Who the Nones really are

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The Greek word "atheoi" αθεοι ("[those who are] without god") as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians 2:12, on the early 3rd-century Papyrus 46.

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The Greek word "atheoi" αθεοι ("[those who are] without god") as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians 2:12, on the early 3rd-century Papyrus 46.

The Greek word "atheoi" αθεοι ("[those who are] without god") as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians 2:12, on the early 3rd-century Papyrus 46.

The Greek word “atheoi” αθεοι (“[those who are] without god”) as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians 2:12, on the early 3rd-century Papyrus 46.

Ah, Pew, what hast thou wrought? Thanks to that new Religious Landscape Survey, The Rise of the Nones (and the Decline of the Christians) is now all the rage.

Rush Limbaugh casts the blame on Mainline Protestantism for selling its birthright for a mess of LGBT pottage. Bill O’Reilly points the finger at rap music and “pernicious entertainment.” Whatever.

Meanwhile, Ross Douthat spins a new version of the old story that, actually, a lot of Nones still do religious things and that young folks, aka Millennials, may come back to church when they grow up the way their forebears did. Rod Dreher joins Russell Moore in looking for a leaner, cleaner Christianity. And over at GetReligion, Terry Mattingly laments the lack of a term for the opposite of Nones, suggesting (without a lot of conviction) “convictionals.”

So who are these Nones of which we speak?

They’re the people who when you ask them what their religion is, they say, “None.” That doesn’t necessarily mean they disbelieve in God, or that they don’t say prayers, or even that they don’t attend a house of worship. What they’re doing is answering a question about personal identity, as in: What is your nationality? Or, what is your race? Or, what is your sexual preference? Nones are the people who choose not to make a religion part of their identity. That’s why the true opposite of “None” is “Religious.”

Now, there are two ways that you can come to have a religious identity: by ascription or by choice. You can become a Jew, for example, by being born to a Jewish mother (ascription) or by converting to Judaism (choice). Most religious traditions provide for both ways, though to varying degrees. While Baptists restrict church membership to those who make a choice for Christ by having themselves baptized, the fact is that unbaptized children who grow up in Baptist families come to think of themselves as Baptists, and in due course are more likely than anyone else to make the choice to become a Baptist.

The reason that the percentage of Nones has risen as steeply as it has — more than 300 percent in the past quarter century, to 22.8 percent of all American adults, according to Pew — is that since 1990 we have come to understand the question of religious identity as being more about choice than ascription. Thirty years ago, someone who was sent to a Presbyterian Sunday School as a child but who has not darkened a church door in years could well have answered the “what is your religion” question with “Presbyterian.” Now, she is more likely to say, “None.”

What this means is that today, a shrinking proportion of Americans are “nominal” religious identifiers in the strict sense of the word “nominal”: They’re less likely to identify themselves with the name of the religious tradition they were raised in if their only current connection to the tradition is that they happened to be raised in it. That explains why religious belief and behavior have declined far less than the percentage of Nones has risen — about 50 percent less, by my calculation.

Not that the decline hasn’t been significant. Indeed, as Pew shows, the proportion of self-described unbelievers — atheists and agnostics — is on the rise. But the reinscription of nominal religious identifiers as Nones doesn’t do anything to change the actual belief and practice of religion in America. It only changes our perception of the country’s religious layout.

  • Henry

    While Pew is busy surveying the Nones, Jesus had this to say, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

    Will Pew do a survey on how many people who identified themselves as ‘Christian’ actually made it to heaven? Inquiring minds want to know in advance to take corrective measures, proactively. 😉

  • Silly

    We Catholics are halfway there. The notion of Limbo needs to be expanded..

  • cken

    We can be quite certain there is no correlation between church attendance or religious identity and doing the “will of the Father”.

  • Norm Martin

    My personal opinion, after viewing the last forty years of the growth of fundamentalism that started with the SBC in the late 1960s, is that so many of those who call themselves the “nones” just no longer want to be grouped with fundamentalism.
    I have watched for these many years the side into the abyss of legalism, judgementalism, harshness and plain hate. The quest to bring about salvation in others by first condemning them to hell then tell them the Four Gospel Laws to get into heaven not longer scares enough people to get them to repent and chose salvation. You can’t with hold love and grace in human terms and expect a person to recognize love and grace in spiritual terms.

  • samuel Johnston

    Hi Mark,
    “…the proportion of committed unbelievers — atheists and agnostics — is on the rise.”
    Your remark made me ask myself if I qualified, because I hope not. I like to think I am committed to the unfettered search for knowledge and insight. Commitment to any particular method or theory colors/distorts the mind.

  • the growth of the nones represents a loss of strong cultural underpinnings in a religion — such as is found in immigrant communities — coupled with a rejection of the type of magical thinking found in fundamentalism.

  • Matthew Kilburn

    Except it isn’t those “harsh legalistic” denominations who are shrinking, its the mainline Protestants and liberal Catholic denominations who are bleeding members – denominations that have little contact with the stricter, Evangelical strains.

    You’re barking up the wrong tree. Christianity isn’t dying because a certain number of Churches actually still bother to expect of their congregations (and society) obedience to Christian morality, but because a lot of other denominations have made obedience to Christian morality optional. Or downright unnecessary.

    If someone tells you there’s no consequence for failing to go to church, for sleeping around, for being in sinful relationships….that your salvation isn’t affected by any of that….why are you surprised when the people who hear that message decide to stay in bed Sunday morning?

  • Matthew Kilburn

    I think there is a key point that was made by the Pew survey that isn’t getting enough attention: particularly among the younger “nones”, it isn’t just religion that they’re separating from. They aren’t voting, they aren’t declaring a firm political affiliation…we already knew from prior data that they’re not marrying or having children or starting careers or buying homes at the same rate as past generations.

    The rise of the “nones” is not simply a story of people going about life in the same way, just without religion…..it is apparently about a lot of people largely checking out of society.That doesn’t bode well for society, but it also means that such people are highly unlikely to be the ones who determine the future direction – because they’re not producing any descendants to pass their views on to. The future belongs to those who show up.

  • There’s a subset of the Nones, called the “One-and-Dones”.

  • Ben in oakland

    Thank you for identifying the problem perfectly. It’s not a matter to believe that Jesus died for your sins, and accept that gift of the sacrifice and resurrection. No, christianity is now about obeying Christian morality, whatever the hell that is. And my use of the word “hell” is intentional.

    This is indeed the problem with Christianity now. It’s not about the relationship of the self with Jesus. It is all about following the rules as laid down by moralizing busybodies, and trying to contain the creator of the infinite universe with in the covers over the ancient badly translated book.

    Good luck with that.

  • Samuel Johnston

    “I want to go to the stoning”.
    Monty Python

  • Matthew Kilburn

    Just ask yourself this:

    If sin wasn’t a big deal, why did God’s only son need to lay down his life because of it?

    Happy-Clappy Christians like to talk about how Jesus died for our sins, and therefore we’re all saved, so just note that God loves you and do what you feel like….they skip right over why he needed to die for those sins in the first place.

    If they didn’t create a big debt, they wouldn’t have required such a high price.

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  • Spot on. Does anyone suggest/see that the increase in this group has run right along side the growth of social media, the decline of network/organized media, the emphasis on the entire industry of “finding yourself”, “be true to yourself” and all of the other new age, “its all about me”, etc.. in society? What I mean to described is the exponential growth over the past few decades of narcissistic behavior? While selfishness and self centered living is not a new concept (been around since the dawn of man) the ability for anyone in the world to put themselves out in front of thousands has never been greater. Sort of a “look at me” on massive technology steroids. So the none(s) are not really anything new.As a Christian, the Father of Lies is loving every minute of it.

  • Vicar Dave

    A large part of the “nones” are seeing religion as irrelevant to their lives. The issues that matter to them seem to be a non-starter for the churches. They also think the dialogue that seems to matter to “Christians” matter not to them.

    We need to re-engage the world in ways that matter with issues that count. The environment and a future life on the planet matters. The irrelevant belief doctrines of second coming, banning abortion, sexual orientation and the manner of creation don’t compute with well educated reflective young and older adults. The ancient “God of the Gaps” is getting smaller and smaller with every passing day.

    We who are leaders need to stop and listen to God who is speaking to us through the “nones”. We need to break out of our old answer molds and think about a creative response.
    God has placed us in this emergent time and we are called to respond to the age with responses that speak with the “nones” and not at them.

  • samuel Johnston

    “God has placed us in this emergent time and we are called to respond”.
    Listen to yourself. We are here- yes. We need to behave more constructively-yes.
    But “we” are not chosen (placed). Get over yourself!

  • Fmr Cath

    @Silly- The notion of Limbo needs to be expanded..
    The notion of Limbo needs to be EXPLAINED…. from the Bible, please. What exactly is “Limbo” and where is it found in the Bible? I’m just curious because I’ve never seen the word nor the concept laid out in God’s word. Can you point me in the right direction?
    I think more people are becoming “nones” because they are turned off by the politics in churches. Also, people are tired of judgemental, “holier than thou” attitudes among church goers. Religion should also “teach” something credible and useful for our day. How do we apply the timeless principles in God’s word (to ourselves) in our time? After doing much research, I found many of the traditions/doctrines taught to me as a child have absolutely NO BASIS IN SCRIPTURE…

  • Of the atheists I know, all are quite clear as to whether they are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim atheists! Is this perhaps true of Nones in general, recognizing that most of them don’t consider themselves atheist or even agnostic?

  • Charles Freeman

    Henry, there is no god. There is no afterlife. Pew’s survey occurred about 2000 years after the death and burial of a legendary Jesus. If you should find an empirical way to find contrary positions to those expressed above, you should let us know. By the way, using the Bible and personal experience is considered inadequate proof.

  • cken

    The problem Charles is there is no proof of your position either. It really boils down to what you want to believe. If you have any proof there is no god or afterlife that is not circumstantial please let us know.

  • It’s understandable, actually that religious practice has declined less than the number of people who have no religion has grown.

    Church hierarchies, as seen in the Vatican, have believed they must exclude dissidents from their church since they saw them threatening to their very ideal of natural law (especially on gender roles and sexuality) and this has relatively long-term effects as the masses only gradually realise compromise even in the long term will not occur.

    At the same time as those who do believe have to adhere to more rigid doctrine, those who do not are more rigid in their desire to stop this completely – seen currently most clearly in conflicts over homosexuality. Again, desire to liberalise homosexuality has existed for over 200 years and found a mass audience among the European proletariat 150 to 100 years ago, but the ruling classes did not allow it until the 1960s.