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.

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  • ctcss

    Ideally, people should always feel free to say what they actually think about different subjects. One problem, at least to me, is that many questions on surveys are not easy to give a thoughtful answer to, given how they are worded in the survey. (The same issue can even apply in online forums given the finite amount of time a person has to devote to a transitory question or questions by an unknown questioner.) A lot of complex subjects don’t have easily distilled sound-bite answers. Sometimes a lot of foundational information has to be explained. Then there is the question of context. And then there is the limitations of the language itself. So one either decides not to answer, or to give a meaningless answer (because there isn’t a meaningful choice that applies on the survey.)

    Even if every survey included a response choice of “Does not apply” for each question, it might soon be obvious that that for some people, the survey questions do not seem applicable. I often wish there was a second survey included with each survey that allowed one to critique (in free form) the questions in the first survey. I’d be far more interested in reading the evaluations of the second survey than the first.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    I have long seen things as you describe.

    America has never seemed very religious. I was born and raised in Australia, which most folk agree is not very religious. I see America as not much different — a little more religious, but not by much. I’ll admit that I have only lived in the Northeast and in the Middle West. So perhaps it really is a lot more religious in the South.

    What has always been clear, is that most non-religious folk keep their lack of religion to themselves. They are mostly not anti-religious, but only non-religious. So I see “the rise of the nones” as mostly a matter of non-religious people feeling more comfortable at going public about being non-religious. And yes, the Internet very likely is an important factor in this change.

  • MNb

    “It’s probably a change in label and not a change in substance.”
    That’s confirmed by the status quo in The Netherlands. Fourteen percent atheists, fourteen percent agnosts and hardly a believer who goes to church.

  • Guest

    It seems like the atheist ‘out’ campaign is having an impact.

  • Grotoff

    Another point from the transcript is that they agree that the difference between the polls on the number of nones is probably down to the difference in wording of the questions. The lower numbers have survey questions that offer a “no religion” option, while the Pew offers a “nothing in particular” option. This perhaps explains the discrepancy, people are more willing to say “nothing in particular” rather than “no religion”.