The Changing Nature of America’s Irreligious Explained

Americans are increasingly choosing not to identify with a religious tradition

“In the course of interviewing many nones for our current research project on innovative religious and irreligious groups, we are finding that, for some, religion has no place in their lives; others may be marginally interested in religion but rarely if ever attend services. “

 

A recent survey of the religious profile of the 115th Congress revealed that despite the increase in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, members of Congress are overwhelmingly religious, with only one member identifying as having no religion.

Yet, despite whom they vote for, Americans are increasingly choosing not to identify with a religious tradition. Between 2007 and 2014, this “none of the above” category has increased from 16 to 23 percent. Among young adults, one-third say that they have no religious affiliation.

Most of the public conversation about religious disaffiliation tends to emphasize the idea that with the rise of the religious “nones,” a categorization that goes back to the 1960s, America is becoming more secular and less religious.

However, in my view as a scholar of American religion, this misses the diversity within the nones.

Who really are the nones?

A diverse group

Nones are typically analyzed as a category of individuals who identify themselves religiously as atheists, agnostics and having “no religious preference,” or as “nothing in particular.”

Yet a closer look at who is actually included in the category of the nones suggests a more complex picture: It is an evolving religious landscape, which currently includes a variety of people who have different relationships to religion and religious institutions.

For example, in the course of interviewing many nones for our current research project on innovative religious and irreligious groups, we are finding that, for some, religion has no place in their lives; others may be marginally interested in religion but rarely if ever attend services. This group claims that religion still has some relevance in their lives.

Some others attend religious services on occasion, are generally open to the idea of the supernatural and believe in God or a higher power. However, they do not identify either as religious or following any particular religious tradition.

Still others say that they are “spiritual but not religious,” and there are those who dismiss the whole idea of “spiritual but not religious” yet maintain some religious and spiritual beliefs and practices.

We also talked to individuals who occasionally attend services, pray and meditate, but don’t think of these things as having any particular religious or spiritual content. In one of my interviews with a young woman, I asked whether religion had any relevance in her life, and she said,

“A little bit, maybe five percent.”

The factors that led to increase

What explains this increase in religious nones? Based on my research, I see five reasons:

First, traditional authority structures, including religious ones, have been flattened through access to knowledge. As a result, everyone and no one is an authority, which reduces the need for traditional authorities of any sort. One pastor I interviewed told me that during Sunday services, her parishioners regularly fact-checked her sermons on their smartphones, rather than simply accepting what she said.

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