Published on: March 21, 2012
The Religiously Unaffiliated in America
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  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Then there is always the problem of measuring a trend only found in the young and finding that when the young get older – marry and have children – they change their views radically.

    I am reminded of the story of a young man with tattoos all over his body including his face. Once he married and had a child he didn’t want that child to grow up seeing his tattoos. Fortunately, a charitable person donated $35,000 to have his tattoos removed. I wouldn’t be surprised if this same person ended up taking his child to Sunday School or Catholic Mass at some point.

    One of the most “advertised” social trends is the legalization of same sex marriage. Particularly for female same sex marriages, they apparently crave institutionalization of their relationship. If they adopt a child once again I would not be surprised to find this same sex couple wanting to have that child attend church or synagogue.

    It seems sloppy social science to extract a long-term “trend” from young adults.

    So the so-called “trends” against institutional religion reported by Campbell and Putnam appear to be politicized.

  • Robert D. Putnam

    Thanks, Peter, for this nice, thoughtful commentary. The only slight nuance I’d add involves your highlighted sentence: “Most “nones” have not opted out of religion as such, but have opted out of affiliation with organized religion.” That was precisely our view in American Grace, based on surveys through 2008. The new survey that we did in 2011 (returning to our respondents from 2006-07) and that appears in the epilogue to the paperback edition, however, suggests to us that for a growing number of the “young nones,” the alienation from organized religion is slowly hardening into alienation from religion itself. We’re not sure how this will work out in the decades ahead, but I don’t think we can rule out that religion itself may become affected by the rise of the “young nones,” not just organized religion.

  • JR

    It appears the study accounts for what Wayne is saying and finds a very significant trend indeed. It certainly dovetails with my own life. I am married with kids. At 40, I am no closer to joining a church than I was at 20, when I more or less left it behind. I despise the Religious Right. Every utterance of Christianists makes me want to turn against religion entirely. The protestant churches are largely uninspiring and still require beliefs (or gloss over beliefs) that are a-historical and anti-science. When you strip it all down rationally, it just doesn’t make sense to me. I want to take the Bible (and maybe other religious books) and just cut and paste, much as Jefferson himself did. Throw out all the hooey. So I don’t think there is anything politicized about this research at all. It very accurately describes what many in my circles are feeling. We reject the Religious Right, to be sure, but we also have neither the time, money nor interest for joining a more “liberal” church.

  • Since you think that the youth will return as they have children of their own I would like to hear your response to the following two items.

    1) the article indicates that the largest percent of nones is in the 30-49 age group. Which I must sadly admit is not as young as I would like it to be.

    2) do you think that the young of today will change their minds about gay people as they get older? If not why do you think the nones will fade so significantly.

  • mododavid

    “But the “nones” have also exited from mainline Protestantism, which has been much more accommodating to the liberationist ethic.”??? WRONG!! Those jerks in Africa calling for the kill the gays bill are PROTESTANTS. It’s true that there are those people who are referred to as “evangelical catholics”, but that’s just to distinguish them from the TRULY insane (or maybe to tie them to the truly insane) protestant faiths like mormonism, baptism, assembly of god, church of christ, jehovah’s witness, pentacostals (holy rollers), etc. These are the snake charmers in the Smoky Mtns. American Protestants are by far the more intolerant half of Christianity.

  • Susan Lee

    My 60 + years of experience with religion is that to genuinely appreciate it, and enter into it – you must have an active imagination. We have, I think, spent a lot of energy as a society attempting to train our young NOT to have an imagination – just be orderly-don’t touch that-don’t eat that-don’t go there-look out! look out! (the Helicopter Mom phenomenon). Imaginations get people into trouble – which parents are more careful to prevent than when I was young – ah! we broke a lot of bones in the 1950’s!

    You can see the lack of imagination in what passes for art – anyone could make most of the ‘art’ put together in the past 50 years – hanging in some highly respected museums, too. And, recall that over the last 2000 years the Church was the Patron of almost all of the most wonderful art ever created.

    Also – One doesn’t have to look too far to see that Government is actively trying to supplant the functions of the Church. RE: the spat between the RC Church & the Government over the contents of their Mandatory Insurance coverages. Who (if you were sorta luke-warm about God) would sign on to that fight?

    As you can see, I don’t think it’s about gays, or the so called religious right. JR above “gets it” when he says he needs his religion to be rational. Well, there’s NOTHING rational about Christ, and Him crucified. You can only understand if you go into the “Art Zone” in your mind.

    Susan Lee

  • Suzy

    What JR says seems far more likely to me than the claim that people are uninspired by too-secular Protestant churches:
    “we also have neither the time, money nor interest for joining a more “liberal” church.”
    Being part of a church requires at least some minimal commitment of time, money, and effort that fewer people are willing to expend. Once you get away from the pattern of behavior that has you spending one of your few (if not only) days off work by getting up early and going somewhere for an hour or two, it’s hard to get back into it.

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  • Senoy

    mododavid, there are different kinds of Protestant churches. The ‘great divide’ as it were is between mainline and evangelical protestants. Evangelicals tend to be more conservative and include most of the denominations you mentioned (Pentecostals-including Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists, Church of Christ, etc. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not considered Protestant but variously classified as either their own tradition or a separate non-Christian category depending upon the source.) Mainlines are usually considered more liberal churches, they tend to be the ‘high churches’ liturgically speaking, Lutherans(non-Missouri Synod), Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Methodists, etc. These churches have generally shied away from the more extreme political and social stances of their evangelical brethren, although some might claim they are extreme in the opposite direction. Some of them marry and/or ordain homosexuals, most of them are pro-choice, they tend to lean Democrat and liberal politically as well as theologically (at least in the United States, in the Global South, they are much more conservative, but Dr. Berger is speaking about the American church)

  • Senoy

    In regards to the falling church attendance in the US. I think it’s a result of a number of things. I think among many younger people it comes from education programs in the last 30 years emphasizing tolerance and embrace of different cultures. This combines with a much more globalized youth society due to the advent of the Internet. These two forces tend to make it much harder to embrace absolute truth claims in the face of opposing viewpoints. I find that many of the unaffiliated ‘spiritual, not religious’ in my age cohort embrace some sort of syncretic pluralism where everyone is right and they can thus avoid taking an antagonistic stance on any particular belief or point of doctrine. I’m not sure that these people are post-moderns. They believe in absolutes, but they would choose not to affiliate themselves with anything that would make them articulate those absolutes and defend those absolutes.

    I also think that there is a large amount of aspirational class belief going on, particularly among the atheist/agnostic crowd. Atheism and agnosticism are seen as somehow the domain of the intelligent and intellectual. Atheism and agnosticism are also seen as European and among certain classes of American people, Europe is still seen as the ‘City on the Hill’ progressively dictating urbane values to perpetually backward and provincial Americans. I think it no coincidence that two (and arguably the two most widely followed) of the ‘Four Horsemen’ are British and a third studied at Oxford. I believe that atheism among a certain set is seen as a rational and progressive movement fighting the backwardness or parochial religion. People who wish to be rational and progressive must take on this belief or forever be labelled as among the rabble and somehow inferior.

    I think that the final piece of the puzzle are the wounded of the culture wars. These are the people that perhaps Dr. Berger is speaking of. People that have been ‘bitten’ by the organized church as part of its reaction to secularization. This can take many forms, but I think especially during adolescence, most people exhibit normal boundary testing behaviours. Frequently, especially among the more conservative churches, these behaviours are met with extreme reactions that can quite frankly be psychologically damaging. I can’t count the number of churches that I know about that have real and serious rifts between the older, more established members and their youth groups. Very destructive relationships that leave a bad taste in my mouth and I’m not even involved with them. Certainly, these rifts have always existed, but I think as the culture wars have progressed, more moderate voices that were able to bridge these gaps have either left or been pushed to the side. I’m not saying that these ‘wounded’ youth are the majority of the movement, but they are a significant and in many cases vocal contingent.

    Anyway, my two cents for what they are worth.

  • Buckley

    I too have a belief in God but I do not belong to a church of any kind. What I have a problem with is the dogma that the different Christianities have within their teaching and the literal interpretation of the bible. I guess the more educated I became and the more I understood how the Bible as we know it came to be, the less I was willing to believe in it. Lots of good morality lessons, but as a literal interpretation of the universe, it is not. I think that everyone should decide on their own how to live and believe, but I am driven further and further from the Republican party (even though I agree with it’s economic principals) because of their insistence to bring their own religions beliefs to bear on their public policy. Until they separate themselves from that I have very few choices. I have voted in the past for Green and Libertarian Party candidates, but until either have a legitimate chance of electoral victory, I have to vote Democratic.

    The only other item I would disagree with is the idea that “Sex” and “Sex Issues” are what drive me away from organized religion. It is one of MANY factors, not THE factor. It’s the idea that the religious beliefs will dictate to the rest of the population the laws that will govern us.

    My respect for religious people is large when they keep it to them selves and their families and do not make moral judgements on everyone else when their own house is not in order.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Reply to J.R. and J.T. Kitchen:

    David Goldman, writer at the Asia Times under the pen name Spengler, points out that the number of two-parent families in the U.S. has remained flat at 25 million since 1970, while population grew from 200 million to 300 million from that year to today.

    Goldman highlights a disturbing statistic: while the number of families in the U.S. has grown from 47 to 77 million since 1963, most of the increase is due to families without children (i.e., one-person families). What underlies the financial condition of the U.S. is the fact that single-parent families have tripled, intact families have declined from 50 percent to 30 percent, while the dependent elderly have doubled from 15 percent to 30 percent since 1960.

    Too few intact families, too many dependent elderly and too many one-parent families are dependent on subsidies. The economic food chain has broken down due to a lack of intact families.

    Despite rampant immigration by family-oriented Latinos, California, like the rest of the U.S., saw a leveling off of intact nuclear families from 2000 to 2007, the period over which the U.S. Census Bureau maintains data online. The number of two parent families with children grew from 4,117,036 in 2000 to only 4,218,469 in 2007, a minus half percent (-0.5%) decline relative to total population. Two parent families with children constituted 35.8 percent of all state households in 2000 and 34.7 percent in 2007, a 1.1 percent decline. Meanwhile state population grew 8.1 percent over the same seven-year period.

    Contrary to popular notions by some social conservatives, non-family households in California grew slightly in total numbers but remained the same proportion of the population – 10.5 percent – from 2000 to 2007. What apparently has grown in California, as in the rest of the nation, are the number of single parent families due to divorce and out-of-wedlock births, not childless households. Unmarried partner households (same sex) only represented 0.9 percent of all households in 2007.

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  • Eric Michael

    I am in the group listed as the most secular. I am religious, however, and attend the Episcopal Church. I switched out of the United Methodist Church and spent a few years with the Unitarian-Universalists. Most people I know, being many, who have left mainline churches, Roman Catholicism or Evangelicalism, have all left because those denominations are perceived as too conservative and restricting OR, in the case of mainline churches—not speaking out enough against the more conservative trends in the other denominations. It has nothing to do with them being too secular. Most people I know believe that I am wasting my time with the snail’s pace of mainline Christianity, and have moved on to embrace progressive views that do not have to wait until some committee is no longer afraid of backlash to step forward and say enough of the madness.

  • William

    A big problem here — all too common in the jump from statistical data to explanation — is a skewed perception arising from the researchers’ and writers’ personal views. Churches did not move to the right in the US; their positions are the same as they always were. What has happened is the American society has bifurcated, or adopted a much more widely divergent array of views, and many of those views are incompatible with traditional Christianity.

    Those who are historically aware will know that it was with relative reluctance that most conservative/traditional Christian groups became politically active, and that this was as a response to changes in society and politics which, it was felt, compelled such activity.

    The correct understanding of the situation is that many young people today have adopted views which are at odds with the stands that have always been taken by most traditional Christian churches.

    To say that conservative Christian political activism is alienating young people from religion is to get things precisely backward. To the extent that one can say that young people are aliented by churches being politically active, I suspect that this is true, only in the sense that, if churches kept quiet about their views it would be easier for members who disagree with those positions to ignore them.

    There will likely be a long-term shake-out in the US in which liberals will stop affiliating with more traditional Christian denominations, and this is naturally occurring first with young people, whose ties to religion tend to be tenuous anyway.

    What IS interesting are the stats that young people tend to be walking away from organized religion altogether, rather than selecting more liberal groups. But, this is probably a reflection of (1) their disillusionment with the religions in which they were raised, (2) the media focus on conservative/traditional Christianity and its relationship to politics, and (3) the fact that young people are less likely to seek out religious groups than are older and more settled people.

  • Tony

    I suppose I do not fit the mold of the authors premise. My conversion to outright atheism (and not non-affiliation) began in my late teens, not as a reaction against anything; but from a lot of long intellectual soul-searching, if you’ll forgive the pun. For me it wouldn’t matter if churches either handed out food by the dump truck load while preaching love and tolerance for all, or were holding weekly burnings at the stake of homosexuals and adulteresses on the town square. I simply cannot intellectually believe in or accept the spiritual, ranging from the Big Man In The Sky at one end, to the Spirit Of Love And Life Is In Everything, on the other. Frankly I could care less about public displays. Let a thousand voices flourish.

    On matters of faith, or the lack thereof, I think is mixture with the political, right or left, is at best harmful, and at worst downright dangerous. Each dilutes the other, and ultimately constrains the thought processes of the individual. I personally take a certain perverse pride in that my friends on the left accuse me of being on the right, while my right leaning friends accuse me of the exact opposite. Being completely separate from the trappings of religion, faith, spirituality, and narrow ideology with no preconceived notions about how I should think about issues and no preset path I am supposed to follow.

    Twenty five years on from my realization that my continued attendance at Sunday Mass would be akin to making myself the ultimate liar and hypocrite; the closest i can come to a “spiritual” experience is when I look into a telescope at a distant galaxy, or when I dig a 300+ million year old fossil out of some cliff face. The childlike wonder and sense of incomprehensible amounts of time are the most deeply humbling feelings a person can have.

  • Could “some” of the young people’s apathy toward religion be because they have somehow received enlightenment from above. I will use an example of a friend’s grandson which only happened the other day. He is in his 20’s and has been going to church for many, many years. Two weeks ago he came over to his grandparents house and said.”All this church stuff isn’t working. I want JESUS.” My friend began to tear up at his sincere desire for what is real and true. “You’ve got it!”she said. Religion is about attending something and going through rituals to attempt to be accepted by God. God seeks a relationship through Jesus, and it is through this means that one comes to know (in His heart) Him. The young people see the futility of attending something. Instead, God wants to dwell in us by His Holy Spirit, and then we can experience communion with Him, and it’s real. That’s why I say maybe young people are seeing something from God even and want what is real, true and good, and not just a counterfeit. If that is why the statistics are low, then there is much to get excited about.

  • Mikke

    You lost me at “tired rationalism.”

  • John Barker

    “—the stripping away of the transcendent dimensions of the Gospel. . .”
    I have known many people who have left the official church for this reason. They seek a spiritual dimension in their lives and get instead a lecture on social justice from the pulpit.(One can have both I think)

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  • Anthony

    Overall, the rest of country has been moving away from mixing religion and politics; that trend generally may have little to do with the unaffiliated but it augurs increased secularization and perhaps the quickening from within. I would concur that the “stripping away of the transcendent dimensions of the Gospel” have certainly aided the push towards secular humanism.

  • Jimcracky

    There are transcendent dimensions of life that have nothing at all to do with religion. Religion has played a role for which it is no longer adequate. It attempts to explain the unexplainable – why does a perfectly innocent four year old burn to death in a home or die of cancer – and it attempts to provide meaning to our individual existence. Organized religion has failed at both of these because it is no longer a sufficient viewpoint for a populous trained to think scientifically and critically – even a little bit. On the one hand churches have abandoned this task for a social gospel of justice (not a bad thing in itself) and on the other hand to pimp itself in the halls of government for secular power to push an agenda of intolerance and disenfranchisement of women, gays, other religions and more lately immigrants (all a very bad thing indeed.)
    Next, to label atheism as “tired rationalism” is to discount the very trend this study has found – rational people are coming to reject religion as a sufficient basis for answering the fundamental questions. That people still say they believe in “god” is, I suspect, a relic of their belief there IS something greater than themselves, but they have no name for it and simply default to calling it god. This marks them at best as deists and many are on their way to becoming atheists.
    Finally, you cannot discount the reality that religion today (or at least people who identify themselves by their religions) are at the core of some of the most dangerous conflicts in our Western world. This makes religion itself suspect because it by definition and regardless of creed, divides the world into us and them. We need a new story that unites us as a world – but to evangelicals this very idea terrifies them due to their apocalyptic theology of one world government and the anti-Christ. For Catholics and Muslims their theology only allows one religion – theirs. These views are too narrow for the world in which we now live – one joined nearly instantly by technology. We must find a new story that allows us to see the common human story, or religion may initiate the death of us all.

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  • DMac

    Enthusiasm about abortion? Really? You can’t make an argument without resorting to cheap shots?

  • The conventional wisdom that people are fleeing religion relies, I believe, on a cramped understanding of religion. The void left by the Death of God in c1800 was immediately filled by militant secular religions that almost came to rule the world.

    I think we need a more enlightened understanding of religion that comprehends: e.g., the modern secular seminary we call the university, the salvific membership organizations for environmental causes, and “activist” militant groups like Occupy. And that’s just for a start.

  • Bebe

    One cannot be surprised that political scientists create studies such as this one. Terribly tedious twaddle, but I’m sure such deeply percipient theory satisfies the departmental requirement for tenured publishing…and for purchase by politicos in the States who shuttle between the twain poles of lamenting the American religious decline and vaunting the soon-to-be-at-hand Rapture. If one still thinks as a child and requires a comfortable and guiding hand, one needs partake of the milk of a received “weltanschauung” from the established Churches and Religions of the World. Hence we have the remark in John 14:2 that “in my father’s house are many mansions…,” since even Jesus recognized the all-too-human desire to complicate our spirituality of religion with dogma and hierarchy and statistical percentages (in other words, the political intrigue that impels the comments of persons like Wayne Lusvardi). Yet in maturity we can incarnate the truth of Irenaeus’ exclamation, “Gloria dei homo vivens,” (“The glory of God is a living human being”). Beyond the Pharisaical numbers counting of the world, we redeem ourselves with a mindful awareness of the trite truth that Life is for living. Such was the lesson of the Renaissance in learning not to gaze too closely at the actions of our left and right hands. “Age quod agis” (“do what you are doing”)- and live in the present as the Christ taught.

  • Jim.

    Churches aren’t the only thing these demographics aren’t joining. Organizations from Elk’s Lodge to Bowling Leagues are dropping in membership. So, I wouldn’t read too much theology into all this.

    By the way, the reason people will turn away from this fad of gay “marriage” as they age is they will learn more of how the world actually works, and recognize that the basic biology of human reproduction makes a heterosexual pairing the only sort with any long-term meaning, and the only one worth the support and honor of society at large.

    Homosexual “marriages” are pure self-indulgence, and do nothing to contribute to the next generation of humanity. There’s no reason the rest of us have to respect that.

    That is the only point of view rooted in fact, and it will win out in the end.

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  • James

    Maybe so, maybe not. I tire of large sociological studies. For myself now, I find great meaning in the life and work and perspective of the late Rev. Fred Rogers/Mister Rogers. His faith motivated him in his work. It undergirded his work, and remained underneath and out of sight of his work of 33 years on PBS. But it was “invisibly present”. He prayed before every episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. In his private life, he believed in a risen and resurrected living Jesus the Christ our Lord (his phrasing). His work in Television was his ministry. If one wants to, one can believe in a Jesus who was perfect, and who died for the sins of humanity, including one’s own, and who was risen from the dead, so that those who want to believe this can have the hope of an eternal life, being forgiven of one’s sins. Or one can choose to believe in some other religion or belief. I choose to believe in the this message of Christianity, and millions of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant people do, and it means everything to them in their life, and at the time of their death. I choose to believe in this. I am trying to my life to be more like the Rev. Fred Rogers/Mister Rogers and live my own life, and let God use me as God wishes. I find this to be very meaningful, and there are many of us who were influenced by the life of Mister Rogers. Choose what you believe to be “really real” and live your one life. I hope to live a life of kindness like the Rev. Fred Rogers and serve my “living Jesus” and my God, and those I come in contact with every day, and just try to be present to them as I meet each one each day. God bless you as you search for what you believe to be “really real”.

  • ari

    well, I’m not sure I’d like to be locked in a room with humans being very human, when I can have witty, clever, well-dressed people talking to each other on TV.

    and, well, lots of young people are unchurched b/c they aren’t being brought to church by their parents. My kids have friends who have never been in church at all, but are certain that it’s boring and a waste of time. I’m not sure how they think this- they’ve never been. They come along for VBS, or the Christmas pageant, and they are dazzled by the cookies and the not-graded classes and the pretty clothes on other girls, and the nice older people speaking to them like they are interested in them. I think it’s the usual way of living, and they’ve never seen anything like it.

    People are working six days a week, if they have a job, and a pastor trying to run a whole train of involvement- classes and meetings and groups and such- they don’t get that one single hour of beauty means that that person can go face their week with grace. Or month, for that matter. Enough doesn’t have to mean everything and the kitchen sink.

    I don’t know that the parents have been treated kindly by churches, in the culture wars. They feel unwelcome, for so many, many reasons, almost like a bad boyfriend list.

  • Peaches

    Religion thrives on the angst of our own fragility, and its importance diminishes in direct proportion to the bolstering of physical, financial, and intellectual security. As Northern Europe has proven conclusively, when society is organized primarily to eliminate suffering and struggle, religion holds little traction beyond a legacy fetish. The politically religious of America know this, which is why they align themselves with monied interests who will maintain the stratified society which religion breeds in. The correlation between the Bible Belt and extreme poverty is a mutually reinforcing–and not at all accidental.

  • TPL

    I’d like to respond to this – I’m 43, admittedly libertarian in my views, and not religious by typical standards (this was different in the past). Although I’d admit that religion provides a number of benefits to society and personal well-being, the type of “Religious Right” typified by Rick Santorum is an abomination to me. Despite the fact I’d admit to being intellectually and temperamentally conservative.

    I respect his deeply-held beliefs, and would die for his right to express them, but his 0% willingness to do the same means I will fight him to the death.

    That is precisely why I despise the Religious Right, and have since the Reagan era. It used to be the governing philosophy in the U.S. that ‘I may disagree with your beliefs, but I’d die for your right to express/exercise them’, to ‘f*ck you, you’d insist on me expressing/exercising your beliefs, then I’d die to fight you to the bitter end.

    The same is true for your belligerent, neocon, ‘send-soldiers-to-die in places of zero national interest, while avoiding military service myself’ (typical) assertion. Same f*cking thing….

  • c matt

    the article indicates that the largest percent of nones is in the 30-49 age group

    This may likely reflect the trend of postponing marriage and childbearing.

  • c matt

    for a populous trained to think scientifically and critically

    Where is this populace of which you speak? It seems the more educated one becomes, the less likely you are able to think your way out of a paper bag. What passes for thinking today is the uncritical and unscientific acceptance of the latest fads. Modern education is indoctrination, and the last thing educators want is for you to think critically. Have you spent any time at all in academia? Perfect examples – (1) abortion – you have to ignore the science of biology to justify acceptance of it (or, accept the biology and have the cajones to admit it is killing a human being), (2) same sex marriage – again, you have to ignore the obvious biology for which various human parts exist, and accept a variation on the ..ahem…practice that offers no particular benefit to society. Where is the “scientific” and “critical” thinking in that?

    As for the respect due science, like any other endeavor, it has been corrupted by politics, such that the global warming – excuse me – climate change debate has been poisoned by falsified data. The four forces of science: electrical, magnetic, gravitational and governmental funding, the last of these being the most powerful.

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  • Vickie

    I would consider myself a Christian, who does not go to church, primarily because of the right wing Christians who are judgemental, and cast their eyes down on people who try, but fall short of what is expected of a Christian. They are the kind of Christians who do kindness in public, but in private enjoy participating in all kinds of sinful behavior. But…As long as it is not seen, it never happened right. In my childhood teachings, this is what I know to be a hypocrite. Hypocrits are ruling the world now, while the real Christians do their best, while reading their Bibles at home and try to help those in need no matter what they may have done. It is all about foegiveness and love.

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