In search of “nones”

newsweek-cover-decline-of-christianityCathy Lynn Grossman of USA TODAY caught our attention with this recent story: “People with ‘no religion’ gain on major denominations.”

Americans who don’t identify with any religion are now 15% of the USA, but trends in a new study shows they could one day surpass the nation’s largest denominations–including Catholics, now 24% of the nation….

(Barry) Kosmin and Ariela Keysar of Trinity College, Hartford, Conn., directed three editions of the American Religious Identification Survey over 18 years. The 2008 ARIS, based on a sampling of 54,000 U.S. adults, also burrowed in for a closer look at 1,106 Nones, who answered extra questions about their beliefs and behaviors and views on God.

Articles based on surveys pose unique challenges. The Spring 2009 issue of Trinity’s Religion in the News features “Our Excellent ARIS Adventure,” a fascinating article by Mark Silk about the uses and abuses of the ARIS data, particularly news stories on the “sudden” rise of the nones:

That finding was canonized in “The End of Christian America,” Newsweek’s April 4 cover story by editor John Meacham. Not since Time’s April 8, 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover has so stark a religious message adorned an American newsweekly. It put Trinity ARIS right up there with Time’s notorious Death of God theologians.

But in fact, the increase in no-religion Americans–the “Nones”–was not really news. It was the 2001 ARIS, the second of the surveys, that registered the big bump (to 14.1 percent). Since 2001, the proportion of Nones has grown by less than one point—and Christian self-identification has declined by less than one (with the actual number of self-identified American Christians increasing by over 450 thousand).

Grossman’s USA TODAY story quotes Kosmin as saying the spiritual profile of the nones resembles that of America’s founders:

“They’re a stew of agnostics, deists and rationalists. They sound more like Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. Their very interesting enlightenment approach is like the Founding Fathers’ kind: Skeptical about organized religion and clerics while still holding to an idea of God.”

Grossman also included this intriguing observation:

One quirky fact: 33% of Nones claim Irish ancestry, although the U.S. Census says only 10% of the USA does.

If you want to understand the Irish nones, listen to Flogging Molly (as I did last Saturday at their stellar Red Rocks Ampitheatre appearance), particularly their rocking anthem for Irish-Catholic nones, “Rebels Of The Sacred Heart.”

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  • H. E. Baber

    The news is that this piece was featured in Newsweek which doesn’t form middle class middle-brow opinion but reflects it. There may not have been a big bump in the “nones” but there was a big bump in public recognition and acceptance of “nones” that the article signals. Now they’re represented as regular guys, part of the good old American tradition along with the Founding Fathers–not nasty unAmerican atheists undermining our Values.

    The death of God theology wasn’t news in 1966 either. The kind of views Altizer and Hamilton held were standard stuff for academic theologians for decades. It was just in the 1960s that they were packaged for popular consumption, appropriated by local clergy and hit the streets.

  • Jerry

    I’ve seen a veritable plethora of stories speculating about what this survey means, some that seem more reasonable than others. I particularly liked because it allowed many people to look at the results in one place and I appreciated that members of other religions were given space to comment. I personally found one comment really touched me. It’s written from a mainline perspective but I think it’s more generally applicable so I’m highlighting those more universal parts here:

    We live in a time of great transition, though I wonder what chapters in history have not been filled with change. Institutional religion as it has been known for the past fifty years is dying, along with many other cultural institutions, newspapers included.

    Change brings sadness as we mourn the loss of what has been…

    Change also brings fear and anxiety as we face the darkness of an unknown tomorrow. These fears leave us clinging to what we have known, fighting for what has been but is no longer a reality…

    Ultimately change brings opportunity for new life. As the church looses our position of privilege in the culture, Christians will be challenged to new levels of commitment in answering the call to discipleship. Change is in many ways a death, but as Christians we believe God brings new life on the other side of every cross. And so sadness, fear and anxiety do not get the final word. The final word is hope.

  • C. Wingate

    As for why this angle was so highlighted, perhaps this headline from the front page of the ARIS website might give a clue:

    Americans Who Don’t Identify with a Religion No Longer a Fringe Group

    Looking at the study, it’s hard to draw particularly strong conclusions, but it’s easy to come up with statistically-motivated doubts. First, there are actually only three data points: 1990, 2001, and 2008; and for some categories, there is no 2001 data. As Mark Silk points out, most of the change in the “none” category occurs between 1990 and 2001. That leads to the other striking observation: pretty much without exception, “none” values in 2001 are twice what they are in 1990, across every category. I have to think there’s some sort of methodological difference operating here.

  • Martha

    The intriguing thing was the post on this over at P.Z. Myers blog, where the authors of the survey were castigated for being insufficiently rigorous.

    Apparently, by using a term such as “None” rather than “Atheist”, they were softpedalling lack of belief and pandering to the religious zealots out there. The comments provoked by the post are instructive in their venom, but hardly a cause for optimism, if these are representative samples of the best and brightest minds who have rejected all that foolish credulity and adopted calm reason and evidence-based, testable prinicples:

    “The really bizarre news here is the way people are squirming to put a twist to the data to reassure the believers. They’ve got a label for that 15% that isn’t “godless atheist unbelievers”: they are “Nones”. Don’t panic, they say, only 10% of them call themselves “atheists”! They’re mostly agnostics and skeptics of organized religion! You don’t have to stockpile food and ammo, bar the doors and windows, and prepare for the anarchy and evil that would follow if all those people were atheists.”

    Because of course the survey had to be twisting the data; they couldn’t possibly consider that American belief is more complex than simply “atheist” or “fundamentalist”, but includes the ‘spiritual but not religious’, ‘not a member of any church but a believer’, ‘not in organised religion’, or any of that grey area.

  • MattK

    Poll results are so not news.

  • Dave

    The 1,106 respondents who answered “none” comprise a pretty small group on which to do statistics — valid, but not to be sliced and diced too finely.

    I think it’s a straw man to compare the Nones to any particular religious tradition since the Nones are a collection of several persuasions.