Losing Our Religion: The Growth Of The ‘Nones’ in USA

As deeply religious as this country may be, many Americans are not religious at all. One-fifth of Americans in fact do not identify with any religion. This week we’re asking who they are and what they do believe. Our colleague David Greene is with us for a series we call Losing Our Religion. Hi, David.


Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let’s define who we’re talking about here. One-fifth of Americans – are they atheists or is there another term for them?

GREENE: Well, not necessarily. Demographers actually have an interesting name for them. They call them nones – that’s N-O-N-E-S – because when asked to identify their religion they say none. But not necessarily atheists. Many of these people believe in God, many describe themselves as spiritual. And we’re going to hear voices from this group as we go on this week.

INSKEEP: I’m reminded of the difference between faith and religion. They may believe in God but they don’t believe anybody’s particular creed.

GREENE: That’s exactly right. They feel spiritual but don’t necessarily belong to an organized religion. And so we’re getting started today with two experts in the field. Robert Putnam is a professor at Harvard and he writes a lot about religion in public life. And we’re also going to hear from Greg Smith. He’s a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center. And Steve, they’re the ones who did this study and found that one-fifth of Americans identify themselves as nones. One more thing really interesting. These people who don’t belong to an organized religion, they’re of all ages, but they’re much more likely to be under the age of 30. And I wanted to understand why that is.

GREG SMITH: People raise the question: hasn’t it always the case that young people are less religious than their elders and then they become more religious as they get older? And there is something to that on some measures. But religious affiliation is not one of them. Young people are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders, they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been, as far back as we can tell. So this is really something new.

GREENE: OK. Then let’s explore the reason why young people are less religiously affiliated today than young people a few decades ago.

SMITH: Well, I guess one kind of broad explanation that we could point to is that this growth of the nones is consistent with what you might expect to find if some secularization were occurring. You know, we’ve seen over the last decade a slight uptick in the number of people who say they seldom or never attend religious services.

GREENE: So Professor Putnam, let me turn to you. Why are we seeing this happen?

ROBERT PUTNAM: I agree that there is this creeping secularization that Greg talked about, but I don’t honestly think that that’s the main reason for the rise in nones. I think there are factors that are really more important.

GREENE: OK. Give them to us.

PUTNAM: One of those is the distancing of this younger generation from community institutions and from institutions in general, actually. That’s the same pattern, actually, that we find in politics. These are the very same people who increasingly describe themselves as independents rather than Republicans or Democrats. And those are the same people also who are not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club or whatever. I don’t mean to be casting that as a critique of them, but this same younger generation is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were.

GREENE: There’s another point to make in looking at the research you both have done when it comes to politics. A lot of issues that are both important religiously and important in politics have become so polarized: same-sex marriage, abortion. And you both have written about that that might be turning some people off and making them less comfortable with religion in general.

SMITH: Well, in our polling we definitely find that the religiously unaffiliated do express the view that they think religious organizations are too involved in politics. They think religious organizations are too concerned with rules. They think they’re too concerned with things like money and power. So I think that there is something to that. We also find that one defining characteristic of the religiously unaffiliated is their social liberalism. Three-quarters of this group say they favor allowing same-sex couples to marry legally. Three-quarters say they favor legal abortion.

PUTNAM: And I think, if I can add, that helps to explain why the trend suddenly begins to jump up around 1990. These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly seemed to become associated with a particular brand of politics. And so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the nones is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.

GREENE: Are all religions in the United States taking a hit here when it comes to numbers, Greg Smith, or is this affecting some religious sects more than others?

SMITH: It is affecting some religious groups’ share of the population more than others. As we’ve seen the religiously unaffiliated’s share of the population grow, the group that’s really seen its share of the population decline is Protestants. In fact, in our most recent analysis, we found 48 percent of American adults identifying as Protestant. And that’s the first time in our polling that we’ve seen the Protestant share of the population dip significantly below 50 percent.

GREENE: The first time you’ve ever seen less than half the country identify themselves as Protestant.

SMITH: That’s right. And when you think about the United States historically, you think of it as a Protestant country. But it’s also important to point out that the growth of the nones is really something that we’re seeing across a variety of groups. We’re seeing it among both men and women. We’re seeing it among college graduates as well as among people with less education. We’re seeing it occur in all regions of the country. Race and ethnicity though is one exception to that pattern. The growth of the nones really does seem to be restricted to whites. We haven’t seen much growth in terms of African-Americans or Hispanics who say they’re religiously unaffiliated.

GREENE: One interesting thing that I read in your research is that if you look at other countries that are highly developed, industrialized, big economies, wealthy, that has meant less religion over the years, that in some ways the United States has almost bucked that trend.

SMITH: I think that’s an important point, you know, and that’s correct. It’s important to keep in mind that most people in the United States are still religiously affiliated. Most people in the United States are quite religious and that’s especially true if you compare the United States to many European countries, for example. The United States, even with the rise of the nones, remains a highly religious country.

PUTNAM: I think probably both of us would agree even with these recent changes, the American religious commitments are incredibly stronger than in most other advanced countries in the world. The average American is slightly more religious than the average Iranian. So we’re a very religious country, even today.

GREENE: So Steve, we were listening to Harvard Professor Robert Putnam, and he studies religion and culture. And the other voice was Greg Smith from the Pew Research Center.

INSKEEP: Those are the voices that begin this series, Losing Our Religion. So you’re giving us an idea here, David Greene, that there are lots of different explanations for this move away from religion. So who are we going to hear from next?

GREENE: Well, a lot of explanations but a lot of these people are younger adults. And that’s who we’re going to hear from tomorrow to get their views. One of these younger adults is named Kyle Simpson. He found Christianity as a teenager, but over time he’s come to question that religion, including the idea of hell.

KYLE SIMPSON: People who haven’t accepted Christ are going to burn for all eternity and suffer for all eternity? It’s so cruel. And it goes against everything that drew me to Christianity in the first place.

GREENE: So tomorrow more from Kyle and a handful of other people in their 20s and 30s.

INSKEEP: Thanks, David.

GREENE: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR’s David Greene. This is NPR News.


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