Michael Gerson discusses the 20% of Americans who describe their religion as “none.” It isn’t that the “Nones” (not to be confused with “nuns”) don’t believe in God, necessarily. 64% of them do. They just don’t want to affiliate with any “organized religion.”
The statistics about “Nones” probably don’t include the number of self-described Christians who feel the same way. I know of some who haven’t found a church they can agree with or that is up to their high standards. So they don’t go to church at all. After all, with their “me-and-Jesus” theology, why do they need a church? But they do.
The good news is that 40% of those raised as “Nones” drop out of their non-religion to join an actual religious institution. Hey, isn’t that about the same drop out rate, according to one measure, for young people raised in churches?
One group, however, has swelled: those with no religious affiliation, also known as “nones” (as in “none of the above”). In the 1950s, this was about 2 percent of the population. In the 1970s, it was about 7 percent. Today, it is close to 20 percent. These gains can be found in all regions of the country, including the South. The trend is particularly pronounced among whites, among the young and among men.
Not all the nones, it is worth pointing out, are secular. Only about 30 percent of this group — 6 percent of the public — are atheists or agnostics. The rest of the nones describe themselves as indifferent to religion or as “nothing in particular.” Sixty-four percent of the nones, however, say they believe in God or a universal spirit with “absolute certainty.” Even 9 percent of atheists and agnostics — defying both dogma and the dictionary— report themselves absolutely convinced of God’s existence. About equal proportions of the religiously unaffiliated (19 percent) and the affiliated (18 percent) report having “seen or been in the presence of a ghost.”
So the nones are united not by reading Richard Dawkins or by any particular set of theological beliefs but by a complete lack of attachment to institutional religion.
This amounts to a missionary movement, gaining converts (actually de-converts) at a serious pace. According to Pew, 74 percent of the nones grew up in a religious tradition of some sort. Yet while conversion has increased the ranks of the nones, retention is not particularly good. Protestantism, for example, loses about 20 percent of those raised Protestants. Of those raised unaffiliated, 40 percent fall away from the non-faith and rebel toward religion, making for a new generation of awkward Thanksgivings. . . .
Declining trust in religious institutions since the 1990s has been accompanied by declining trust in most institutions (with the notable exception of the military). Confidence in government and big business has simultaneously fallen — and the public standing of both is lower than that of the church. Americans may be less affiliated with religious organizations because they have grown generally more individualistic and skeptical of authority.