Has the ‘Rise of the Nones’ Finally Started to Plateau?

A new Gallup poll out today shows that the growth of the “Nones” — atheists, agnostics, and a whole lot of people who believe in God but don’t use a religious label — only increased slightly between 2011 and 2012:

Across the past five years, the biggest jumps in “nones” occurred between 2009 and 2010 and between 2010 and 2011 — an increase of 1.1 percentage points each between the two years. In absolute terms, 15.3% of the population had no explicit religious identity in 2009, compared with 17.5% in 2011.

The rate of change between 2011 and 2012, however, slowed to a 0.3-point increase — from 17.5% to 17.8%. These estimates are based on 353,492 interviews in 2011 and 353,571 interviews in 2012.

It’s a sexy headline — suggesting that religion has finally blunted our growth — but it’s only one data point and it’s far too early to tell if the “Nones” are finally leveling off.

Also interesting in the Gallup results is a breakdown of which demographics were most likely to fall under the category of “no religion”:

At the top of the list? Asians and 18-29-year-olds.

(You’re welcome, America.)

At the bottom of the list? The elderly and the GOP.

If the youngest generation surveyed is most likely to be non-religious while the oldest generation is at the other end of the spectrum, it seems like common sense to say we’ll be in pretty good shape for a while.

We’re still growing. We’re still growing among younger people, especially.

Don’t bet against the Nones just yet.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ravenhull Donovan Willett

    I don’t see one year’s data being enough to declare a plateau…

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Without a second year, it’s short of 0.95 statistically significant.

  • ortcutt

    Well, it looks like Gallup and their Editor-in-Chief have already made their decision.

    http://www.gallup.com/press/159062/god-alive.aspx

    Denying secularization despite the abundant evidence to the contrary is something of a cottage industry, but I’m surprised that a polling outfit would want to be associated with it.

    http://www.religionnews.com/2013/01/07/god-is-alive-and-well-in-america-says-gallup-chief/

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Dr. Newport also predicts that Americans will increasingly recognize the mounting evidence that religious people have higher wellbeing, better emotional health, and in some instances better physical health than those who are not religious. “Baby boomers will increasingly look for ways to maintain or expand their wellbeing and happiness in future years. They may increasingly seek out religion as part of that quest,” predicts Newport.

      Wow. So I’ll be healthier if I got to church, whether I believe or not? And this guy is supposed to know the difference between causation and correlation? Not that there aren’t tons of correlations that point the other direction.

  • nkendall

    As callous as it sounds, just wait until the older generation of baby-boomers start to “depart”. Maybe that is why the GOP is so grumpy these days, they fear they won’t be able to dictate people’s lives from beyond the grave so they need to do all their damage now before the baby-boomers are all dead and no longer voting for them.

    • Kelley

      I am in the 65+ group, agnostic, and I agree with you. But, sadly, the time frame for my generation of religious zealots to ‘depart’ is about 20-30 years. Have patience, maybe this virus of religiosity will be cured sooner. I certainly hope so, I would like to have a conversation/meal that doesn’t mention God or Jesus.

  • Epinephrine

    I don’t see any reason to suspect that there is a plateau – I mean,
    sure, you can fit that, but you can also fit linear growth, or
    exponential, all with pretty decent R-squares. Fact is, 5 points are
    not enough to get a good idea of what is happening.

  • pamsfriend

    I would trust my 4 yo w/a clipboard more than I’d trust poll data from Gallup. http://www.businessinsider.com/most-accurate-polls-of-2012-election-obama-romney-ppp-daily-kos-gallup-rasmussen-2012-11

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      this is the same gallup that reported that Rmoney was “close” and “could beat Obama” in their ‘polls’ before the election, right? the one in which obama beat the horse whisper’s husband 332-206, electorally?

  • Tim

    A plataeu will come for sure, but America has to be very very different from other first-would countries if it things that a platau is appearing at 17%.

    There is no long-term reason why the USA is fundamantally different from lets say, Japan or Germany It is just a slow learner.

  • b33bl3br0x

    meanwhile, the Pew polls show a continued increase.

    http://www.pewforum.org/unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

    • baal

      Gallup leans right a bit. I don’t know enough detail to speculate on where they might be inadvertently (or advertently) skewing the poll.

  • C Peterson

    Conspicuously missing from all these dumbed-down charts are the error bars! Given the typical sample size pollsters use for surveys like this, the standard deviation is probably a few percent. A change of a few tenths of a percent in either direction in reported annual value is meaningless. You can only make sense of the long term trend.

    In addition to that fundamental statistical error, there is the fact that we aren’t looking at some rigorous physical process here, but a social trend. We’d expect a lot of high frequency noise (uncertainty) on the true signal, based on things like what was in the news on the day the question was asked. A few tenths one way or the other could be explained by a single story about an abusive priest, or about a pastor involved in some major act of charity. The same survey, repeated a couple of weeks later, would produce different results.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      The fine print at Gallup indicates these are samples with N over 100k, each aggregated over the course of the entire year, giving errors in the 1% range. This sample size easily leaves sampling methodology as the largest source of uncertainty. My back of the envelope suggests that this 2011-2012 deviation (0.3 %/a) from the 2008-2011 trend (1.0 %/a) is not to the usual 0.95 threshold of significant, but it’s hardly trivial, either. And, given that the poll is an aggregate of samples over the entire year, clearly not a noise-deviation from any single transient story. (It’s possible that the 2012 presidential campaign could be a broader transient, but you’d then need to posit why there was not such a transient 2008-2009 with the end of the last such campaign.)

      In contrast, the latest Pew study from October showed no such sign in a change in the trend. I conjecture the difference could be due to a difference in methodology — Gallup includes the nonresponsive as Nones (and uses a slightly different question). This might imply that the point of diminishing returns is being reached for encouraging de-closeting. Another possibility is that we are reaching the point of diminishing returns on the overall rise of the “Secular Left”, just as the short-term wave to the Religious Right eventually faded.

      However, even (and especially) if both of these are the case, this does not indicate a change the largest and longest-acting factor — the logistic curve demographic shift across generational cohorts to increasing irreligion that has been going on since the 1970s (even during the transient Reagan heyday of the Religious Right).

  • NoCrossNoCrescent
  • http://twitter.com/SteveInMI Steve In MI

    No surprise to see a 10-point gap between the more progressive ends of the country and the more (politically) “conservative” ends.

  • ganner918

    We’re growing through two separate mechanisms. A) people who previously identified with a religion are now identifying as “none.” B) New generations that are less religious replace old generations that are very religious.

    It’s possible that mechanism A is plateauing. We may have reached a point where most of the easily-”convertable” people have already started identifying as none and those remaining who identify as religious are going to be harder to peel away. We may see a slowing of growth as a result of this. But mechanism B is most certainly continuing for a long time and will grow our numbers.

    • Good and Godless

      We are competing against the irresponsible reproduction of the religious fanatics – Even a slight “nones” increase in membership is more profound when factoring in our lower (responsible) birth rate.

  • Don

    Baby boomers aren’t going to live forever :P

  • MichaelBrice

    “Dogs know what to do with polls.”

    John Diefenbaker, Canadian Prime Minister, 1957 – 1963.


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