(RNS) — Church attendance has fallen since the pandemic, and an increasing proportion of the American population now chooses some version of “none” (atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”) when pollsters ask about religious identity. According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2022 American Values Atlas, about 27% of the U.S. population claimed to have no religious affiliation.
This decline of religion is 40 years in the making and particularly pronounced among young Americans. Yet our recent research finds that when it comes to Easter practices, some “nones” are perhaps not as irreligious as they are commonly depicted, especially if their social circles are likely to be celebrating the holiday. We also find that “nones” from different racial and ethnic groups exhibit quite different patterns and levels of Easter practices.
With generous support from a PRRI research grant, in March and April 2023 we surveyed 1,092 Americans including an outsize proportion of Latinx and Asian Americans to help us understand the religious practices of these groups. Consistent with PRRI’s study, 27% of our sample identified as religious “nones,” but interestingly, 27% of this group attended religious services at least a few times a year; 14% of them indicated that they were “extremely” or “somewhat likely” to attend a religious service on Easter.
Strikingly, a much higher percentage of “nones” — 44% — plan to celebrate Easter with friends and/or family.
These could be members of a growing group of nones who participate in secular Easter traditions, but we suspect that religious holidays retain a cultural and familial significance long after practitioners have left religious affiliation behind. Particularly for white and Latinx “nones,” a sizable majority of whom were raised in Protestant or Roman Catholic families, Easter celebrations are an opportunity to gather with extended family, share a meal or hunt Easter eggs, regardless of the religious origins of these practices.
These nones could be attending to please their parents, to enjoy time with their cousins or simply because they enjoy Easter cakes. From this perspective, celebrating Easter among the nones may not be as much about religious observance as it is participating in familial or cultural rituals that are still important to them and their social networks. Such celebrations may serve a symbolic purpose even if divorced from religious significance.
This may be especially true among Latinx “nones,” 20% of whom reported in our survey that celebrating religious holidays is a “somewhat” or “extremely” important component of Latinx identity.
This explanation seems more probable given the racial and ethnic differences we observed in our survey. Although white, Latinx and Asian Christians reported being “extremely” or “somewhat likely” to celebrate Easter with family and friends at similar rates (78%, 82% and 75%, respectively), the racial/ethnic gap between “nones” was much more pronounced.
Compared to the 56% and 60% of white and Latinx “nones” (respectively), only 26% of Asians were likely to celebrate Easter with others. The gap was even larger among “nones” who plan to attend Easter service, with 15% of whites and 30% of Latinx indicating a likelihood of doing so, compared to only 5% of Asians.
These racial differences in Easter celebrations are most likely shaped by the different religious histories of the groups represented in our sample. In our survey, 60% of Asians claim Chinese, Indian, Japanese or Vietnamese ancestry — countries in which Christians make up very small portions of the overall population. Indeed, for many Asians, Christianity bears a strong Western, colonial connotation in the collective memories of these groups.
These racial differences in Easter observance among “nones” might also reflect documented patterns in American social networks. White and Latinx “nones” may have a higher rate of Easter celebration because their family members not only share their race and ethnicity, but are also Christian; 75% of white and 66% Latinx respondents were Christian, compared to just 42% for Asians.
In other words, White and Latinx nones may be more likely to celebrate Easter because they are more likely to have family members who are already celebrating the religious holiday. Asian nones may be less likely to do so because their close family members are more likely to be Asian and non-Christian and, therefore, unlikely to celebrate Easter.
A recent Pew Research Center study lends some support to this speculation. In 2015, only 10% of all marriages in the U.S. were interracial — meaning Asians are more likely to have social connections inside their community. A 2022 report from PRRI suggests that clear majorities of Christian-identified individuals’ social networks are also Christian. By contrast, while religious “nones” are more likely to have other “nones” in their social networks, they still make up only 45% of their friendship networks.
When it comes to Easter, our survey findings provide some initial evidence that “nones” is a bit of a misnomer. The label suggests that all religious nones eschew religious practices, but that is clearly not the case, at least when it comes to who’s coming to Easter dinner.
(Flavio Rogerio Hickel Jr. is an assistant professor of political science at Washington College. Fanhao Nie is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Leah Payne is an associate professor of American religious history at Portland Seminary. Tarah Williams is an assistant professor of political science at Allegheny College. All are PRRI public fellows. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)