Nones again

May 16, 2015

The Pew Research Center has a new study out on the “landscape” of religion in America. In just 7 years the percentage of American adults not claiming any religious affiliation has risen from 16.1% to 22.8%. The “Nones” now outnumber Roman Catholics, and way outnumber “mainline Protestants” according to Pew’s classification of denominational families; only the Evangelicals are more numerous, at 25.4%. At the same time total Christian identification has fallen from 78.4% to 70.6%

The increase in Nones seems to involve both generational change – the more religious older folks dying out and being replaced in the sample by youngsters – and a steady drift away from religion within each generational slice. There has been little sign of what used to be considered a “thing”: people drifting away from church in their late teens and twenties, but returning when they marry and have kids of their own. And while in the past a significant number of people raised as Nones eventually found themselves churched, this too is becoming less common.

As I see it, Nones have reached a self-sustaining critical density in many parts of the country, especially metropolitan areas outside the South. When I was a kid in the 1950’s, even though I myself wasn’t actually raised in a church (my parents were marginally affiliated with Greek Orthodoxy), I got the sense from people I knew, as well as from the media, that church-going was something normal, something most people did. This was the age of Eisenhower, who said it was important to have a religion, no matter which; I recently read somewhere that he was the only President to have been baptized while in office. It was the age when Billy Graham was always being mentioned in the media, widely admired by millions who didn’t share or even understand his particular beliefs. There were times I felt I was missing something, and once I was on my own I had to try to figure out what it was and how it worked. Today’s young people are much less likely to get that message, less likely to have close friends or relatives who are religious and who might inspire or at least enable them to give it a try at some point; moreover, most of the Christians and other religious-identifiers whom a young None is likely to encounter in daily life, in school or at work, are a lot less likely to be involved in their respective faith traditions than their predecessors were, more likely to have lifestyles and moral and political beliefs similar to those of the Nones rather than to those of the religiously more conservative, and therefore much less likely than in previous decades to pull their None friends into church (or whatever) with them. Back in the ’50s, even though there were plenty of differences among religious and denominational groups, they all seemed to share a certain mindset – a respect for traditional teachings, scriptures, and that hot topic for kids growing up in all eras, sexual morality; it was those who rejected religion altogether who were “marked” as a somewhat alien minority. Today it’s the Evangelicals who are isolated on the conservative wing, with Mainliners, Catholics, members of non-Christian traditions and Nones tending to agree among themselves on most issues.

Ross Douthat and others have published interesting reflections on the Pew results, which I may find time to comment on in days to come…


More Nones

June 25, 2012

Not long after posting my piece on Australia, I ran into a news item from York County, PA: not only has church membership declined there in the past 10 years, the decline has considerably exceeded the national average. 14% as against 2%. The ELCA, which had been the largest denomination there, lost almost nine thousand members, or over 20%, making them less numerous than the Catholics who only lost two thousand. Presbyterians and UCC also suffered large losses percentagewise; Methodists aren’t doing quite so badly, more in the same range as the Catholics.

Conservatives may say all those liberal denominations are losing because they’ve lost touch with the Biblical roots of their faith and thus alienated most of their adherents; but in fact Southern Baptists are down also, and as I’ve noted before, the more conservative Lutheran denominations aren’t doing much better than ELCA.

All these numbers are from ARDA, the Association of Religion Data Archives; they’re all available online, so you can pick your favorite county or denomination or whatever and track its growth or decline over the past 30 years.

What I want to know is what, if anything, is special about York County. I know that it’s in a part of the state where overall population is growing somewhat; that’s about it. Someday I’ll have to go through the ARDA database and check out all the neighboring counties, then look up what else is happening there, politically, economically etc.

Meanwhile I’ll close with this: the article quotes a church spokesman as saying, “These people have not stopped practicing over any serious doctrinal disagreement… mostly, they stopped attending out of habit.” I think this is probably true to some extent; but the opposite side of the coin is that their former attendance didn’t imply any serious doctrinal agreement either; it too was largely out of habit, and the same is true of most of those who still attend.

Nones Down Under

June 22, 2012

Just a brief note on a recent news item: the 2011 Australian Census reveals a large rise in the number of people claiming to belong to no religion: over 22%, up from just under 19% as recently as 2006. 61% of Aussies still consider themselves one or another sort of Christian, and the Roman Catholics are still the largest single group, but all other denominations – most recently the Anglicans – have been overtaken by the Nones.

Hinduism and Islam are growing, mainly due to immigration.

I saw somewhere, apparently not in the linked article, that unsurprisingly the growth of the Nones is greatest among the young.

All this shows that the whole Western world is undergoing the same sort of transition. I recall that a few decades ago Holland was roughly where Australia is now: the non-religious got into the news for overtaking the individual Protestant denominations, then a census or two later they outnumbered the Catholics too. Now they are close to half the population, outnumbering all the Christian churches combined.

In countries where a single denomination is dominant, you’re more likely to see a higher rate of nominal membership, but not much widespread participation.

Stay tuned. I’d like to write about a number of things, the trend towards Calvinism among the Southern Baptists, the question of whether the Catholic church should welcome becoming leaner and meaner, and the like; and starting next week I should have more time to do it!

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.




Last week the Storting (Parliament of Norway) gave the necessary second approval to a constitutional amendment terminating the longstanding relationship between the Lutheran Church and the State. Apparently the Church is still regarded as the folkekirke (church of the people, or nation), but otherwise all religious bodies are to be considered equal. The government will no longer  have a say in the appointment of pastors or bishops, though it will still provide the church with funding (as it does for other religious bodies as well).

There doesn’t seem to have been much controversy over this move; the Church approved it, and only three members of the Storting voted against.  Now there is a proposal to eliminate religious holidays, if not Easter at least the more obscure ones like Pentecost. Both disestablishment and elimination of Pentecost have been proposed in Denmark also.

According to figures I looked at a few years ago, Norway was a bit behind Denmark and Sweden in the rate of secularization, though still ahead of most of Europe; now though I see that estimated church attendance has declined to 2% of the population, which is about as low as in the rest of Scandinavia, and 46% of the population considers itself atheist.

I should look up the current situation in Finland, where a few years ago there was a large spike in the number of people canceling their church membership (using a nifty online tool they have) after some religious leader made an anti-gay statement on TV…

The National Council of Churches’ new Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches is out.

I love this stuff. I’ve been following these things for decades. I can remember when the Southern Baptists first overtook the Methodists as the largest single Protestant denomination in the U.S., and now they’re over twice as large. But while the Methodists again declined by 1% last year, the Southern Baptists also declined a bit, and in fact haven’t grown in several years. So much for the irresistible tide of Evangelicalism. Pentacostals are still growing rapidly, but they are hardly typical fundamentalists, although they agree in their opposition to liberalism and tend to be grouped together – a lot like the Hasidim and the more sedate kinds of Haredim.

Other highlights: again the UCC, Episcopalians and Presbyterians showed the steepest declines (all between 2 and 3%) – if you put aside the curious case of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which was reduced by more than half as a result of “a new methodology of counting members.” ELCA again declined less steeply than the others just mentioned, but almost twice as fast as Missouri Synod, which was in the same league as the Methodists.

As I’ve been saying all along, the data can not be “explained” simply (as has so often has claimed) in terms of people rejecting “liberalism” and longing for simple Biblical preaching that reaffirms traditional (especially sexual) morality, because if that were it, there’s no reason for Missouri Synod to be declining as fast as the Methodists, or for the Southern Baptists to have plateaued as they have. (“Plateaued” looks funny but Wiktionary assures me that it is a legitimate verb form.) I really believe it has at least as much to do with geographical and demographic factors, like mobility and density of population. The more thinly-spread a denomination, the less likely it is that people who move will find a new congregation of the same label that suits them, and the less likely it is that kids will grow up with the strong sense of demoninational identity that comes from having school friends, teammates, etc. who go to the same or a related church.

My own Unitarian Universalist denomination, nowhere near large enough to get into the NCC press release, has been consistently losing about 90% of its children. This causes an awful lot of hand-wringing, but I think it is practically inevitable, for the reasons I mentioned: apart from being few in number to begin with, we are demographically the most college-going and otherwise mobile denomination, so people naturally drift away. On the other hand, we  bring in enough adult newcomers every year to more or less exactly compensate for the lost youngsters, so our total membership has been remarkably steady for decades…. And what’s wrong with that? Maybe it is time to think beyond the old model of “religion,” in which children are expected to inherit it from their parents. I mean, why should they? We don’t expect them to inherit their parents’ tastes, hobbies, politics….

In the Pew Forum study I linked to the other day it is shown that while there were 97 Methodists in the 87th Congress (1061-62), 18% of the total membership and a close second to the Catholic contingent, in the new Congress they’re down to 50, a reduction of nearly 50%, the largest decline of any major denomination other than the Congregationalists (who plummeted from 27 to 4) and the group labeled “Restorationists” (from 18 to 2)  – I assume this last category includes the entire Campbell-Stone family of churches: the Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ and Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

Meanwhile, what about the general public? This table shows a membership decline for the United Methodist Church of 23.6% from 1960 to 2004, not quite the largest decline of mainline denominations; however, I can’t tell whether this takes into account the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. The UCC (mostly former Congregationalists) are down 35.9%, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians are in the same range, and the Disciples of Christ come off the worst, going down 56.4%, the only denomination in this period to fall from above to below one million members.

What does this all mean? In my post last year on this subject I presented my notion that all else being equal, the denominations that did the worst over the past decades were the ones with the weakest regional concentration; as children grow up they are more likely to retain a sense of denominational identity (even if they quit going to church in their young adult years) if they have a number of school friends and neighborhood friends who go to the same church. Now I would like to raise a related but broader point.

I used to think of the Methodists as the model of what a middle-American church was. It made sense to me that they were overrepresented in Congress because all across the Midwest and Border South they were the church that gathered the most civic-minded citizens, the church that did the most to cultivate civic mindedness in its members, with a commitment to social justice and community improvement shared with other denominations, to be sure, but uniquely central to their very identity. But this was largely a small-town phenomenon in its golden days; the model of “church” they represented was one that worked best when political and cultural communities were themselves closer knit than they are in today’s metropoles. The Congregationalists (though confined largely to New England) and the Restorationists seem to fit the same paradigm. This is not quite a question of “congregational polity,” which technically the Methodists do not have; it is a question of how the church relates to civic society, and how the latter has evolved.

I would like to see someone figure out a way to quantify how many times a week the average church-going American meets his/her fellow congregants outside of church, outside of church-related activities. I think it will be found that the world in which our mainline Protestant churches prospered was one in which there was simply a lot more such interaction than today. Members of the same church were more likely not only to send their kids to the same public school, but to live on the same street, go to the same library, shop in each other’s stores, see each other on line at the bank, belong to the same social and political clubs; there was an intensity of mutual interaction which the churches were part of and which gave a certain meaning to their existence.

I believe the mainline denominations have declined not because of any loss of faith in the population as a whole, or (as many would have it) a yearning for a stricter, narrower faith; or at least, I don’t think “faith” is an independent variable. It seems to me they have declined because the whole way of life which provided them with a secure and prominent niche has declined.