believe in God. A fifth of them consider themselves religious, while two fifths say they are spiritual but not religious. They also generally accept that religious organizations can do good things for society.
But the unaffiliated have some negative views about religions. A strong majority of this group believe religions
- “are too concerned with money and power.”
- “focus too much on rules.”
- “are too involved with politics.”
In the near future, I’ll be writing three articles devoted to how the unaffiliated view religion, each article dealing with one of these three perceptions.
These notions – that religions are legalistic and motivated by money, power and politics – are forces that churches and other religious groups will have to grapple with if they want to interact with the young and unaffiliated.
And here’s another thing to grapple with: only one out of every ten people who don’t belong to a religion say they seek one.
The findings from Pew Research Center should raise valuable discussions among our nation’s religious communities. We’d love to hear your thoughts.
What inroads have you made among the unaffiliated in your surrounding community?
Have you been confronted with negative perceptions of your religion or religious groups in general?
What have you learned?