(RNS) — The future of religion in America may be summed up in a single word.
Let me explain.
One of the biggest stories in American religion in recent decades has been the rise of the “nones" — those who claim no religious identity.
Some are atheists. Others agnostics.
But most just don’t care about God. Or organized religion.
They are “nothing in particular” — a category first tracked by Pew Research.
The latter group makes up about 1 in 5 Americans, according to the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a survey that is based at Harvard and has been conducted biannually since 2006. Its true advantage is sheer sample size — 60,000 respondents in 2018.
These “nothing in particulars” might be the most consequential portion of America’s rapidly changing religious landscape, because they speak to a larger problem: unmoored members of American society.
Americans who identify as “nothing in particulars” tell surveyors that they have lower levels of formal education than other Americans. And they tend to have rates of social and political involvement that rank near the bottom of any religious group.
The data indicates that those who are “nothing in particular” aren’t just cut off from organized religion. They have disconnected from many of the foundational structures that hold us together as communities.
If the trend continues, the United States may be headed for a very disjointed, disaffected and lonely future.
First, it’s important to get a sense of how large this “nothing in particular” category is compared with other religious traditions.
Protestants make up the largest share of the American population, with nearly 40% of Americans identifying as Baptist, Methodist, nondenominational or any of dozens of other permutations of Protestant belief, according to the 2018 CCES.
The second largest group is the one in question: nothing in particular. Twenty percent of Americans respond to the religion question by saying, essentially, “Meh.”
Twenty percent of all Americans respond to the religion question by saying: “none of the above.” They are followed closely behind by Catholics at 18%.
Then there is a significant drop-off until we reach the next groups.
Eight percent of Americans are “other faiths” — Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and other groups that individually make up less than 1% of the population.
Then comes atheists and agnostics (both at 6%), followed by Jews (2%) and Mormons (1%), according to the 2018 CCES. These percentages are likely to change in the future, mostly due to the “Meh” factor.
Over the last decade, there is a clear and unmistakable trend: The group that has grown the largest in sheer numbers is “nothing in particular.”
Fully 1 in 20 Americans joined this group in the last 10 years. That’s the functional equivalent of every Southern Baptist in the United States becoming “nothing in particular.”
While other groups have seen some modest growth (atheists have gone from 3.4% in 2008 to 6% in 2018, and nondenominational Protestants added 1.6%), nothing comes close to the growth of “nothing in particular.”
What do “nothing in particulars” look like demographically?
They have an average age of 43.8, which rivals atheists (42.7) and agnostics (43.7), but is much younger than Protestants (51.7) and Catholics (49).
“Nothing in particulars” have a greater degree of gender balance (48.8% male) than atheists, who are 60.7% male, and agnostics, who are 56.1% male.
In terms of racial demographics, just 70% of “nothing in particulars” are white, compared with 81% of agnostics and 83.5% of atheists who are.
Education is one area that separates the “nothing in particular” group from other religious categories.
Among 10 of the largest religious groups surveyed by the team at Harvard, the “nothing in particular” group has the lowest average level of education, by a tremendous margin.
While about one-quarter of "nothing in particulars" have at least a four-year college degree (27.1%), their level of educational attainment pales in comparison with the rest of the nones. For instance, 47.5% of agnostics and 51.5% of atheists have a bachelor's degree or more.
Why is this an area of particular concern?
Because social scientists have long known that education leads to a significant increase in participation in the community. People with greater levels of education are more likely to vote, volunteer for a political campaign or donate blood. All these activities fall under a social science concept called “social capital.”
Made famous in Robert Putnam’s seminal work “Bowling Alone,” social capital is the invisible force that holds people together as a community.
It makes people want to attend school board meetings even if they don’t have school-age children. It motivates people to participate in a cleanup day at the city park.
Social capital is a sense of belonging and togetherness that makes people feel connected to their neighbors and their community. Education helps to generate higher levels of social capital, according to the literature.
The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study asked respondents if they had engaged in one of five activities: attended a local political meeting, put up a political yard sign, donated money to a candidate/campaign, volunteered for a political campaign or given blood.
Guess which group was the least likely to check any of those boxes?
The “nothing in particulars.”
According to the CCES 2018, nearly two-thirds of the “nothing in particulars” had participated in none of the five activities in the past 12 months. That was the highest of any of the groups in the survey.
Education, rather than religion, might play a role. It is possible that lower levels of education may account for lower levels of social capital and civic involvement. However, at each level of education, the “nothing in particular” group is less likely to engage in activities than the American public at large.
In sum, we have a group that currently comprises 20% of all Americans, and is growing at an unbelievably rapid pace. This group has the lowest level of education of any religious group, and “nothing in particulars” are less likely to engage in political or social activity than the average American.
As a social scientist, I find this represents a troubling confluence of factors.
By all measures, “nothing in particulars” appear to be a growing segment of society that is “checked out.” They don’t obtain high levels of education, they don’t get involved in the political process and they don’t affiliate with a religious group. In addition, they are three times more likely to say their political partisanship is “other” as well. They are adrift in modern society, refusing to be labeled by a religious group or a political party.
All these things are occurring while Americans express growing levels of anxiety, a rapid increase in opioid addiction and a rising number of suicides.
It would be premature to argue that these things are causally related. But I do wonder if deteriorating mental health is not linked to people who feel left out and left behind from society at large.
For instance, Pew Research found that actively religious people are more likely to describe themselves as “very happy.”
Political, civic and religious leaders need to become aware of this growing group of Americans because if current trends keep up they could have a significant impact on the United States, likely by creating a smaller and smaller pool of volunteers who have to carry the burdens of civilized society. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Southern Baptist Convention trained more relief volunteers than the Red Cross to aid in the recovery.
What happens in two decades when another disaster strikes, the Southern Baptists are 20% smaller and “nothing in particulars” are a third of Americans?
The “nothing in particulars” won't be easily mobilized to fill in the gaps.
No matter how one feels about religion, it’s undeniable that religious traditions have spent decades building networks that operate behind the scenes to support those who are most vulnerable in our society. As the number of socially detached people grows, the ability of faith groups to fill in the gaps will be diminished, and once these ministries disappear, it seems highly unlikely that they can be quickly or easily replaced.
Finding ways to get these individuals to reintegrate into their communities might lead to benefits not only for these individuals but also for towns and cities in their fight to re-create social capital.
(Ryan Burge teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University and is co-founder of Religion in Public. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)