‘None’ could be religion’s new normal in Britain, USA

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Empty pews in a church in Kansas City, MO., show the trend in the the West away from religious identity. RNS Photo by Sally Morrow

Empty pews in a church in Kansas City, MO., show the trend in the the West away from religious identity. RNS Photo by Sally Morrow

Merry what? Just in time for Christmas, new statistics show “no religion is the new religion” in Great Britain, according to a study released Monday.

The  study, by Westminster Faith Debates, finds 38 percent adults in Great Britain, and 48 percent of those ages 18 to 29, checked no religion in online surveys conducted in January and June by YouGov.

“Whilst it’s always possible that this trend could be reversed, it gets less and less likely as the chain of memory connecting young people to religion stretches and snaps,”  said Lancaster University sociologist, an organizer of the public debates on religion topics and author of the study.

These numbers fall midway between the findings of two other British studies that both show a trend away from the pews.

Empty pews in a church in Kansas City, MO., show the trend in the the West away from religious identity. RNS Photo by Sally Morrow

Empty pews in a church in Kansas City, MO., show the trend in the the West away from religious identity. RNS Photo by Sally Morrow

The British Social Attitudes Study in 2012 found 48 percent claimed to have no religion. And the 2011 Census reported about 25 percent of those surveyed in England and Wales said they were “nones,” including 32 percent of those under age 25.

“Nones” is an umbrella term that includes atheists, agnostics, humanists and a significant number who say they believe in God but don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition. It was popularized by the American Religious Identification Survey, which tracked the rise in U.S. “nones” from 8 percent in 1990 to nearly 16 percent in 2009.

In 2012, the Pew Research Center calculated that about 20 percent of Americans overall are “nones” but Gallup put the number slightly lower at less than 18 percent.

Why do findings vary? Does the question wording prompt different replies? Westminster Faith Studies took note of this in the study report, observing, “Fewer people seem to opt for no religion when given the option of “Christian,” as on the Census.” This is the question structure used by Gallup in the USA as well. 

The Social Attitudes Study and the YouGov surveys in Great Britain, however, gave people a list of denominations to consider such as the Church of England or the Catholic Church or others, as well as the “no religion” option. In the U.S, the ARIS study and Pew Research asked open ended questions.

And ARIS and Pew Research, like the British Social Attitudes Study, use landline and cell phone interviews rather than the online-only format used by YouGov.

Still, no matter how you ask or calculate it, “no religion” is growing at a faster rate than religions in Great Britain and the USA.

Is this a lump of coal in believers’ statistical stockings? Not necessarily. None of the surveys answer whether people are really losing religion or they’re just now feeling free to reveal they were faith-less all along.

In 2012, I asked Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptists Theological Seminary in Louisville, about the “nones” trend. He rooted it in a Western cultural shift that sees,  “no shame in saying you’re an unbeliever, no cultural pressure to claim a religious affiliation, no matter how remote or loose.

“This is a wake-up call. We have an incredible challenge ahead for committed Christians,” Mohler said then.

So, is two days before Christmas the worst time to point out how Christianity in the West is taking a hit? Maybe not. For those who believe, Christmas celebrates the birth of hope.

What’s your view on the rise of the “nones?” 

Remember, the rule at Faith & Reason: All views, respectfully presented, are welcome. So post early, post often, share this with your friends. 

  • Paula

    I wonder why, when the media need to find an “expert” they always turn to someone like Mohler, a fundamentalist, a person on the religious Right, to speak even on general questions about religion.. So here it is again, Mohler speaking for “committed Christians.” This makes fundamentalism the default position for anyone who is clearly Christian in the public imagination. Why do these guys get all the airtime? Does the President of Yale Divinity School not have a telephone?

  • Zeb

    I tire of the mass media cultural equation that goes like this: religion = Christianity, and therefore, nonChristian = atheist or nonbeliever.

    And this time of year, we couch these assumptions in a broad Christmas meme.

  • Anne Tanner

    Did the survey give respondents the option of choosing a non-Christian belief? It doesn’t sound like a very good poll to be basing such sweeping conclusions on. I think for Christians one message should be: If we want to reverse decline and show growth, we must be perceived as doing something valuable in our communities, not just hiding within the walls of huge, intimidating cathedrals. We do good works, but not enough, and we are less adept at inviting others to join us in doing them.

  • Conrad Hackett

    You may find it interesting to consider differences between the websites of Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (http://www.albertmohler.com/) and Gregory Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School (http://divinity.yale.edu/sterling). Sterling’s phone number is indeed listed but unlike Mohler, Sterling doesn’t seem to have a blog, daily podcast, Twitter feed, or email newsletter.

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  • Tim Underwood

    Such encouraging words for this time of the year.
    The Muslims have to be congratulated for inspiring us to evaluate religious beliefs.
    Probably Christianity will have to be dismantled before Islam can be unraveled.
    Good news everybody!

  • Doc Anthony

    “Nones” serve a useful function: they help us to understand how fast a nation is dying.

    America is going downward, from bad to worse, and Britain is dead and buried anyway.

  • I realise their are many non-conservative believers, but I’m not sure the pres of Yale isn’t a ‘none’. Don’t know, just wondering. Sometimes they interview Catholics but I haven’t heard a Methodist, or Lutheran scholar in a long time.

  • Really? You don’t think the people who study these things know that others have a belief in God albeit not Christian? Muslims believe, Jews believe, as I believe Sikhs and followers of the Dalai Lama (sp?).

  • Christianity probably will be dismantled but God given faith will remain.

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  • Nones can and are very spiritual. So many people, especially Christian leaders have written them off as “non-believers” and of course “non-religious” but in many cases the nones have a drive that is now missing in many Christian churches and other faith groups. This seems to be part of post modernity and by extension post-Christendom. Like every paradigm shift, society needs to react to the changes in a new ways. For the Christian church this has been seen with the missional and emergent movement. I would even suggest that Pope Francis is speaking and acting in light of postmodern thought which is why so many millennials are drawn to him.

  • Larry

    The “nones” serve a function in showing the effects of obnoxiousness in the name of religion. It drives people away in droves. People are becoming annoyed by the constant mixing of religion and politics, the sectarian bigotry, the hypocrisy and harm being caused in religion’s name. Doc, you are doing people a service by showing why “none” is a sane option for many.

    Many of the “nones” are spiritual and religious in nature. Those are people who find organized religion unsatisfying and unnecessarily polarizing.

    The more we see reactionaries bemoaning “societal decline” and invoking fictional “golden eras”of the past, the less relevant they become. The only thing going downward in the US and UK these days is the number of people willing to give white male christians, the sole voice in society and government. People have been talking of “moral decline” since the Puritans. It was silly back then, it remains so.

  • Charles Freeman

    Excellent question, Paula. Could it be a tendency to seek controversy, rather than even-handed information? Would you be hinting that RNS publishes to attract attention, rather than to inform? The author of this blog, Cathy Grossman, just touched the suface of facts for the studies done in various countries by different survey organizations. Her conclusion: that there are some differences in survey results between countries and surveying organizations, but, in genenral, results show that people are claiming to be nonaffiliated at increasing rates within and between countries. What an astounding claim! We’ve know this for quite some time now.

  • Harriet

    To narrow the focus to Christianity in the West, there are two reasons why it’s dying. First, as it’s developed, it’s incompatible with modernity. Not with science or the intellectual assumptions of the Enlightenment but with modern social arrangements and ethical commitments, in particular with the rejection of traditional sex roles. Weber thought modernity would kill religion and sociologists are still puzzled why it wasn’t killed 200 years ago–because they don’t take into consideration the fact that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution only affected half of the population. Most women were still living the same pre-modern lives their remote ancestresses lived, outside of the market, taking care of the home and children until the late 20th century, when labor force participation became the norm for married women–and churches collapsed. Women traditionally made religious choices for their families–dragged unwilling husbands to church. Now they aren’t doing that

    So now religion is only thriving amongst people who haven’t gotten to modernity–people of the Global South–and those who reject it: in the US, working class and rural Americans nostalgic for “family values”, i.e. sex roles. In purely practical terms, in the 1950s heyday of American religion, women shlubbed around in house dresses during the week, taking care of the kids, and were more or less isolated. On weekends it was a kick to get dressed up, get out of the house, stick the kids in Sunday School and have a little adult conversation. Men then were dressing up and getting out to work every day: they wanted to sleep in and relax on weekends. Now women are in the same boat, and don’t want to go to church much less drag unwilling husbands. Moreover, the traditional church culture geared to appeal to traditional women didn’t appeal to working women or, more so, to women who had careers rather than jobs. Lawyers and corporate VPs didn’t want to help with bake sales–or deal with old ladies who thought they were uppity because they didn’t.

    Secondly, even for individuals who’ve never experienced it, conservative Evangelical Christianity has become the paradigm of religion. If you read comments on blogs–and I read lots–it’s clear that even people who’ve never seen it first hand imagine that American-style Evangelicalism is paradigmatic religion–and that all religion, with the possible exception of Buddhism, is homophobic, misogynist, judgmental, puritanical, yada-yada-yada. I’ve seen this consistently even on blog comments from the UK, where this style of religiosity is anomalous: it’s the public image. It’s a cultural assumption, like the assumption of pure white marble Greek temples and statues when they were in fact garishly painted.

    So now YOU tell me how to fix this. Religion isn’t belief or even “spirituality” of a social practice–fancy buildings and ceremonies are essential. And if the Nones defect there’s not going to be the money to maintain them.

  • Yes, there is a Western trend (Europe and USA) to “no religion” and yes, there have been lots of stats on this. But when there is a new, reputable statistic, we tell readers about it. If the newest findings don’t align with earlier stories, it seems fitting to address why.
    And yes, Charles, we do publish to be read. Otherwise, I’d simply keep a diary at home. Just kidding. I’m not interested in sensationalizing statistics. I report on them when they reveal interesting trends.
    That said, I think folks who would like to see reporters such as me move on from Rev. Mohler make a good point. Thanks! Keep these ideas coming.

  • Dave Taylor

    I think the declining amount of people checking the ‘religion’ box is not actually about belief. It is about support.

    There is a massive amount of people that do not particularly go along with belief in a religion but generally find it to be good thing and offer their support and encouragement by ticking the ‘religion’ box.

    That was until the aggressive muslim religion became a major feature in the news and before the scandal of abusive clerics.

    The trends noticed in this report are a measure that society no longer considers religion a good thing and are simply withdrawing their support.

    Actual belief is just a small part of this, particularly as people are unlikely to be changing their actual beliefs so quickly

  • Leo

    The only religion “growing” in Britain is Islam. Now that the Brits have lost their cultural moorings, it will make the takeover so much simpler.

  • Doc Anthony

    Seemingly, Christians are automatically “driving people away” from church if they publicly express agreement with the Bible, these days.

    Nobody wants to “drive people away” from church, but Christians are not gaining credibility with anybody (and especially not the “nones”), when they start ducking and disagreeing with their own Bibles, and refusing to take a public stand when a public stand is called for.

    Honestly, if not “driving people away”, if reaching out to the “nones”, means I’ve got to de facto surrender to the gay marriage activists (as Pope Francis has done), or if it means I have to refuse to give straight “right-or-wrong” answers to sincere inquirers like journalist Katie Courie (as New York pastor Carl Lentz has done), then it’s “No deal, thanks.”

    Besides, what good is being a “none” anyway? All it means, in essence, is that you prefer not to worship anybody but yourself. What in the Sam Hills good is that?

  • Larry

    So you are saying that you openly WANT to drive people away from organized belief if it does not conform to your ideas. Yes it is precisely this attitude which makes “none” a saner option for many. This all or nothing approach many people claim is a part of their religious belief. If it doesn’t conform to their sect’s ideas, it is worthy of denigration or destruction.

    You are saying that any church which disagrees with your notion of Christianity is not worth keeping alive. Believe it or not, many people ascribe to interpretations of the Bible, which differ from yours. All of them are as Christian as you. The only person worshiping himself is you. You are under the delusion that only your version of religion is the one everyone needs to follow. That there are no principles which differ from your own. Pure narcissism on your part. I can see why many who believe would want no part of that.

    I would be ashamed if I was somehow associated with the same faith and sect as someone like yourself. Religions tend to lose people the minute they think God is a political ally. It cheapens religious belief and undermines the credibility of religious institutions.

    Keep it up. In no time the only believers left in organized religion will be the ones too crazy and self-absorbed to bother with anything else.

  • Doc Anthony

    Actually, I have no desire to “drive people away” from church. I actually like the Pope’s new emphasis on re-connecting with people, especially with the poor. Good to see Carl Lentz finding some ways to re-connect New Yorkers to Christ in an evangelical setting.

    But surrendering to gay marriage activists, ducking and refusing to publicly agree with one’s own Bible — that’s not reconnection, that’s simply disaster. Katie Couric wasn’t asking Carl Lentz to agree with Couric’s interpretation about Bible texts and gay marriage, she just wanted him to simply say an honest Yes or No on what HE personally believed the bible said on the topic.

    Lentz’s obvious refusal to do so, may well have created a NEW batch of nones, just off of his starkly embarrassing refusal. That’s what I’m talking about.

    Doesn’t matter how many “nones” you connect with if it means you have abandoned your own Bible, whether directly or de facto. You might as well close up shop and become a “none” yourself.

    But that leads to the following: What good is being a “none” anyway? What spiritual benefits do you get? You’re just floating out there with no spiritual anchor, just trying to be your own god. How is that choice working out for you Larry?

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  • Hal Watts

    Like it or not, the loudest voices that we hear are those of the Evangelicals, who are not especially known for their compassion or their intelligence. The longer they seize the microphone, the more they will drive away.

    My only hope is that Pope Francis will live long enough to lead a reverse of the very unhealthy trends the church has suffered from.

  • Ian Clark

    I have thoughts on this matter, but since I can’t articulate them any better than Abraham Heschel already has, I will just share his words:

    “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.”

  • Ian Clark


    I’d like to just address one of your points: that religion is only thriving amongst those who haven’t “gotten in to modernity”.

    I think this is totally off base. I live in London, and I attend what I would consider a “traditional” Protestant church. Our congregation is full of very “modern”, successful, educated people. My wife, by contrast, is Catholic so I often join her to mass. Likewise, there: the congregation is by no means the backwater anti-modern folks you seem to imply they should be. Rather, the vast majority are smart, committed people who believe in a strong sense of morality and see that the world cannot be explained in the physical alone.

    You’ve tried to come across in your lecture here as an observant intellectual. I’d encourage you, instead, to visit some congregations and really meet the people wo make them up. Reality hardly meshes with your thoughts as expressed throughout your comment.

    Religion may be on the decline in some parts of the world, but hardly so for the reasons you’ve identified.

  • Ian Clark

    Oh, and Harriet: be careful of labels such as implying that people of the “global south” haven’t “gotten into modernity” or that the American “working class” and “rural” people reject it. Get off your high horse. Your borderline racism comments simply serve to isolate you in the “pure white temple” you seem to despise.

    As an academic researcher and professional in the field of economic development, I frequently travel to many of these parts of the world: South America, Africa, etc. I’ve just recently returned from Colombia. Religion is no crutch to these wonderful people, nor a handicap to development. Indeed, many of the are using it to development ethical, responsible societies and businesses – something we, in the West, sold perhaps take note of as we evaluate our own entrepreneurial spirit.

    Likewise, while I reside in London now, I am an American citizen and have spent most of my life there. To imply that the “working class” reject modernity is elitist nonsense.

    I’m not sure who you think your are or why I am spending my time speaking to someone like you. But I will say this: your beliefs are amongst the most horrifyingly elitist comments I have ever heard.

    And by the way, while I have to boast, I have worked for some of the world’s most well known consultancies in the financial services sector, I hold postgraduate degrees, am married, and do well for myself financially. And guess what? I have no problem helping with a bake sale if needed and, certainly, have no problem dealing with the elderly, downtrodden, or poor. Why? Because I am a man of faith and I don’t believe in selfishness as you imply modern people like me should. And guess what again? I’m not alone. I’m not a rarity.

  • Ian Clark


    I wonder if, in time, this will have a bolstering effect on Christianity. As people begin to feel or see that their culture is being diluted, perhaps they will counteract that by re-embracing their Christian religion. It wouldn’t be a totally foreign idea…we have often seen people turn to their faith in challenging times. What do you think?

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  • Joan C

    Thank You, I was wanting to say exactly that myself. That Britian has more Muslims in it now than any other time. They will take over like rats, and ruin Christianity. Thats what their goal is anyway. Its so sad to read and watch it happen. Muslims are like a big bowling ball that will wipe Britians orginal religion down faster than anything. Happening everywhere, along with the ole USA. So so sad. But I believe its just showing the end. Our bible is true, and so is our God, Jesus Christ, the Almighty. We have to stand strong in our faith. Very strong!

  • Joan C

    Britian and the US and many more countries are becoming NONE, because of Islam wiping everything out. If you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything! I believe in Jesus Christ and his words, and see the end that He told was gonna come.

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  • Kem guyer

    well not so fast, please. yes other religions are growing and growing fast, for one reason Christianity has been water downed for over 100 yrs so you have week Christians everywhere. but the Lord is still in control and I will show you this. man has failed but not God, he knew this was going to happen. now here is something that is very neat. you see all religions have to recognize the Lord Jesus Christ as their lord, it don’t matter if you are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Budduhist, a satanian worshipper. or what ever you are, a non believer, athethist. or any nation. or leader. and any government, even the anti Christ, the internet, Nasa , it don’t matter because the Lord has planted his well being inside us all just by using the date!! 2013 soon to be 2014 in the year of our Lord on everything we send , buy, trade use, that’s 2013 years are He died on the cross!! and started the calendar that we all use through out the entire world, any questions!!

  • Paula

    Clark, I think you just made my point.

    In the popular imagination, there are fundamentalist Christians — Nones, and people of other religious communities. But “fundamentalist” is what many people think of when they think of Protestant Christianity in America. Maybe it is because, as another comment here suggests, fundamentalists have recently been set up to fight a culture war, which means they have perhaps been more savvy about grabbing the airwaves.. They blog, they run spiffy websites and they are ready to make simple, clear statements when called. I’m not sure who is responsible for the assumption that more progressive voices must be secular ones — but it is simply not true.

    The Dean of Yale Divinity School is not a None. He is a Church of Christ minister. The Dean of Harvard Divinity School might have been an interesting person to consult on this question — his field of study is church history. and his most recent scholarship has been about global Christianity and religious pluralism.

    Non-fundamentalist Christians have a similar problem to moderate Muslims. For people who don’t think much, don’t read much, Al Queda is the very definition of Islam. I really appreciate Ms. Grossman and other journalists who are taking this question — who speaks for a tradition? — seriously.

  • Fount

    It is fascinating to see the continuing and intense concentration on the fastest weakening areas of Christianity around the world. Great Britain (really Western Europe as a whole) and the U.S. are certainly losing Christian believers at a rapid pace never before seen in their history. The Muslims are swelling up in Europe as well all over the world – so it is proclaimed that the “Christian sky is falling”! So little doubt that Christianity will soon have nobody in any church anywhere in the world!

    But – not really.

    In 1900 the world market share of Christianity was 34%, meaning all the rest (Muslims and Others included) were 66%. By 2000 the world market share of Christianity had PLUMMETED TO… 33% with all the rest (Muslims and Others included) rocketing up to… 67%! What happened is that the rest of the world simply shifted primarily from Chinese Folk Religionists to Muslims & Others.

    The latest trends since 2000 also shows Christianity worldwide growing faster than the rest of the world combined (albeit slower than the Muslims and the Others) – so we (I myself am a born again Christian) are headed back up to the 34% world market share – the exact same place as 114 years ago. Do note that this 34% is also an all time high in world market share for Christianity.

    So what is really happening? As rapidly as Western Europe and the US shifted downward in their Christianity – Africa and Asia have offset it nearly person for person. Late stats show of the 77,000 new Christians worldwide per day (not the sign of a dying religion) – 70,000 are in Africa and Asia.

    The WHOLE news is the REAL news…

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