PBS’ Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on the Rise of the Nones, Part 1: Who Are They?

Earlier this week, we learned that the percentage of Secular Americans was higher than ever before. Not only do a third of Millennials (18-29) have no religious affiliation, nearly 20% of all adults are also unaffiliated.

That incredible report was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in conjunction with PBS’ Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, and beginning tonight, that show is airing a three-part special on our people. Part one focuses on the demographic itself: Who are the Nones?

Greg Smith (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life): Today in 2012 almost one in five American adults, 20 percent, describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. That equates to about 46 million adults in the United States, so this is a big, growing, important group in American society. To see its continued growth at this kind of rapid rate has been very striking.

Bob Abernethy (Host): Striking indeed. In the early 1990s just under 10 percent were unaffiliated. Since then that number has doubled. About 13 million are atheists and agnostics. Thirty-three million more describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” By education and income and other common measurements, the Nones are very much like Americans as a whole. Except for age.

Smith: About one-third of all American adults under the age of 30 describe themselves as either atheists or agnostics or say they just don’t have any particular religion. And that large number is a big part of what’s driving the overall growth in this population.

The segment also features Lauren Anderson Youngblood of the Secular Coalition for America. It’s a short clip, but she makes the important point that, despite our growing numbers, discrimination against atheists is still a problem in our society.

My only criticism of the segment is that, when explaining why there has been a sudden surge of non-believers in this country, they ignore the impact the Internet has had. I think that explosion of access to information bears more responsibility for the rise of atheism than anything else.

Part Two of this series airs next week.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    Internet does seem like the most obvious reason.
    Any time you question Christianity in the real world, you’ve got parents, pastors, and friends there to give you possible explanations and reassurance. And since they all seem pretty sure about what they’re saying, you begin to feel like the odd one out and that problematic things don’t bother other Christians at all.
    On the internet, the responses you receive come from people interested in the same topics, not from the people you know and spend time with most. People who have never met an atheist before (that they know of) can easily find them.

    • http://www.facebook.com/abb3w Arthur Byrne

       Obvious, yes. However, as Mencken observed, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

      The underlying trend of cohorts to higher fractions of irreligious than their predecessors has been true since days when the Internet had less than 100 host machines. Even then, levels of irreligion versus cohort were a near fit to the same logistic curve we have today — with the anticipated midpoint circa 2007.

      On the other hand, Pew’s data suggests that within cohorts, levels of irreligion are rising. There’s also hints (between Pew and other studies) that within the Millenials, Atheists and Agnostics are a much larger fraction of the Nones than in previous generations. That might be an impact of the Internet; or it may be a short term political swing, like the 1980s heyday of the Religious Right that faded back to the background later on.

  • Arclight

    I don’t know… a lot of these people seem to be in the “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual… now bow your head and pray!” camp. Which is just as wooly-headed as belonging to an organized religion, as far as I’m concerned. They still believe in nonsense.

  • TiltedHorizon

    When I was 10 I had a pen-pal from India, it was through her eyes that I learned how where one lives, the culture one is raised in, shapes one’s perspective. From the exchanges that lasted a few years I became aware that the world is much, much,much larger than my eyes could see; I became aware of the bubble I lived in.

    I think the internet had the same impact, people have unfettered access to a diverse and abundant amount of information. Experience and understanding are no longer limited by distance, no longer filtered by locality, Pandora’s box has been opened and those that look inside have found little to be frightened by. Those who are “different” are being seen as just “people”.

    While I love where this is going I fear where this may go. How far will those who fight the inevitability of change go to preserve their faith? History already shows how religion is advanced and maintained; an ideology that denies it’s crimes and it’s violent origins is well poised to exceed both in it’s preservation.

  • http://www.processdiary.com Paul Caggegi

    The ending made me facepalm. Like I couldn’t do math – “and if 20% aren’t affiliated, that means 80% are still connected”.

    • http://www.facebook.com/abb3w Arthur Byrne

       Though that view neglects that roughly half of the affiliated say they identify loosely with whatever nominal religion they have, and another trace only “somewhat strongly” — making something of a funhouse mirror counterpart among the Somes of the Atheist/Agnostice/NIPper divisions within the Nones.

  • Guest

    19.6% have no religious affiliation but 68% still believe in god. That means 6.3% of total population does not believe in god. Of the 6.3%, some still believe that there is some spiritual component of the human being. Depending on which survey is used, the true atheists comprise only roughly 2-3% of the total population. I guess 97-98% of the population must be rather stupid in the eyes of the atheists.

    • Andrew B.

      Terrific.  Another “Guest” with another throw-away comment.

      • John

        Or quite possibly the same one.

      • Guest

        When you laugh at others, be prepared to to laughed at.

        • Patterrssonn

          Except when I do something funny it’s intentional.

        • RobertoTheChi

          Be laughed at about what? Believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, unicorns? Maybe the trolls that live under the bridge?

    • asonge

      If you read the pdf of the study, you’d actually see that the 6.3% is “God or a higher power”. Self-identity of atheists/agnostics is lower, at around 5% total in the study, with some identified atheists saying they do believe in a higher power. The statistical noise at this level is rather large, though, as the breakdowns inside the nones have a MoE of 7-8% or so. If you would’ve actually read the entire study before trying to use the numbers towards some ends, you’d understand this.

      • TiltedHorizon

         Guest does not care, he/she is the quintessential cherry picker, skipping past anything relevant, focusing only on strawmen arguments to reinforced his/her extreme tangents. If guest truly had any interest in debate his/her posts would not be in the form 0f verbal flatulence; i.e. all stink, no substance. 

    • Patterrssonn

      Probably a lot higher percentage are already atheist. I would have answered NA just a few yrs ago, even though I already knew that gods were about as real as all the other mythical creatures. It wasn’t until, on a whim, I piicked up ‘In Defense of Atheism’ by Micheal Onfray, that I started to identify as an atheist.

      And it isn’t about people being “stupid” for believing in a god. It’s normal for people to cling to worn out ideas and old myths. It’s about letting people know that there’s an alternative, that they can just drop that old albatross, and all the useless guilts and fears that go along with it.

      And so Guest, you old dinosaur, atheism is simply the tip of the NA iceberg. Or, to drag more into this metaphor soup of a post, we are the crack in the damn that presages the flood.

    • usclat

      Holy shit. No we don’t necessarily think that 97-98% of the population is stupid. After all, 97-98% of people have ALWAYS been right. Idiot. 

    • kaileyverse

       I don’t think belief in god or having spirituality is stupid – it is organized religion that I think is stupid.

    • http://www.facebook.com/abb3w Arthur Byrne

       This math neglects the fraction of the “religious” who don’t believe in god… who are a large enough chunk to seem likely to include some quite intelligent cowards.

      That’s also leaving aside that, reasonably well-informed Atheists and Agnostics may be aware that among those who believe the Bible is either the Inerrant or merely the Inspired Word Of God, it’s the more intelligent that tend to be more religious rather than less. Not to mention the old data analysis rule of “GIGO” — no matter how clever the program or spiffy the computer it’s run on.

    • amycas

      That’s about the same percentage of people who are Jewish in the USA. What’s your point exactly?

  • http://therecoveringcatholic.wordpress.com/ Georgina

    Very interesting report/segment. I found the “none” term quite funny as I kept thinking about nuns which probably didn’t help much.

    I found the sign-off at the end to be odd. 20% means than 80% are still “connected”. I felt that it was almost a “don’t worry! We’re not all godless heathens! Some people are still normal!” spin rather than a simple reading of the facts. Maybe its just me. Anyone else feel this?

    • Pansies4me

      Ditto for me. Sometimes I think I’m paranoid, but I got the exact same vibe.

      • http://therecoveringcatholic.wordpress.com/ Georgina

         We both went there so we can be paranoid together or see the truth. Either or! :)

  • Mdwelch27

    I think we should realize that there is another substantial percentage of people that are christian or religious by default, and if we could just reach out to them a little bit more then next 20% would recognize their lack of faith as well.


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