Why are the ‘Nones’ growing so quickly?

Most people know that the group of religiously unaffiliated, known as “Nones,” has been growing significantly in the past decade.

But the question is why.

Surveys in the 1970s and ’80s found that fewer than 10% of U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation. Now, 23% describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”

The obvious assumption is that fewer people in the country are religious. But some argue that, instead, the increase in the “Nones,” is simply because more people are “coming out of the closet,” so to speak. It may be more socially acceptable now to claim that one is an atheist or agnostic or nonbeliever than it was in previous generations.

The Pew Research Center looked into the data to see if the numbers showed a “why.”

According to Gregory A. Smith and Alan Cooperman of Pew, “Americans who are not religiously active and who don’t hold strong religious beliefs are more likely now than similar people were in the past to say they have no religion.”

But they make the point that there is more to it than that. The share of Americans with low levels of religious commitment also has been growing. Another factor is generational change.

“If you think of America as a house of many different faiths, then instead of imagining the “Nones” as a roomful of middle-aged people who used to call themselves Presbyterians, Catholics or something else but don’t claim those labels anymore, imagine the unaffiliated as a few rooms rapidly filling with nonreligious people of various backgrounds, including young adults who have never had any religious affiliation in their adult lives,” Smith and Cooperman write.

According to the 2014 Religious Landscape Study by Pew, there is a distinct generational pattern. Young people who are not particularly religious seem to be much more comfortable identifying as “Nones” than are older people who display a similar level of religious observance.

Almost 80% of Millennials with low levels of religious commitment describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”

Also, the share of the population that exhibits low levels of religiosity is growing. In 2007, for instance, 14% of U.S. adults had a low level of religious commitment (based on self-reported rates of attendance at worship services, daily prayer, certainty of belief in God and self-described importance of religion in people’s lives). By 2014, the share of U.S. adults with low religiosity had grown to 19%.

“Millennials, who make up a growing share of the population as they reach adulthood and older Americans die off, are far less religiously observant than the older cohorts,” Smith and Cooperman write. “Whether Millennials will become more religious as they age remains to be seen, but there is nothing in our data to suggest that Millennials or members of Generation X have become any more religious in recent years. If anything, they have so far become less religious as they have aged.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation