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Losing Our Religion: The Growth Of The ‘Nones’

This week, NPR's Morning Edition explores the "nones" — Americans who say they don't identify with any religion. Demographers have given them this name because when asked to identify their religion, that's their answer: "none."


Source: Gallup

In October, the Pew Research Center released a study, 'Nones' on the Rise, that takes a closer look at the 46 million people who answered none to the religion question in 2012. According to Pew, one-fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation, a trend that has for years been on the rise. (A more recent Gallup poll shows the uptick in religious nones slowed a bit from 2011 to 2012.)

In a nutshell, the group:

  • comprises atheists and agnostics as well as those who ally themselves with "nothing in particular"
  • includes many who say they are spiritual or religious in some way and pray every day
  • overwhelmingly says they are not looking to find an organized religion that would be right for them
  • is socially liberal, with three-quarters favoring same-sex marriage and legal abortion

Perhaps most striking is that one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation. When comparing this with previous generations under 30, there's a new wrinkle, says Greg Smith, a senior research at Pew.

"Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell," Smith tells NPR Morning Edition co-host David Greene. "This really is something new."


Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press

But why?

According to Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who writes about religion, this young generation has been distancing itself from community institutions and from institutions in general.

"They're the same people who are also not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club," Putnam tells Greene. "I don't mean to be casting that as a critique of them, but this same younger generation is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were."

The trend, Putnam says, is borne out of rebellion of sorts.

"It begins to jump at around 1990," he says. "These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue."

And the rise of the nones has had a significant political impact. As NPR's Liz Halloran detailed last month, the voting nones helped give President Obama a second-term victory and have become, as Smith says in the story, a "very important, politically consequential group." Halloran writes:

The religiously unaffiliated voters are almost as strongly Democratic as white evangelicals are Republican, polls show.

So far, the trend has not translated to more nones in Congress, according to Pew. Only one member of the new Congress — Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — identifies as a none. Democrat Pete Stark had been Congress' sole atheist, but he was defeated in November.

Still, religion still rules in America, as Putnam tells Greene.

"Even with these recent changes the American religious commitments are incredibly stronger than in most other advanced countries in the world," Putnam says. "The average American is slightly more religious than the average Iranian, so we are a very religious country even today."

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Avatar for user 'pwyguy'

pwyguy | January 14, 2013 at 8:58 a.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

I coined the term "apatheist" to refer to my own "noneness". I do not believe in the religious explanation of our existence, but I am not an atheist and its insistence that there is no sense to religious belief. I simply am one for whom religion holds little interest.

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Avatar for user 'Anon1'

Anon1 | January 14, 2013 at 9:23 a.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

"With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion. "

-Steven Weinberg

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Avatar for user 'yogirich'

yogirich | January 14, 2013 at 9:27 a.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

The best news I've read in a long, long time. As one who travels internationally I know America is thought of as the land of religious whackos. Hopefully here is light at the end of the tunnel wih religious institutions as the cause of sectarian war, human overpopulation and gender/sexuality inequality.
We can be religious without religion and good without god.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | January 14, 2013 at 11:15 a.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

yogirich I would consider places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, etc. to be full of religious whackos. They are, after all, the ones bombing and killing thousands of people a year.

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Avatar for user 'RegularChristian'

RegularChristian | January 14, 2013 at 2:49 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

As a practicing Christian I can say that I don't think we have to worry about the dwindling numbers of people identifying themselves as religious. The religious impulse is alive and well. It is, after all, a human instinct, just like any of the other human instinct.

What is being lost is a certain brand of religion, the old idea of a superhuman God somewhere (heaven) dispensing mercy and justice in this world now and then. That's a god thing to leave behind. There are better ways to practice faith, including Christianity.

What's more worrisome to me is the growing popularity of angry, fear-driven fundamentalist all over the world, including here in the good old USA.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | January 14, 2013 at 3:25 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

RegularChristian - you call yourself a Christian, but do you believe in and follow the Bible? The Bible outlines the only way to practice Christianity, and there are no other options. If you are not following the Bible, you are not practicing Christianity.

Excuse me if I am wrong, but it seems that you do not believe in the "God" described in the Bible, but you call yourself a Christian. I find that to be quite a contradiction. Again, sorry if I am misreading you.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | January 14, 2013 at 8:24 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

"is socially liberal, with three-quarters favoring same-sex marriage and legal abortion"

Then how to explain the acidic and atheist Chris Hitchens' opposition to on-demand abortion?

When we start to pigeon-hole groups, whether in agreement or disagreement, one has already lost the debate.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | January 14, 2013 at 8:28 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

YOGORICH, your thesis is unsupported and it becomes a trite cliche.

Let me ask you this, do our imperialistic ventures since the 1800s up to our present involvement in Southwest Asia cancel out our Jeffersonian ideals? Like I say in my other post, you already lost the debate when you start pigeon-holing groups.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | January 14, 2013 at 8:29 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

Who is Steve Weinberg, Alanon 1? Such a wise man that I haven't even heard of him! LOL


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Avatar for user 'yogirich'

yogirich | January 18, 2013 at 6:33 a.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

More pidgeon-holes (AKA facts)...Americans are also known (by those who travel independently to other countries) as gun crazy and violent (with more people in our prisons than the rest of the world's prison population combined!).
Thanks for the under 30's who don't place credence in the fabled stories of the bearded boys in bedsheets hearing voices in the desert shouting "my guy is better than your guy!".

"seein' is believin'...but believin' ain't always what you're seein'"...Yogi Berra

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Avatar for user 'RegularChristian'

RegularChristian | January 18, 2013 at 7:58 a.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

One does not need to believe the Church's dogma to be a practicing Christian today. The same is true for all faith traditions. What's dying is the orthodox part of religion.

One can read the Bible metaphorically and live a Christian life with honesty and integrity. All you need is a conscience, a brain and a heart. Look at the Sea of Faith in England. In the USA, Marcus Borg and others are leading the way in this enlightened form of worship.

Or, you can dig in your heals and become a fundamentalist. That's what Islam has mostly done. It's a dead end. But it's not limited to Islam. Every faith tradition has fearful people lashing out with hate within their fold. It's just not necessary.

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Avatar for user 'Commenter'

Commenter | January 18, 2013 at 9:10 a.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

As one of today's young atheists, I was very pleased to hear this generally well-balanced review. Like many member of my generation, I was raised in a religion (Judaism, in my case). My decision was not so much one to "leave" religion but an acknowledgement that I personally had never needed a deity to explain the world around me. That view is certainly not for everyone, and people are entitled to believe whatever they'd like. Freedom of religion is important.

In general, it seems that religion has the potential to do great good or great damage. In my mind, one of the most important roles of religion is serving as society's moral compass. Myself and many of my generation (although certainly not all, no "pigeonholing" here) are turned away by what we see as religion failing to lead on some important moral issues. For example, most younger individuals have more socially liberal views on gay marriage. Certainly a Christian gay should be more able than I to be married in their church -- although often the opposite is true (I know this because I am happily engaged and planning a wedding). For myself, religion's lack of preaching acceptance and equality on this issue is a major failing.

Finally, I would like to disagree with Robert Putnam. Lack of involvement in religion does not imply lack of involvement in the community. I am a KPBS member for one pertinent example, I volunteer in community activities, and am actively involved in many community groups.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | January 18, 2013 at 10:33 a.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

YOGRINCH, that is very true. More people in prison than other other nation. It was published a couple of years ago in the NY Times.

Why? Because we have more petty laws than ANY other country in the world. Stick your hand in your neighbor's trash and you are breaking the law. It is NOT because if some STUPID PET PEEVE of yours. A stupid long-since debunked neo-malthusian one!

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Avatar for user 'yogirich'

yogirich | January 18, 2013 at 4:20 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

There you have it folks...badly spelled words, bad grammar, incoherent sentences, insults and bad manners...just what's wrong with religion AND America...
Thank you and yes... Mission Accomplished!

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