Skyrocketing Secularity: The Rise of Religious "Nones" in America
The America that was settled as a place of religious refuge from European persecution is a hazy and distant relative of the contemporary United States. As much of a role as religion played in the founding of the United States, it has all but vanished from the fabric of our country today. No longer is a person’s religion considered his or her defining quality; no longer are religious services deemed a crucial part of community life or religious affiliation of any kind even expected. In the past decade in particular, the United States has seen a severe increase in the number of religious “nones.” According to Pew, in 2015 nearly one fourth of the U.S. population identified as a “none.”
A religious “none” is, simply put, a person who does not identify with any particular religion. They are not all atheists, however, as 61% of religious “nones” believe in God or some kind of a universal spirit. While the term “none” is used across the board, the reasons these individuals have for not identifying with any particular religion vary greatly. 20% of religious “nones” categorize themselves as anti-organized religion. 36% attribute their lack of religious affiliation to disenchantment with religion or simply lack of belief in God. Only about 1% of “nones” experienced a great crisis of faith that lead them to abandon religious association. Regardless of the path they took to get there, many different people of different upbringings end up in the category of “none.” That the ranks of “nones” continue to grow at an exceptionally high rate in our society perhaps indicates great changes at work among the fundamental characteristics which have long defined our country.
Before delving into the link between the rise of religious “nones” in America and the nature of our modern day culture, however, it is necessary to note a few important statistics. By far, the age group with the highest percentage of “nones” is Millennials. There is also a gradual increase in the percentage of “nones” from the Silent generation (born between 1928-1945) through Generation X (born between 1965-80) before a large, 11% spike from Generation X to Millennials. Millennials mark the first generation where the number of unaffiliated “nones” outnumbers the number of Protestants, both evangelical and mainline combined. Furthermore, while many people of religious upbringing become “nones”—a shocking 78% of “nones” were actually raised in religious households—few “nones” find religion and later associate themselves with organized religious groups. While it is possible that some Millennial “nones” might turn to religion as they grow older, evidence from various Pew Research Center studies suggests that people from every generation gravitate less toward religion as they age. What should we expect in the future, then? An increase in religious “nones” that will likely only escalate as time goes on.
One possible reason for this spike in Millennial “nones” is that they are simply products of the world in which we live. Everything from the total separation of church and state to the growing political incorrectness associated with putting “Merry Christmas” as opposed to “Happy Holidays” on a greeting card points to the secularization of our society. While this does not necessarily mean that there should be a shift in the personal religiosity of individuals, it is understandable why there would be. For instance, there is less cultural esteem nowadays associated with being a practicing Christian, whereas a couple hundred years ago being Christian gave individuals some semblance of “cultural savvy.” Another factor that may play a role in the rise of “nones” is the increasingly technological nature of our world. In this age of smartphones and Twitter and constant stimulation, it is hard not to feel like our attention is being pulled in a plethora of different directions. 56% of Millennials say that they attend a religious service only once a year or less, and 10% of “nones” describe themselves as being simply “too busy” to go. The pace of our world today is undeniably faster than at any other point in history, and, as these pieces of data demonstrate, many people (Millennials in particular) have cut out religious practices in order to keep up.
Another important, possible cause for the increase in “nones” may simply be how Millennials stay in “adultescence,” as Ross Douthat calls it, for a longer period of time than any previous generation. Douthat explains that it is normal, historically, for people to deviate from religion in their twenties before returning once they get married and have children. With this in mind, the question then shifts to whether there will be an increase in religiosity once Millennials decide to settle down for good. Given current trends, however, this seems ever more unlikely.
The failure among many Millennial nones emerging from adultescence to return to religion may stem from the failures of religion itself. As David Brooks mentioned in his New York Times op-ed, “The Next Culture War,” Christianity is not equipped for the current day and age. In recent years, Christianity as a whole has seemed to stray from its fundamental ideals of prayer and community, becoming something totally different. Christian churches now marginalize certain members of society due to sexual orientation rather than foster acceptance or solidarity, things that were vital to its founding mission. The increase in “nones” is nothing but a symptom of a greater issue, a rejection by Millennials of the outmoded policies and principles of the Church. Further articulating this divide between religion and present reality, Ross Douthat, in his New York Times piece on the decline of American Christianity, claimed that specific ideological differences in opinion over issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and non-conventional gender identities have been a major factor in the growth of religious “nones.”
Regardless of the causes of this widespread secularization, the effects it holds in store for our country are manifold. And it does not just mean that churches’ weekly collection numbers are down. As more and more people separate from religion, the general value system of our society will continue to change. If the next generation grows up in a world where religious phrasing and ideals have fallen out of the vernacular, they may form a collective moral code far different from any that American society has yet held or seen.
While surely different, in no way is this shift in societal morality inherently bad. For instance, in recent years, Millennials have pursued the causes of social justice and respect for human rights with a fervor and tenacity unmatched by any previous generation. If this trend continues to take hold, our world may look very different fifteen years from now. Just think about it: the numerous and increasing social justice initiatives, as well as the advent of a politically correct society (that is enforced now in seemingly every aspect of our lives), were non-existent fifteen years ago.
Of course, it is impossible to predict the future with anything but feigned confidence, so those who see religious values as irreplaceable or incorruptible, but definitely under attack, need not be worried yet. The changes we see are simply a reflection of the natural social trends of the contemporary world. Only time will tell whether Millennials become more religious and revert back to more traditional ways as they reach certain milestones such as marriage and parenthood. If they continue on their current track, however, it will be fascinating to see how the moral and social landscape of our world evolves.