Nones in the news

June 8, 2012

It’s been known for some time that religious affiliation has been declining in the United States, especially among the young. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) published by Trinity College in 2008 definitively established the “Nones” – people with no stated religious preference, atheists, and agnostics – as a major and growing feature of our religious landscape. It was not immediately obvious, however, whether this change was  primarily a matter of people changing their minds over the course of time, or of the younger generation starting out less religious and gradually aging into demographic prominence as their elders died out. Differentiating between age effects and generational effects is not something we usually think to do, nor is it usually all that easy.

So a hat-tip to the Friendly Atheist for pointing me to this new study from the team at Trinity. They’ve gone through all their data and teased out the figures by generation, following longitudinally the so-called “Gen X” (those born between 1965 and ’72). The results are quite striking. In 1990, when the group in question was aged 18-25, “Nones” were 11%; in 2008, having advanced onto or just over the threshhold of middle age, that number had gone up to 16%. An estimated 2.2 million people, during precisely the years when  they were supposed to be settling down from adolescent friskiness and returning to religion, seem to have lost theirs  instead.

By denomination, the decline was especially significant among Catholics and Baptists. However, I suspect that most of the lost Baptists actually drifted into “Generic Christian” category, which gained just about as much as the “Nones” and tends to be made up of Bible-focused conservative Evangelicals. The Catholic loss is likely more serious;  the rate of disaffiliation was more than enough to compensate for the swelling of this age group by immigration, much of which is from Catholic countries, and my sense is that lapsed Catholics are more likely to leave Christianity altogether than to join conservative Protestant churches, though surely some do. (I do know quite a few ex-Catholics at my UU church…)

By the way, the same study also deals with politics; Gen X has been becoming more Democratic and less Republican.





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