Editor’s NoteThere’s no denying it:  the numbers of non-believing clergy, lay atheists and other people who no longer practice religion continue to grow.  Even some people who practice or preach religion don’t believe in the accepted tenets of their faith.  Whatever it is that keeps people observant, it’s less and less the beliefs they learn as children./Linda LaScola, Editor


By Bob Ripley

The ‘Rise of the Nones’ is not the latest science fiction tale of alien invasion.  It’s a growing group known to demographers and sociologists as the Nones because when asked to identify their religion for a survey or census, they check off the box for ‘None’.

While the numbers have been trending upward for years, the graph released earlier this year caught even this skeptic by surprise.  Data suggests that the rising percentage of Americans Nones is now roughly the same as those who identify as evangelical or Catholic.

Even without the data, religious leaders have noticed a thinning of their flocks.  It’s not just the well-known contingent of worshippers who only show up to church or synagogue during Easter and Passover.  A growing number, especially young people, are eschewing traditional religious affiliations altogether.

What do we know about the Nones?  All they have told us is that they have no religious affiliation.   They are a diverse mix including but not limited to atheists.   There are agnostics, of course, and those who would consider themselves decidedly spiritual but not seeking an organized religion.   There are onetime Catholics, lapsed Anglicans, secular Muslims and non-observant Jews.  You name it.  Today’s young adults are more unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions than any prior generation of 20-year-olds.  Many of them didn’t grow up with religion and have not embraced it as adults.  No guilt, no shame, no fear of eternal damnation.

Nones tend to be more liberal on social issues including a significantly higher percentage who are pro-choice and favor marriage equality.  Their views of churches and other religious organizations are mixed.  But most also say that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too obsessed with rules and too involved in politics.  The unaffiliated also are more skeptical than others of the idea that houses of worship contribute to solving important social problems, and the notion that religious organizations protect and strengthen morality in society.

As their numbers grow, will the Nones assume positions of political power?  Are we seeing the end of religion as we know it?

Hardly.  Churches are closing but religion is not dead.

Some church leaders are painfully aware of the declining role of religion.

Precious few have called for a radical recalibration so that institutional religion can reach out to non-believers.  For example, Pastor James Emery White of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina has tried with The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated.

I say “precious few” because when my book Life Beyond Belief, which methodically documented why I could no longer believe was published, no clergy contacted me, their former colleague in ministry, to understand how such a change was possible.

Despite their diversity, the Nones have either decided that there is no god and/or would simply rather sleep in or go for a run on Sunday morning.

Tough crowd for conversion.  And growing.


Bio: Bob Ripley,an avid, competitive runner,is a retiredUnited Church of Canada minister.He was a syndicated religion columnist and broadcaster, and author of Christian devotional material.  His book, which came out in October, 2014 is titled Life Beyond Belief: A Preacher’s Deconversion. Find out more about the book and his other writing here.

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  • Jennny

    A survey, a reputable one, AFAIR in the UK a couple of years ago registered a significant rise in ‘Nones’. They said that younger folk now felt able to tick that box. Previously, people felt at least a tenuous link to religion, the CofE usually. Everyone in the UK is in a parish and the vicar thereof is legally obliged to hatch match and dispatch any parishoner asking for those sacraments. So, most of the country felt they belonged to their parish church because their family traditionally were baptised, married and buried in the church/yard, even if they never went otherwise. Now they felt brave enough to be honest, ‘None’ was the most accurate description of their position.

    (I’ve heard from more than one person in the UK that when a nurse was filling in forms on admission to hospital and asked ‘Religion?’ and the patient had said ‘None really’, the nurse had replied ‘Oh, I’ll put down CofE then shall I?’) That link no longer exists and no one I’ve ever come across has felt the need to pretend to being religiously affiliated.

  • Michael Neville

    When I went into the US Navy in 1968 I wanted to have atheist put on my dog tags and on my Page 2 (NAVPERS Form 1070/602, Record of Emergency Data*). This wasn’t allowed, I had to go with “No Preference”. It wasn’t until eight or nine years later, when I was Leading Yeoman on a submarine, which meant I was the ship’s Personnel Officer, that I changed my Page 2. But I still couldn’t get my dog tags changed. It wasn’t until I made Chief Petty Officer that I got new dog tags saying atheist.

    About ten years ago I was talking to a Chief Yeoman and mentioned this to her. She said there were enough atheists and agnostics in the Navy that nobody questioned having those categories put on dog tags and Page 2s.

    *I was a Yeoman, an admin and personnel specialist. I knew the names and numbers of forms.

  • lib1

    Nones are rising. I just wish right wing religious zealots didn’t have a hold on politics. A secular country is best for everyone.

  • Geoff Benson

    Yeah, it’s not so many years ago that I would unthinkingly just say ‘CofE’ to any one of the dozens of forms asking the question. And that was long after I’d taken a position that was distinctly non-religious.

  • Linda LaScola

    Interesting that former Church of England people are responding.

  • Linda LaScola

    Hello, All — somehow I lost my original disqus login, so changed it and now don’t have a photo. Hopefully that will be coming next.

  • Linda LaScola

    In the last few weeks I binge watched episodes of the hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale. In the TV show, the fundamentalist Christians look even more villainous than in the book, which I read years ago. Knowing that it was a popular show, I’m pretty sure that it has had some effect on the rise of the Nones (and the demise of the Fundys)

  • mason

    While the number of “NONES” are rapidly rising in the US, the”NUNS” are in incredibly steep decline. 179,000 Nuns in 1965, to 49,000 in 2014. Hundreds of Orders will go extinct in next few years.

  • mason

    Thank you for your service, and your story

  • Mark Rutledge

    Religion is not about believing the right doctrines and Theological rational intellectual Creed’s or statements.
    It is about creating human community, ritual, and actions for love and justice for one another and the world.

  • Michael Neville

    Thank you for paying my pension.

  • Jim Jones

    Religions and gangs share many features. Although there’s more virtue signaling in religions.