New Pew Research poll shines light on ‘Nones’

A large group of people outside the capitol of the USA

Photo of the Reason Rally (2012)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pleased to see a new Pew Research Center report affirming that the “Nones” remain the single largest national group by religious identification.

According to analysis of a survey last year, 28 percent of Americans now identify as “religiously unaffiliated.” This is down one percentage point from Pew’s last major look at the “Nones” in late 2021. It is vexing to read Pew’s headline spin, “Has the rise of religious ‘nones’ come to an end in the U.S.?” (It’s also confusing Pew refers to this group made up of atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular” as “religious ‘nones.’”) As Pew’s new report documents, 28 percent is “marginally lower” than in its 2021 and 2022 surveys, so why the hype?

“The identical results we’ve found in three of the last five years are a sign of stability in the size of this population,” admit Pew’s Gregory A. Smith and Alan Cooperman. “At the same time, in two of the last five years, we obtained readings above 28 percent.” (PRRI has put the “Nones” at 27 percent.)

Whether 27, 28 or 29 percent, the “Nones” continue to be a larger group than any one single religious sect, including Catholics or Southern Baptists. The number of Nones” has dramatically increased since 2007, when this group made up only 16 percent of the American population.

The report, based on interviews with a total of 3,317 “Nones” (658 atheists, 678 agnostics and 1,981 “nothing in particulars”) focuses on a series of questions examining the views of our rapidly expanding group. An NPR report on the poll highlighted a critical effect of the rise of “Nones” as a political force. While evangelicals are known for asserting their influence on politics, their numbers are shrinking while the number of “Nones” has consistently risen. This is certainly cause for hope that reason can replace religious dogma.

Among the “Nones,” 17 percent are atheists, 20 percent are agnostic and 63 percent “nothing in particular.” Atheists almost always register as the most progressive and, well, . . . atheistic of the sector, as this survey shows: 29 percent of Nones believe in neither a god nor a higher power, 56 believe in some “other higher power [than God]” and 13 percent believe in the god as described in the bible. Almost half of “Nones” say they are “spiritual” or that it is important to them. The “Nones” as a group are nearly tied on the question of whether religion does more harm than good (43 to 41 percent).

Where they intersect is that two-thirds of “Nones” question religious teachings and/or don’t believe in God and 47 percent contend criticism of religious institutions is an important reason why they are not religious (55 percent cite bad experiences with religious people or disliking religious organizations). Similarly, most “Nones” cite disbelief or skepticism as reasons for why they aren’t religious.

Atheists and agnostics also intersect with the “nothing in particulars” politically. As Pew put it, “American ‘nones’ are much more likely than religiously affiliated adults to identify as liberal and less likely to identify as conservative,” with 62 percent identifying as or leaning toward Democrats.

While only a slight majority of “Nones” say science does more good than harm (56 percent), an overwhelming majority of atheists (79 percent) have that view. During a time when science is widely viewed with disdain among the religious right and evangelicals, “Nones” harbor refreshing support for science and all that it can do to better the world.

Nearly half of atheists and agnostics are college educated, but almost two-thirds of other “Nones” are not. In fact their level of education is similar to that of religiously affiliated adults.

Another slightly concerning emphasis in the Pew report is its question: “Are ‘nones’ less involved in civic life than people who identify with religion?” Although the differences in civic and political engagement are described by Pew as “often modest” and concentrated in the “nothing in particulars,” the authors surmise that the “decline of religion is just one manifestation of disaffection from (and loss of trust in) fellow citizens and institutions of all kinds.” In other words, they posit an ominous theory rather than celebrating that our country is finally shaking off its thralldom to churches and dogma.

Certainly, it’s important to note that the “nothing in particulars” are disproportionately youthful, and that young people vote less than older people. Self-described atheists add agnostics are as politically engaged as religious Americans, as borne out by FFRF’s secular values survey of our membership, 98 percent of whom are registered voters. And in fact the report objectively then records that in 2022, older “Nones” turned out to vote at much higher rates than younger “Nones.”

The last question worth highlighting is on the topic of morality. A common theme from Christian nationalists is that we must insert Christian principles into civic life lest we become a nation without morals. The Pew poll unequivocally debunks this tired myth.

The difference between the morality of the “Nones” and the moral compass of Christians is where the sense of morality originates. Atheists (98 percent) and agnostics (97 percent) overwhelmingly support the idea that it is possible to be moral and have good values without believing in a god. One in three who identifies as religious believes that god belief is necessary to be moral and to have good values. When deciding between right and wrong, 82 percent of “Nones” say logic and reason are “extremely or very important” factors when deciding between right and wrong. Contrast that with findings on the religious: 65 percent of that cohort state their religious beliefs are “extremely or very important” when deciding between right and wrong.

“While we find some of the ‘spin’ in this report a bit concerning, we appreciate Pew’s commitment to study the rise of the Nones, an undervalued and understudied phenomenon,” comments Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “We are a movement that is growing rapidly, and FFRF’s goal is to ‘convert’ many of these ‘nothing in particulars’ into freethinkers who consciously base their views about religion on evidence, and into activists who will stand up for our secular democracy and the separation of religion and government. We’re excited to advocate for the rights of this expanding population.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members across the country. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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