Explaining the rise of the Nones

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Poster for the 2008 movie

Poster for the 2008 movie

Poster for the 2008 movie

Are best-sellers by the New Atheist likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens responsible for the rise of the Nones? Noting that this is a common belief in the atheist community, my RNS colleague Chris Stedman posed that question yesterday to Phil Zuckerman, whose new book, Living the Secular is based on interviews with non-religious men and women across the country. Zuckerman, who directs the Secular Studies program at Pitzer College, took an agnostic position: “It is almost impossible to know if aggressive mocking of religion actually does any good, or has much of a societal impact.”

The answer, I’d say, is more like “No,” and for a pretty simple reason. The rise of the Nones — Americans who say they have no religion — began in the 1990s, years before the New Atheism appeared on the scene.

The first study to register the rise was the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), which found that the proportion of adults who answered “none” to the question “What is your religion, if any?” had increased 42 percent in the previous decade — to 14.1 percent from 8.2 percent in 1990. But that finding was little noticed at the time the survey was released, just two months after the 9/11 attacks. Then, what understandably drew the most attention was the doubling of the Muslim population. The last thing on anyone’s mind was religious decline.

The first new Atheist books — Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism — weren’t published until 2004. They were followed by Michel Onfrey’s The Atheist Manifesto (2005), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006), Victor Stenger’s God: the Failed Hypothesis (2007), and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great (2007). And let us not omit to mention Bill Maher’s 2008 feature film Religulous.

What’s telling is that despite this explosion of anti-religious propaganda, and the attendant publicity that led to its identification as “The New Atheism,” the Nones rose barely at all between 2001 and 2008 — by less than one point, to 15 percent, according to the 2008 ARIS. What the New Atheism did, however, was establish the public narrative for that result. In 2009, ARIS’ discovery of the rise of the Nones was all over the media: Secularism was taking over America!

Since then, in fact, the Nones began another marked rise, to 20 percent or so over the past five years. Certainly, it can be argued that, in addition to setting the terms for a new story about religion in America, the New Atheism has provided them with an ideology that has helped fuel their recent growth.

But many Nones are believers of one sort or another who do not consider themselves anti-religious. And there has always been a significant portion of the American population that is simply indifferent to religion. My guess is that the single most important important factor in the new growth of the Nones has been the establishment of “Nones” as an available demographic category.

Don’t belong to a religious institution and don’t care to? Now, instead of reaching back to whichever one you were brought up in, you can simply say, “None.”

  • cken

    I know many Nones and they definitely are not atheistic or even agnostic. In fact most of them are very spiritual seeking people. Generally they feel organized religion has let them down and they don’t see the point of attendance or belonging. They are seeking the more metaphysical or spiritual meaning in the teachings of Jesus and the Bible generally. For example, Paul said there is one God who is above all through all and within you, but the Christian religions only teach there is one God who is above all. Religion needs to get past their cliched dogma and start teaching the spiritual meanings of the Bible. We all know Jesus died and rose again. We know he was crucified in Egypt also and don’t want some half baked apologetics excuse for that apparent conflict. We also know the world wasn’t created in seven literal days. I could go on but the point is we can read and have concluded there is more to it than ritual and controlling dogma or Olsten’s religious psych 101.
    I still attend a small church, not because I get any learning from it but because i like the people, and church should be more than a social gathering.
    One final opinion: I would venture the average None is more highly educated and probably reads more religious material than the average regular church goer.

  • nunya

    There’s no incompatibility between atheist/agnostic and being “spiritual seeking people”, (regardless of the fact that “spiritual seeking people” is just Oprah-esque woo-woo bilge that doesn’t actually mean anything).

    Your comment is not surprising though as many other idiot theists don’t actually know what atheism and agnosticism are.

  • Norm Martin

    You make some good points especially about the “none’s”. Many people attend church because they like the people and many, many churches are doing good work in their community.
    You did not deserve that abusive comment by “hunya” but I guess that’s to be expected. There is a sickness in our land that disagreeing is never enough, for many it must be followed by calling names, attempting to put the other person down.

  • cken

    Perhaps rather than being vitriolic you could explain how an atheist who doesn’t believe in a god spirit can seek spirituality. To me those are antithetical, and I really would like to understand your philosophy. If you believe in a creative pervasive god spirit but not in some guy sitting on a throne someplace with pearly gates and streets lined with gold then I too would be an atheist/agnostic. The latter in my opinion is an antiquated god concept which has relevance in today’s world.

  • samuel Johnston

    Hi Chen,
    1. “We all know Jesus died and rose again.”
    2. “We also know the world wasn’t created in seven literal days.”
    3. “organized religion has let them down”
    4. “is an antiquated god concept”
    5. “the average None is more highly educated”
    6. how an atheist who doesn’t believe in a god spirit can seek spirituality
    I grew up in the Church and I know several nones (and myself)
    Quote 1. Miracles conflict with modernism, so are unappealing to many of the educated.
    Quote 2. Duh! Such simple minded stories destroy the credibility of Biblical claims in general.
    Quote 3. Duh#2. Organized religion appears to many to be nothing but show business, fancy costumes, and hypocrisy.
    Quote 4 God is the antiquated concept.
    Quote 5. At the least, it is known that there are thousands of Gods and the notion that they have a deal giving authority to the lucky few is a non starter.
    Quote 6. The human spirit or soul does not belong only to the believers. I would assert that it is more potent in the seekers than in the believers.
    The desires and needs of mankind are largely unchanged from Biblical times, but the Church is trying to peddle superstition and magic in an age that demands evidence, logic, and demonstrable results.
    Persons wish to matter, to feel that their struggles and sufferings have some meaning, but magical invisible beings just do not fit in our fact checking times.

  • samuel Johnston

    Hi Norm,
    “There is a sickness in our land that disagreeing is never enough, for many it must be followed by calling names, attempting to put the other person down.”
    Yes, I agree. From my particular vantage point, the principle offenders are the religious, coached as they are by the clergy. I have never known a “none” to come to my door to lecture me, or publicly encourage others to condemn persons merely for their point of view. Neither do they build great, vain, public edifices to their interpretations of reality.

  • Norm Martin

    Thank you for your response. I am a clergy and I have not done what you write of clergy doing (sure some, okay many do so). I have never condemned others for their point of view, however, I have debated with them regarding their point of view. I like the “none’s” they are usually open minded. What we have is many ordained persons who are poorly educated/trained, or whose education is mainly one sided, or both. Also we have some shaky believers who fear reading anything that challenges them, for their faith is rather second hand. As a Christian I have been condemned by a number of atheist for my point of view but probably no more so than by the fundamentalist.

  • samuel Johnston

    I appreciate your honesty and openness. My father was a minister, and he fought fundamentalism (ignorance) and theology (he called it a game), preferring to spend his time supporting the needy. His “faith” was not in propositions, but in what he called “the spirit”. He never criticized my independent streak (not to say he would necessarily agree with my evolving views). He really tried to love his fellow creatures.

  • Chaplain Martin

    I wish I could have known your father. Loving your fellow creatures is certainly challenging.
    I follow the Baptist Joint Committee for religious Liberty (not SBC) and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on the internet. Some of the readers of this blog might be surprised at some of the stands they have taken.

  • cken

    I guess my question is; How can someone who doesn’t believe in the original mother soul, god for lack of a better word, believe people have a soul. Where would have a persons soul have come from without a mother soul.

  • RickRod

    I would classify myself as a “Done”. I was involved in evangelicalism all my life until I was burned out and fed up by scandal plagued leadership. I am not alone as very few of my childhood friends remain in the faith. Not much evidence of God’s power in evangelical churches.

  • Chaplain Martin

    Rick Rod,
    “I would classify myself as a “Done”’.

    Your comment brings to mind I Kings ninetieth chapter when the prophet Elijah ran from Queen Jezebel. In I kings 19:4 he said, “I have had enough Lord.” Later the Lord spoke to Elijah in a still small voice.

    Once I entered treatment for depression. At the time I wanted to throw the whole God thing up in the air so to speak. I told the leader of the group not to refer to me as a chaplain. Through the process of treating my depression and codependency I begin to move toward God. (This was not a Christian based treatment) It was many months before I read the Bible again.

    In I Kings God was not in the earthquake or the whirlwind but in the still small gentle voice.

    I don’t believe God is in the storms created by evangelical fundamentalist, or the stage of the TV mega church, but in the still gentle voice that calls us.

    The voice said to Elijah as Elijah hid: “What are you doing here”? Sometimes it is just the time to something else that will serve God by serving others.

  • cken

    You are right. Christians don’t believe in the power of God. They believe being baptized by the holy spirit only happened in the apostolic era. Unfortunately the Christian religion for 1700 years has stressed the importance of man-made dogma and creeds more than the spiritual meaning of the teaching of Jesus. One could say the church body politic has become more important than teaching the way the truth and the life.

  • cken

    God itself is not antiquated. When science completely understands what we perceive to be physical reality and medical science can cure the cause of diseases, then it might be be fair to say God is antiquated. So far science has barely scratched the surface.
    An atheist believes when you die you are worm food why would they believe in a soul as it doesn’t exist and has nowhere to go.
    Human spirit is little more than egotistical competitiveness which has nothing to do with the spirit of God.
    Without magical invisible entities there would be no miracles.

  • cken

    Norm I think maybe all higher education has become one sided, or to put it another way it is simply extended indoctrination. Discussions, debates and alternative views no longer seem to be allowed in our institutions of higher learning be they religious or secular.

  • samuel Johnston

    You pretend to know things that no thinking knowledgable person would claim to know.
    Generally this happens when folks are merely repeating what they have heard, without processing it first.
    “……. the spiritual meaning of the teaching of Jesus.” (You know this?)
    “Without magical invisible entities there would be no miracles.”
    Imagining a God who is so incompetent that he is constantly having to tweak his creation due to his lack of ability and foresight, is a bit on the lame side.
    My favorite sermon of my father was entitled “Your God is Too Small”. He was trying to be kind. I would say that your idea of God is too stupid!

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  • vrtram

    My apologies for commenting on such an old post. But this is a significant misconception. It is perfectly possible to be spiritual and be an adamant atheist. Rather then using myself as an atheist Catholic (self affiliated, as I’m obviously not in communion with the church) as an anecdotal example, I would point to Buddhism where there is no contradiction with the vast majority of Buddhist teachings and strict, even doctrinaire atheism. The early Buddhist texts in general frown on metaphysical speculation about the deity(s), including the positive affirmation of them or the assignment of specific attributes. The Buddha himself clearly did believe an a set of archaic Hindu Gods, and was not an atheist. But the furthest that he went, was a rather mild suggestion that a good Buddhist was one who carried out his civic duties with respect to showing veneration to his ancestors and the locally worshiped pantheon.

    Later texts, in some traditions, adopted a more florid cosmology, and the role of Gods became more important to explain certain aspects of Buddhism or justify changes in doctrine. But even in those cases, the Gods and their role with humans is always subordinate to the core teachings of the Buddha.

    It should be added that the Buddhist conception of the soul and karma do require the belief of some supra-mundane aspect to the world, but these as formulated by Buddhism are laws in the same way that the force of gravity is and gods (should they exists) are subject to them in exactly the same way that humans are. To reject the supernatural aspects of the Buddhist conception of the soul and karma, as most atheists would, is a heterodox belief in most traditional schools. But I don’t know of any tradition that would claim that you weren’t really a Buddhist if you held that those views. And of course in the West many practicing Buddhists have reformulated the Buddhist conception of the soul and karma in a way to make them compatible with the materialism of modern science and acceptable to atheists. (In much the same way that many Christian churches have revised their beliefs on the creation of the universe and human beings.

  • cken

    Somebody once asked me what religion I was; I said I am Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Universalist. I think there are truths and wisdom in all of these. There are inexplicable gaps in the big bang theory and the theory of evolution which make me believe there is something metaphysical. Even scientists are now proposing there was an inherent energy which existed in space before the big bang. Both science and religions are attempting to explain things we can’t understand or don’t know. They take different paths for their explanations and they use different terminology, but they are starting to arrive at similar concepts to the questions of where we came from and what happens when we die. Scientists, particularly the theoretical quantum physicists, try to comprehend what is unseen and unknown. Mythology, including all religions, are at a disadvantage because they created stories which contained truths which were easy to remember and pass on. I think hidden in both mythology and science there is a common essence of truth we should try to discern. I went through a period in my twenties and thirties of agnosticism and perhaps atheism. later in life I modified my belief when I realized religions problem was it emphasized ritual and man-made dogma while ignoring their basic metaphysical essence.

  • Gryffindor House

    Re Cken: “Somebody once asked me what religion I was; I said I am Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Universalist.”

    Gryffindor ( licensed Buddhist spiritual doctor and theologian ) replies:
    No you are *not* Buddhist. I am Buddhist because I have Buddhist refuge and maintain Buddhist ethical vows. ( I also have Hindu transmissions and Native American spiritual credentials as a pipe carrier of the Lakota Sioux. )
    Without Buddhist refuge and without Buddhist ethics, you are not a Buddhist.
    Unless a person knows and follows the Noble Eightfold Path and has Buddhist Refuge, they are in no way Buddhist. Furthermore, Buddhist Refuge and Teaching are WHOLLY incompatible with the Judeo-Christian traditions.
    It is possible to be Hindu and Buddhist, but the Buddhist ethics dominate, and Buddhist ethics reject some key parts of Hinduism, such as the caste system and animal sacrifice. It is also possible to be a shaman or Native American traditionalist and be Buddhist, or be Taoist and Buddhist.
    But in all cases, the Buddhist commitments take priority and one cannot damage or go against these commitments.
    See Wikipedia references for Buddhism. Then you can get to square one.
    The key text is “Dakini Teachings” by Padmasambhava, but most people cannot read that. It is too clear and powerful and exact a teaching. But it is worth a bookshelf of other books if one can read it. This is my core teaching reference.

  • cken

    I did not mean I was all of those religions in a literal sense. What I meant was I believe there are great spiritual teachings, truths and great wisdom in all of those theological philosophies. Thanks for the recommended book. I will read it. I also think you are correct in adding Native American and Taoist to that list. And while there are major differences among all those theologies; the commonalities of the basic teachings far outweigh the differences.

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