Rise of the Nones Re-examined

By now we’ve all heard about the Pew Research surveys that show the millennial generation leaving the church and the number of unchurched Americans increasing. Pew Research recently put together a panel to evaluate those results, and the transcript is now available. It involved representatives from both Pew and Gallup to discuss the findings, and two professors of sociology to discuss the implications.

Claude Fischer, professor of Sociology at Berkeley, explains some of the interpretations given when this movement was first noted back on 2002. He points out that checking “no religion” in the box and actually having no religion are two different things.

A decade ago he and others suggested that the cause was political rather than spiritual. The association between conservative politics and religion meant that many younger folks rejected the Christian label. “If that’s what Christianity is, forget it.”

Now Fischer and others are revisiting that conclusion and rethinking it. I think Frank Newport, editor-in-chief from Gallup, puts forward their current hypothesis:

I’m going to show you the other indicator, but this is probably the heart of the matter as far as what I’m talking about here today – is that the change came in self-identification is a “none” among people who in both surveys were already not very religious. […] it can be hypothesized that these people for whom religion wasn’t important now feel freer to tell a survey interviewer that they don’t have a religious identity. Or there are other cultural forces at work which make it easier for them to say, “Yeah, I don’t have religious identity” in 2012 than they did in 2008, even though underneath it all, they were – religion was not important in both samples.

Basically, the percentage of Americans who consider religion to be very important hasn’t changed much. But the people for whom religion is not very important have been switching their label from “not very religious” to “no religious affiliation.”

It’s probably a change in label and not a change in substance. They continue to believe and act much as they did. They don’t, or very rarely, attend church. They don’t think of themselves as religious.

Newport compares it to surveys of LGBT status. When there was a great deal of social stigma attached to being homosexual then many homosexuals would not admit to being gay even on an anonymous survey. As that stigma decreased, more folks were willing to check the “LGBT” box on the survey.

So these new numbers imply that the social stigma against people who do not attend church and are not religious is declining. That’s a good thing, for us and for the country.