The Rise of the Unaffiliated–The Religious Nones

The Rise of the Unaffiliated–The Religious Nones February 28, 2013

One of the big changes in American religion over the past several decades has been the increasing number of the religiously unaffiliated. These are people who may or may not believe in God or a higher power (and, actually, most do), but they do not align themselves with a particular religion.

Last year the Pew Foundation released an informative report on the nones that had the punchy subtitle “1 in 5 adults have no religious affiliation.”

While the rise of the nones, as Pew calls it, is receiving a lot of attention, most the action happened in the 1990s. Before then, a steady 6-7% of Americans did not affiliate with religion, but during that decade it about doubled.

Here’s a figure that I put together that illustrates the number of religiously affiliated American adults. It contains data from three sources: the General Social Survey, American Religious Identification Survey, and the Pew Data. Despite measuring religious affiliation with different questions, the three sources are surprisingly in agree.


As you can see, the rise of the nones has three movements… steady, low levels in the 1970s and 80s, rapid growth in the 90s, and slower growth in the 2000s.

What will happen next? Who knows. Some assume that runaway secularization will promote unaffiliation to even higher levels, but others are more cautious. In fact, demographer Eric Kaufmann makes the case based on deconversion rates and birth rates, the percentage of Americans who do not affiliate with a religion will soon level out.

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  • Sven

    More and more people are realizing that this narrative, that non-religious people “have a god-shaped hole in their heart”, is complete baloney.

  • tacitus

    You left out a critical point about the data — the rise in the “nones” is a phenomenon that is drive almost entirely by the young adults. Generational religious affiliation has been remarkably stable as each generation has aged, each having the same number of non-believers when in their 70s as there were in their 20s. Thus, as the older generations die off, the percentage of unaffiliated will continue to rise since Pew has the number of unaffiliated 20-25 year-olds at 34% already, and that is unlikely to change over time.

    It is also unlikely that Kaufmann is correct about the trend reversing itself any time soon. If it does, it would make America unique amongst all the Western nations, which have all see a continuing and increasingly rapid disaffiliation of young people with religion, and at rates far higher than seen so far in the US. Now, it’s possible that the trend away from religion will be slower in a more conservative America, but if the recent Pew survey is anything to go by, even that is becoming less likely. I would even hazard that the number of unaffiliated 20-25 year-olds will hit 50% by the end of this decade as more and more children are growing up in non-religious households.

    • Regarding young adults, I’m not sure that’s the case. I plotted the rates of religious unaffiliation by age, and it went up for all ages…

      • tacitus

        This is the chart I’m talking about:

        Yes, there is a slight rise in the three youngest generations in the last few years (barely above noise level, if that), but the key is the disparity in where each successive generation starts – progressively and significantly higher. I remember seeing another chart (which I can’t locate at the moment) from a previous survey by Pew showing that same jump in the nones between generations going all the way back to the 1970s, and they found that, for example, the percentages of nones for the three oldest generations today are pretty much where they have always been since they were the young adults, give or take a few percent.

        It is abundantly clear that the rise in the nones in the past 20-30 years is very much a generational phenomenon, with each generation significantly less religious than the last. There is absolutely no doubt that this has been the main driving force behind the overall rise in the numbers, and as you can see from that new single “next gen” data point of 34%, the trend appears set to continue.