Rise of the Nones

Surveys from Pew and Gallup and other respected pollsters have identified sharp declines in Americans’ religiosity, especially among the young.  Some twenty percent of Americans currently report no religious affiliation;  among younger cohorts, the percentage is much higher.

The other day, I had a conversation with someone who viewed this rejection of traditional religion with alarm, and wondered what might have caused it. (Video games? Bad parenting? The ACLU, with its insistence on obeying the First Amendment?)

I have a different perspective.

I talk to a lot of students, and what I hear from them is that they are repelled by ostentatious piety displayed by high-profile people who are being hateful or judgmental. They are contemptuous of the fundamentalists’ war on science. They are impatient with people who want to use government to impose their own religious beliefs on others–who want to deny women access to birth control, and who refuse to support equal treatment of their GLBT friends. They roll their eyes when people like Bill O’Reilly or Sarah Palin whine about a “War on Christmas.”

As impatient as they are with rampant hypocrisy, however, the rise of the nones is not simply a reaction to Christians (and Jews and Muslims) behaving badly. The young Americans I know take issues of social justice and ethical behavior very seriously, and a growing number of them have concluded that any morality worthy of the name must be a product of reason rather than blind obedience to dogma.

They are examining all beliefs–secular and religious–and they are testing outcomes. If a belief system promises to improve society, if it promotes equal human dignity and compassionate and loving behavior, it passes the test. If it generates power struggles, if it requires women to be “submissive” and consigns GLBT folks to second-class status–if it marginalizes or denigrates those who are different– it fails.

Works for me.


  1. I left the Catholic Church when the priests were found to be guilty of their sins against children. Not only was that bad enough but the COVERUP sent me packing for good. My dear husband is the only Christian I know that behaves and believes like Jesus. He would be the only person I know that is a Christian through and through and I respect that despite my ‘loss of faith.’

  2. I have 7 thoughtful grandchildren ages 29 to 17. None attend religious services. All express themselves coherently re a scientific, historical and philosophic understanding of our common existence. I think they agree with Paine: no mystery, miracle, revelation. I trust them with mankind’s future.

  3. Thank you for another insightful post. I agree with all of the above. A few of our grandson’s friends (mid- to late-teens) are religious, but even they are questioning, struggling. Some have looked into different organized religions and find them wanting. The young people in this group have strong social consciences and lack the prejudices of the society we grew up in.

  4. Hypocrisy drove me away…I am very spiritual and I believe in God; but I don’t believe in people and organized religion is a product of people. Don’t talk to me about gay marriage when you are cheating on your 2nd spouse. Don’t preach from the pulpit while you are forcing sex onto children. I recall a sign I saw…” I like your Christ but I don’t like your Christians they are not like Christ”

    That being said, many do like Pope Francis (thus far)…

  5. The hypocrisy I’ve seen in certain local Disciples of Christ and Methodist congregations is appalling. I will speak only to what I’ve seen first-hand….it does shake your faith. That and the intrusion of the religious fanatics in Indiana who insist on trying to push their beliefs on others.
    It’s not necessary to participate in structure religious bodies to be spiritual.

  6. Three cheers for higher ed! “Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.” —Mark Twain

  7. I was born and raised a Catholic and even attended 4 years in a Catholic School back in late 1950’s and 1960’s. I am now a None.

    I suppose at some point I realized all these Churches, Temples, etc., each preached one way or another they were the True Path to God. The others were wrong. Organized Religion tries to control your life, and in the extreme control the lives of others to the point of shunning, and even killing. I find it hard to believe in this day that Governments in the world not only sponsor a certain Religious View , but actively suppress others, even under the penalty of death. I find it hard to believe people will kill each other over Religion. The Taliban found it necessary to blow up an ancient statue of Buddha.

    The control that Religion demands is bizarre – for some you cannot eat shellfish, pork or cattle. Growing up a Catholic we had meatless Fridays.

    Now we have the War against the Pill, the War against Science (Evolution), the War against Christmas, denying Gay people the Right to be Married or have Civil Unions in a Secular Legal way.

  8. Sheila, you know this important is important to me as it was what I wanted to focus my summer project on, though with the focus on low-income individuals. This always reminds me of some of Einstein’s thoughts on the matter that I consumed while I was off in China. The first you can find below…

    “A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”

    The second, and I think more relevant to the discussion at hand, has something to do with what Einstein labeled a “cosmic religious feeling” and it is something that I think more and more young people accept rather than the dogma or theology of a traditional religion. The feeling of true and absolute beauty in arts and science, and in recognizing how infinitesimal yet how important we are in the scheme of the universe. In playing a central part in something much larger than the individual. We will all benefit greatly if this is truly to be the religion of the future.

  9. Along with the above comments, we know that 25% of the Millennials are religiously affiliated, and the number is increasing. Don’t you think that the politicians who play to their base with ostentatious (hypocritical) piety, their war on science and their insistence on imposing their religious beliefs on others would be able to read the tea leaves? That road on which they are traveling at 80 m.p.h. has a brick wall waiting for them. Mr. Pence may have to deal with some real Christians–who are concerned about justice, poor people and the common good–one of these days, and it won’t be pretty for him.

  10. OOPS! I meant to say that 25% of the Millennials are religiously UN-affiliated, and the number is increasing.

  11. I grew up in a church where visiting evangelists were of the hell and brimstone variety.
    They were scary people, and I could never reconcile their messages with commandments to love God and each other.

    Thankfully in adulthood I found a church which welcomes all religions (including other than Christians), races, genders, sexual orientations, and which practices the loving attitudes it preaches. That’s probably why St. Luke’s has become the largest Methodist church north of the Mason Dixon line.

  12. Works for me too and similar trends are occurring Downunder. It’s refreshing to hear this occurring in the US which I understand has historically has been a more religious country than here (??). Here it’s always been okay to be atheist notwithstanding its minority, but growing, status. That said, like Nancy observes, there are some wonderful churches here too that observe liberal and non-hypocritical practices, a kind of secular humanism, eschewing dogma.

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