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More ‘nones’ than you think, but many won’t show up on Election Day

A quarter of U.S. adults do not affiliate with any religion, making the so-called “nones” for the first time bigger than any religious denomination.

(RNS) A quarter of U.S. adults do not affiliate with any religion, a new study shows — an all-time high in a nation where large swaths of Americans are losing faith.

But while these so-called “nones” outnumber any religious denomination, they are not voting as a bloc, and may have little collective influence on the upcoming presidential election.

The rapid growth of the religiously unaffiliated, charted in a survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute Thursday (Sept. 22), is raising eyebrows even among those who follow trends in American religiosity.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest who chairs Dartmouth College’s religion department. Photo by Eli Burakian, courtesy of Dartmouth College

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest who chairs Dartmouth College’s religion department. Photo by Eli Burakian, courtesy of Dartmouth College

The number of unaffiliated young people has jumped fourfold since 1986 — from 10 to 39 percent. And overall 1 in 4 Americans call themselves unaffiliated, up from 1 in 5  in 2012.

“Wow, it does seem like a big jump,” and it speaks to the nearly universal struggle to keep people in the pews, said Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest who chairs Dartmouth College’s religion department.

“It is for many almost axiomatic how difficult it is to pass religious passions from one generation to the next.”

"Growth of the Religiously Unaffiliated, 1972-2016." Graphic courtesy of PRRI

“Growth of the Religiously Unaffiliated, 1972-2016.” Graphic courtesy of PRRI

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton may be pleased to learn that these numerous nones overwhelmingly favor her over her GOP rival Donald Trump — 62-21 percent in the poll, which was conducted in late July and early August.

But despite their heft, the religiously unaffiliated is no voting bloc.

A second major takeaway from the study: though growing, the group is not voting.

In 2004 the nones comprised 14 percent of the public but only 10 percent of voters. In the last presidential election they jumped to 20 percent of the public, but inched up only to 12 percent of voters.

"Religiously Unaffiliated Americans: Growing but Not Voting." Graphic courtesy of PRRI

“Religiously Unaffiliated Americans: Growing but Not Voting.” Graphic courtesy of PRRI

“For me the big question is ‘will this group come out in November and really throw their weight around?’” said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s research director and a co-author of the study. “They could have considerable impact on the political direction of the country but have so far chosen not to do so.”

PRRI’s survey of 2,201 American adults is far from the first to try to capture the size of the nones, the reasons for their lack of religious affiliation and their role in politics. But the report on the survey, titled “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion — and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back,” takes one of the most detailed snapshots of the group to date.

The survey also hints at how their growth may portend a nation where religion no longer informs a predominant cross section of Americans on what it means to be a good person and citizen.

“I wouldn’t say we are destined to become a completely secular country by any means, but we are venturing into uncharted waters in terms of our religious identity,” said Cox.

“Historically most people consider this country a Christian nation, or a country where Christianity has been central. We may be entering a period where that is no longer true.”

(The study follows the publication earlier this year of a book by study co-author and PRRI founder Robert P. Jones, titled, “The End of White Christian America.”)

According to the poll — which has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points — the nones have outstripped the single largest religious group of Americans: Catholics, who are now 21 percent of the adult population. The next largest group, white evangelical Protestants, represent 16 percent.

"More Young Adults are Unaffiliated than in the Past." Graphic courtesy of PRRI

“More Young Adults are Unaffiliated than in the Past.” Graphic courtesy of PRRI

Also notable in the PRRI study are its finding on youth, and the strength of their disinclination toward religion.

“And there’s not a lot of evidence that they are rushing back to the pews when they get older,” said Cox.


READ: Why most people leave religion? They just ‘stop believing’


While the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans grew up with a religious identity and then dropped it, an increasing percentage of nones started out that way — with no religion to leave.

According to the study: About three-quarters (74 percent) of those under 50 who were raised in unaffiliated homes remain unaffiliated as adults. That compares to half (49 percent) of those 50 and older who were raised without a religious identity and who still do not identify with a religion.

Roxanne Stone, Editor in Chief. Photo courtesy of Barna Group

Roxanne Stone, a former editor at Christianity Today who now studies millennials and their faith at the nonprofit Barna Group, said she for one was not astounded to learn that the number of unaffiliated — particularly among the young — has grown exponentially in just a few years. Photo courtesy of Barna Group

Roxanne Stone, a former editor at Christianity Today who now studies millennials and their faith at the nonprofit Barna Group, said she for one was not astounded to learn that the number of unaffiliated — particularly among the young — has grown exponentially in just a few years.

She sees it in her own number crunching on young peoples’ spiritual lives, but also in her life as a millennial Christian. Her stated intention to attend church on Sunday, she said, has been met by members of her age cohort asking: “People still do that?”

Young people are generally not joiners, she said. “There’s a growing sense of disillusionment with institutions and this plays into why they don’t want to vote.” Many, she said, admire neither of the major party’s presidential nominees, and have little faith that government or other institutions can make any difference.

Stone traces this apathy to the dwindling importance for many young people of community groups and other institutions — including churches — in this increasingly mobile society. Less religious affiliation doesn’t necessarily mean that people are less likely to be believers than they used to be, she added.

“They weren’t going to church necessarily out of belief — but for community. But there are millions of apps for finding friends now.”

Some secular Americans have also noted that while politicians frequently use religious language to cater to evangelicals and other religious Americans, they have been slow to recognize the largest fraction of the “religious” electorate — the irreligious. At the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., in June, nonbelievers hoped to show that they too, can wield political power.

"Three Subgroups Within the Religiously Unaffiliated." Graphic courtesy of PRRI

“Three Subgroups Within the Religiously Unaffiliated.” Graphic courtesy of PRRI

The PRRI poll does find some diehard nonbelievers — people who want nothing to do with religious institutions. But it also found others among the unaffiliated who harbor some positive feelings toward religion.

The nones are hardly uniform in their disbelief and disengagement.

To better understand the group, PRRI researchers sorted the nones according to their answers to two questions: one about the personal relevance of religion, and the other about their perceptions of the social benefits of religion. With these responses Cox and his team found the nones fell into three distinct subgroups:

  1. Rejectionists — The largest subgroup by far  (58 percent) says religion is not important in their lives and does society more harm than good.
  2. Apatheists — At 22 percent, they say religion is not personally relevant to them but generally beneficial to society.
  3. Unattached believers — This 18 percent of the unaffiliated say religion is important to them personally.

Unattached Believers  — whose members among the unaffiliated are most likely to say they regularly contemplate God and religion — skew older than the Apatheists and Rejectionists.

But Balmer — the Dartmouth religion scholar — is not giving up on the young, and said they have not closed their ears to religious teaching.

“I would love to see the response to a candidate who spoke honestly and candidly about values, religiously informed values, and who took seriously the words of Jesus to care for ‘the least of these,'” Balmer said.

“You got a glimpse of it in who I saw as the most religious candidate in the 2016 election,” Balmer continued. “Bernie Sanders. Listen to him. He sounds like a Hebrew prophet, and the millennials responded.”

Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, identifies as Jewish but not religious. He spoke earnestly on the campaign trail about the poor and working class — who he said America has neglected — and garnered more votes from young people than Clinton and Trump combined.

The PRRI survey, conducted in partnership with Religion News Service, was funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

43 Comments

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  • The article claims that atheism is the result of people “losing faith.” The assumption that atheists were once theists is presumptuous, fuzzy-headed thinking.

  • Vote for what,the person preaching on the campaign trail or the person either claiming to be Christian or is vowing to keep God in our Government . Neither has my interest at heart

  • There’s one thing that the religious believers seem to not understand, and that is once you see faith and religion for what it really is – essentially a con game – and become an atheist then there’s no going back. Once an atheist, always an atheist. It proves that knowledge is the real enemy of religion. Once you find out that gods are manufactured figments of early man’s attempts to explain the natural world, and that religion is an outgrowth of this thinking, then any attempts to return to religion will make the nonbeliever feel like an interloper at best and a hypocrite at worst. Want nonbeleivers to become believers? It’s actually easy, simply prove that your god exists!

  • I’m a none, so are my kids, and my friends.

    I’m surprised we only make up a quarter of the population. Where do the 3/4 majority of believers live?

  • “Once an atheist, always an atheist” ?

    Hmm. Another atheist who doesn’t have any access to Google.

    Must be a new trend or something !!

  • It’s not an assumption, it’s borne out by the statistics. Many atheists were, in fact, once committed Christians, seminarians, pastors, Sunday School teachers, etc. Whether they were adherents to the religion because that’s what they were born into and was all they knew, or whether they made a philosophical study of the subject and settled on theism, doesn’t mean they didn’t lose their faith.

  • There’s a story about a reporter for The New Yorker who was surprised that Nixon won in 1972. “I don’t know anyone who voted for him,” she sniffed. You’re answering your own question. I’m sure there are wide geographical differences in the spread of the None population. They call it the Bible Belt for a reason.

  • In my own experience with young people who have left the faith of their families, the reason seems to be that they are angry with something, usually over-authoritarian parents. Our image of God comes mostly from our parents, especially based on our relationship with our father. Also, the schools and social media have been teaching that science disproves the existence of God and that we are nothing more than intelligent animals. For me, if I thought I was just a common animal, I think I would be very depressed. I believe there is something supernatural about humans that allows us to see beauty, feel love, seek truth and meaning, and have a sense of humor. Science, reason and faith are not exclusive of one another. Many, many scientists are believers. Not all scientists are atheist and there are many examples of atheists becoming believers. (You may want to look up Fr. Spitzer or Leah Libresco.)

  • What do you mean by that? I have access to Google, as evidenced by my being here on this website on the Internet.

  • It’s not a cult. It’s a statement of fact. It’s like the way some people thought when they visited the Soviet Union for the first time. Any illusions that they might have had of it being a “paradise on Earth” was wiped out soon after they arrived, when the truth hit them. Once realize there’s no evidence for the existence of a god you can never go back, unless and until compelling evidence for its existence shows up.

  • I have no problem with thinking I am just an intelligent animal. As a matter of fact I feel exalted yet humbled knowing that I am part of a far greater community of species on this tiny blue marble we call home. DNA shows we are all interconnected and related through a very distant ancestor. You shouldn’t fee depressed by this, but uplifted! Also, science does not disprove or prove the existence of God or gods. How can it? All science does is investigate and explain phenomena in the natural world. As far as atheists becoming believers go, I submit that they never were atheists to begin with, or if they were their standards of evidence were very low indeed.

  • The interesting thing about Bernie (despite what the Christan scholar thinks) is that many young people liked him in part because he wasn’t particularly religious.

  • That is the clear-headed thinking that comes from the sum of man’s knowledge to date. As time progresses, the trend will increase because it is that obvious. The young rejectionists of today become the middle-aged rejectionists of tomorrow, and a new generation fills in behind them with the numbers growing exponentially. This is what is supposed to happen; religious fairy tales were just filling in until we, as a species, gained a better understanding, and that understanding can only increase moving forward.

  • You have access to Google? Seriously?

    Then you already have access to the personal life stories of many former atheists (including PhD-level atheists like the late philosopher Dr. Antony Flew), who have ABANDONED atheism for one reason or another.

    You therefore know that the sound-bite “Once an atheist, always an atheist” is automatically false.

    Only a total lack of access to Google could have prevented you from knowing this fact earlier. But at any rate, I’m glad you’re into Googling now!

  • Actually I don’t think it will happen that way. Many of “nones” will discover that their lives are meaningless and empty.

  • The Pope is a world leader with a huge following. Of course political leaders what to talk with him. He’s a religious leader for all Roman Catholics and that’s a heck of a lot of people world wide.

  • “Atheism is a cult. Just one of many in the public marketplace of cults.”

    You make it sound like a “cult” is a bad thing. Here is the definition of a cult, as per Wiktionary:

    1. (offensive, derogatory) A group of people with a religious, philosophical or cultural identity sometimes viewed as a sect, often existing on the margins of society or exploitative towards its members.  
    2. Devotion to a saint.
    3. (informal) A group of people having an obsession with or intense admiration for a particular activity, idea, person or thing.

    Before we continue, let’s clear up one thing. The definition of atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of God, or gods, due to a lack of evidence for their existence. The opposite of this is theism, the belief in the existence of God, or gods.

    Ok, here we go. #1 does not apply to atheism, simply because while we are a group of people with a philosophical identity, we do not exist on the margins of society nor are we exploitative towards each other. We are your relatives and neighbors, living out our lives with no need to believe in a nonexistent deity. unlike religion we do not push our lack of belief on others, but if confronted we will defend ourselves and our position. #2 is self-explanatory. #3 could certainly apply to some of us, but as a group we are not cultish at all.

    I believe this successfully rebukes your accusation that atheism is a cult, which it is clearly not.

  • I tried Googling “atheists who have returned to religion” and got a number of hits. Just for the heck of it I also Googled “theists who have become atheists” and also got a number of hits, so it’s a wash.

    The statement “Once an atheist, always an atheist” is still true, since once you know what atheism is really all about – the lack of belief in gods due to lack of evidence – there is only one way to revert from atheism to theism, and that is encountering evidence that one deems sufficiently strong to prove the existence of a god.

    I have the feeling you’re not going to buy this, but no matter. I stand by what I’ve written down here, and no amount of convincing on your part will ever change my views. Unless of course you come up with some strong, compelling evidence the your God actually exists.

  • ” For me, if I thought I was just a common animal, I think I would be very depressed.” Therein lies the entire problem. If you’re not special, then what is the point? You not only need meaning, you need god to tell you that there is meaning. The nice thing about being an atheist is that you have the awful responsibility of creating your own meaning. Or, you simply dispense with meaning. To say life has no meaning is not to say it has on value.

    “I believe there is something supernatural about humans that allows us to see beauty, feel love, seek truth and meaning, and have a sense of humor. ” We don’t know what animals see or what they think about it. But we do know animals feel love and give love. Seek truth and meaning don’t require religion, god, or faith, but they might require empathy and engagement. I’ve known several animals, especially my cat, Missy, with a sense of humor, though she didn’t like puns. and my other cat, Sparky, did not like jokes about himself.

  • Doc, aka Floyd, also believes that being gay is a religion, gay marriage is a religion, and six other impossible things he believes before breakfast. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to him.

  • Sheer garbage. The charts presented show that in 2012, the last presidential election, “nones” represented 20% of the population and 12% voted, which is 60% of the group. On the other hand, the Bipartisan Policy Center shows that nationwide in 2012, only 57.5% of the population voted. http://bipartisanpolicy.org/library/2012-voter-turnout/
    So, in fact, the “nones” boosted the overall turnout rate.

  • That is a very good question. I have encountered “Christians” who go to church every Sunday and who yet believe in reincarnation (the central belief of Hinduism). I have encountered “Christians” who believe that divinity is within us (a central belief of Buddhism and transcendentalists like Emerson) when Christianity has always taught that God and man are radically apart. With 10,000 different Christian sects in America, it is hard to say what Christians believe anymore. Interesting note: this is exactly what the Catholic Church predicted would happen when the Protestants broke away from the church.

  • You said: “Our image of God comes mostly from our parents, especially based on our relationship with our father.”

    That is a very interesting statement. First of all, leaving out the last clause, it is anthropologically and sociologically true, but at a deeper level than you seem to say. Our first image of deity IS our parents. They are our gods. They are our gods in the early years, and our idea of a god or gods apart from our parents is none the less derived from how we viewed our parents as little children.

    Again, they are our gods, and, I would say, especially our mothers, more than our fathers, as the mother is almost always more in contact with the child than the father. In a patriarchal society, as ours has been, the father may be seen as having more ultimate power, but the mother is always the protector.

    It is for this reason that most societies had male AND female divinities. A father figure was not sufficient to nourish the needs of people. Indeed, the Jewish religion until the Babylonian Captivity paired Yahweh with the goddess Asherah. But as Asherah was too easily identifiable with Ishtar, she had to go during the captivity. That left a hole in the Jewish religion.

    Christianity solved the hole by making Mary the mother of god, impregnated by god himself, and so the wife of god once again as well. The doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption raised Mary to divine status.

  • Taking Bower Birds as an example, it seems clear that animals see beauty. The male Bower Bird creates and adorns the bower and the female examines the bowers of various males to determine which home is the most suitable before choosing a mate. Rather like human relationships, no?

  • This proof was already delivered by Thomas Aquinas in his Five Ways. Please start with the argument from change, which is the easiest to follow for non-philosophers.

  • Your theory of man creating god is overly simplistic but widely held. It is also usually backed up by the demand to prove your god exists which ignores the fact god can’t be proven to not exist. We can’t prove what caused the big bang but we believe it happened. If we can’t prove the cause did it really happen? We don’t know what dark matter and dark energy are and there is no empirical evidence they actually exist but we believe they do. By the same standards your theory and your request for proof are both specious and hypocritical.
    The big bang is mistakenly called a theory. It should be called a hypothesis because neither its occurrence nor its cause can be proven or disproven with any scientifically accepted empirical data. Remember when CERN proved the existence of the Higgs Boson? That research has been viewed very skeptically under peer review and the results haven’t been duplicated. Scientists have become nearly as good as religions in selling their hypothesizes as if they were facts. Be equally skeptical of both.

  • It’s not a direct question of whether God exists, but whether a person can possibly change her mind from “I have no evidence” to “I have evidence.”

  • It’s not clear to me that they see beauty. Evolutionarily, males with the most resources have been able to attract the most females. Do they see beauty, or just elaborate structures with bright objects and understand that’s a resource? And are we any different?

  • @ Robert L: Once an atheist, always an atheist.
    C.S. Lewis is one famous counter-example. You are discounting well educated, reasoned exploration of the possibilities that are contained in the universe. Please don’t generalize all religions using the lens through which your very limited view of religion gave you experience. Make an unbiased exploration of each major religion and you may at least tone down your broad-stroke accusations. Religious individuals are not all conned and not all religions are con games.

  • There are some atheist who do return to religion.. but that doesn’t mean they return to the belief,.. Some people succumb to the social pressure or need for that type of community…

    Do they really believe in God the way the church defines?? Probably not.. They just adjust their definition of God to conform. They also stop talking about details of their beliefs.

    I have had many churches tell me “you don’t have to believe it all.. Pick and choose what is acceptable to you”… I suspect most people attending church weekly are doing just that.

  • Very good question. And I am not sure that anyone really has good answers. I have had dogs that without question understood complex English language sentences, such as “I have to use the bathroom. Could you please move?” and the dog got up and lay back down just outside the threshold to the bathroom. And the range of emotions of dogs seems to equal that of humans. So, I am not prepared to say that we are much superior to animals. We have speech, though now we are learning that whales also have speech. (I had a dog that actually tried to speak English, but lacking the human positioning of tongue, larynx and epiglottis, she failed – and was visibly frustrated.) We understand that what we see in a mirror is ourselves, while dogs appear not to, though elephants clearly understand that it is themselves. When a young man drives up in a shiny, expensive car, is the reaction of the young women any different from that of the female bower bird? It is really hard to say.

  • Can you imagine if they’d elected Shariah Law-loving Hillary Clinton this last election ? She wouldn’t even SAY “radical Islam” when speaking of the Pulse massacre. Didn’t want to offend Huma, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. At least Trump calls out Islamic homophobia. Another reason, I’d like to think, he won.

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