Trends in the Religious Unaffiliated, the “Nones,” by Age

Last week I posted a figure showing the rise of the religiously unaffiliated over the past 40 years. Today I am breaking it down by age, for this helps us to understand better what is happening. As shown last week, rates of the unaffiliated rose rapidly in the 1990s and more slowly since. Two general models for this rise would be be 1) it’s happening primarily among the youth, and they remain unaffiliated as they age or 2) it’s happened to all ages over time, though youth were, and continue to be, less affiliated with religion.

In this first figure, I plot the percentage of Americans who report being unaffiliated with religion by three age groups: the young, ages 18-29, the middle-aged, 30-49, and us old folks, age 50+. Using data from the General Social Survey, I was able to go back to 1972, and to smooth out the lines, I collapsed data into five-year intervals (e.g., 1970-74, 75-79, 80-84, etc…)

As you can see, rates of the religiously unaffiliated have increased rather steadily in all age groups. Yes, the young are more likely to be unaffiliated the the middle-aged or the old, but it’s been this way all along. Something that I did’t appreciate until I broke down the data this way is that the religious revival in the 1980s seems to have taken place primarily among the young. The strong rise in the unaffiliated in the 1990s happened mostly among the young, as they lost the religious gains of the 1990s.

In terms of relative trends by age, the above figure is a little difficult to interpret because each group started at a different baseline. So, to standardize starting points, I set each group’s 1972 level to equal “1,” and then I plotted relative changes from that shared reference point. As such, a score of “2″ would indicate that the rate of being unaffiliated had doubled.

Once again, the percentage of being unaffiliated increased in each group, but relatively speaking, it’s increased most among the middle-aged and the elderly. In both the percentage of the unaffiliated more than tripled, compared to the 2.5x increase in the young. There is some lagged effect, as the elderly are catching up the middle-aged in the past decade, but overall, the rise of the religious nones is something that spans all age groups. Thus it’s a societal-wide change more than just an age or generational change.


The Rise of the Unaffiliated–The Religious Nones

One of the big changes in American religion over the past several decades has been the increasing number of the religiously unaffiliated. These are people who may or may not believe in God or a higher power (and, actually, most do), but they do not align themselves with a particular religion.

Last year the Pew Foundation released an informative report on the nones that had the punchy subtitle “1 in 5 adults have no religious affiliation.”

While the rise of the nones, as Pew calls it, is receiving a lot of attention, most the action happened in the 1990s. Before then, a steady 6-7% of Americans did not affiliate with religion, but during that decade it about doubled.

Here’s a figure that I put together that illustrates the number of religiously affiliated American adults. It contains data from three sources: the General Social Survey, American Religious Identification Survey, and the Pew Data. Despite measuring religious affiliation with different questions, the three sources are surprisingly in agree.


As you can see, the rise of the nones has three movements… steady, low levels in the 1970s and 80s, rapid growth in the 90s, and slower growth in the 2000s.

What will happen next? Who knows. Some assume that runaway secularization will promote unaffiliation to even higher levels, but others are more cautious. In fact, demographer Eric Kaufmann makes the case based on deconversion rates and birth rates, the percentage of Americans who do not affiliate with a religion will soon level out.

Does Christianity, Like Not Eating a Marshmallow, Make You More Successful in Life?

A longstanding theme in the sociology of religion is how religious beliefs and practices affect one’s place in society. I’ve been reading lately some psychological studies of self-control, and it seems that self-control might prove to be an important mechanism by which Christianity influences its adherents’ place in society.

Having high levels of self-control has all sorts of benefits (at least, that’s what I’ve heard). It helps people make good impressions on others, get more education, do better in the workplace, and avoid crime.

Previously, some researchers assumed that self-control was a static characteristic, perhaps developed in early childhood, and indeed childhood self-control levels are predict future success in life. This was illustrated in Mischel’s famous marshmallow study in which children were given the choice of eating a marshmallow at that moment or waiting five minutes for a second marshmallow. The marshmallow was placed in front of them, so to get a second one, they had to exert self-control for five minutes by not eating it. The kids who could wait ended up being described as more competent and having higher SAT scores.

Another view of self-control has come into play, and that is self-control is a muscle. It can be worn out from overuse (again, that’s what I’ve heard), just like a muscle can, and it can also be built up over time with practice. Studies have found that simple self-control exercises can make a long-term difference, exercises such as always sitting up straight, refraining from &%@!*^% cursing, and brushing your teeth with your left hand. What makes this potentially powerful is that these exercises provide a straightforward means of improving one’s life—by developing greater self-control.

Here’s where the practice of Christianity comes in. A dominant theme in Christian teaching is the practice of self-control. Pray regularly, read the Bible, attend church, watch how you talk, watch what you look at, be loving to everyone, and so on. The Bible even identifies self-control as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5).

In short, being an active Christian means daily working out the self-control muscle, and so it follows that following the faith produces a higher level of self-control. This, in turn, is associated with all sorts of other good things. Put succinctly:

Practicing Christianity = increased self-control = greater success in society

To be clear, I’m not implying that other religions or belief systems are unrelated to self-control. Also, I recognize that Christianity redefines what success means, and so perhaps Christians with strong self-control don’t pursue “worldly” success as vigorously as they would without faith. I also recognize that self-control is not the only linkage between religion and social status, and that others may accentuate it or counteract it. Nonetheless, this mechanism has interesting implications for the effect of Christianity on general effectiveness and even one’s place in the world.

The Power of a Simple Plan, But Should Christians Do It?

In the 1990s, a sociology psychologist named Peter Gollwitzer conducted a fabulously useful experiment. He wanted to know under what conditions intentions to do a behavior actually translated into doing behavior.

To find out, he did a simple experiment. His university students were getting ready to leave for home at the end of the fall semester, and he gave them a simple task to do. Write an essay about what they did on Christmas Day and send it to Gollwitzer within 48 hours of Christmas Day. The actual content of the task wasn’t relevant, instead Gollwitzer wanted to see how many students who agreed to do it actually did it.

Half of the students were simply asked to do the task and were given not further instruction. Of them, 32% followed through on the plan to write and send the essay.

The other half, however, we asked to do the task and they were asked to decide right then when and where they would write the essay. Of these students, a whopping 71% actually wrote and sent the essay.

Simply taking a moment or two to plan how they were going to follow through on the intention more than doubled their likelihood of doing so.

Gollwitzer calls this planning how to do things “implementation intentions,” and they appear to work with all sorts of behaviors. In a 2006 meta-analysis, Gollwitzer and Sheeran found that implementation intentions had a similar effect on behaviors related to health, academic achievements, weight loss, antiracism, altruism, and many others.

So, do we want our plans to be more effective? If so, then in addition to making the intention, we should make implementation intentions as well. For example, my intention is that “I will write this blog post.” My corresponding implementation intentions are “I will write this blog post at 9:30, after I finish my academic writing for the morning. I will write it in my home office using Gollwitzer’s meta-analysis as a guide. I’ll post it immediately afterwards.”

Given the dramatic impact of implementation intentions, I wonder why I don’t do them with all my plans? Perhaps if it’s my intention to do so, I should make implementation intentions about how to make implementation intentions. Something along the lines of, when I make plans, I will correspondingly make implementation intentions by … the who, what, where, and how of doing it. (I’m going to have to think about that one).

Sometimes I wonder if we Christians are unsure of detailed planning because it feels unspiritual. For example, James 4:13 warns against being sure about what will happen in the future, for we don’t “even know what will happen tomorrow.” For many Christians, a key feature of the faith is following God’s direction and doing his will. “Not my will but yours,” or some variation of it, has got to be in the top 10 of prayers uttered by Christians.

What does it mean, then, to follow God’s leading and still also make detailed, effective plans for the future? I have some ideas, but right now the question is more real to me than my answers to it.

Any thoughts?

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