Some thoughts on the Nones

October 9, 2012

As you've probably already heard, the big news today is that the Pew Research Center has released a new survey (PDF) that shows one in five Americans are unaffiliated with any religious tradition. This marks a significant jump in religiously unaffiliated Americans, who stood at 15 percent in 2007. 

The Pew survey also found that 32 percent of those aged 18 to 29 are unaffiliated, compared to just nine percent of those 65 and older. 

Since this survey is receiving so much attention, I'd like to take brief look at a couple of its findings and what they mean for secularists and religionists.

First, it is important to note that the term "None" does not mean atheist or agnostic. In fact, only 27 percent of Nones say that they do not believe in a God or universal spirit. Nones are also split on whether religion is a force for good or bad. Seventy-eight percent of Nones say religion brings people together, and 77 percent believe religion plays an important role in helping the poor and needy. And while 63 percent of Nones believe religion is losing its influence on American life, they are nearly evenly split on whether that is good (28 percent) or bad (26 percent).

The term None also does not imply that people are basing their beliefs on reason and science. Indeed, 31 percent of Nones claim to have "been in touch with someone who has died"; 25 percent believe in astrology and reincarnation; 19 percent claim to have seen or been in the presence of a ghost; and 12 percent believe people have the power to cast curses and spells. In other words: Nones are not necessarily more rational than any other sector of the population.

That said, it is clear that Nones are not comfortable with religion, especially when it is organized and influencing American politics. For example, 65 percent of Nones say religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives. Nones also reject traditionally religious views on several hot-button political issues: 72 percent of Nones believe abortion should be legal in most or all instances, compared to just 53 percent of all Americans; and 73 percent favor marriage equality, compared to just 48 percent of all Americans. Moreover, a whopping 67 percent say churches are too involved with politics, while 65 percent of Nones disagree that it is important for the President of the United States to have strong religious beliefs, compared to just 29 percent of all Americans.

Many religionists have taken these findings as a suggestion not that Americans are thinking more critically about religion, but that churches need to change their ways. At a press conference this morning, Michael Cromartie, Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said that churches need to focus less on Hell and condemnation and more on salvation and grace. Agreeing with Cromartie was Mike McCurry, former press sectetary for President Bill Clinton, who suggested churches need to aggresively advertise a more social justice-friendly message to Nones in order to get them into church pews.

Yet the findings suggest this likely won't work. For example, 88 percent of Nones say they are not looking for a religion that fits their worldview (so don't come knocking!). Also, just 28 percent of Nones believe it is very important to belong to a community that shares their beliefs and values, compared to 49 percent of all Americans. Seen another way, 31 percent of Nones say it is not too important or not at all important to belong to a likeminded community, in comparison to 16 percent of all Americans. Furthermore, 52 percent of Nones say church does not protect or strengthen morality, compared to 76 percent of all Americans.

In other words: broadly speaking, Nones are happily unaffiliated with religion.

Even if churches did change their message, they would almost certainly experience difficulties in courting Nones. One of the top answers from Nones regarding why they no longer attend church services is that they face practical obstacles, such as work and family obligations. How could churches possibly overcome these issues?

And, even if churches did get some of the Nones into their pews, it's not a given that the Nones will stay put. The top answer from Nones on why they no longer attend church services is that they don't agree with religion, or don't think it's necessary to attend church (for moral guidance, etc.). So, churches can water down their message all they want, but there will still exist dogmas likely to make Nones squirm (67 percent of Nones think churches are too focused on rules). Of course, churches can do away with dogmas altogether -- but then, would they really meet the definition of religion?

In summary, I think today's survey marks a welcome trend away from religious orthodoxy and toward individual thinking in the U.S. But secularists and skeptics shouldn't get terribly excited, because the survey does not necessarily mark a trend toward atheism or, more broadly, a reason-based approach to life.

Which, I might add, is precisely why organizations like the Center for Inquiry are so integral: the promotion of atheism and respect for atheists are absolutely important, but we need to rally around more comprehensive ideas -- reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanism -- if we really want to foster a decent society.