Notes from reading The Nones by Ryan P. Burge
The Nones by Ryan P. Burge is about the rise in Americans who are not affiliated with any religious group; the author calls this group of American’s “Nones” as a short hand. In addition to being an academic, the writer is also a Christian Pastor, so he writes with an eye towards understanding how a church can be relevant to this group.
The rise in Americans that don’t identify with any religious tradition is really striking. In the 1990s, just 20 years ago, less than 10% of Americans identified as not having a religious tradition, behind Evangelicals, Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Black Protestants¹.
As of 2018, this group was the largest American religious tradition. The rise in religious disaffiliation cuts across age, gender, income, education levels, marital status, and whether or not someone has children. The author is pretty exhaustive in cuts of the data and as far as I can tell, every single group became more likely to be religiously unaffiliated over this time frame.
Not only this, but amongst religiously affiliated Americans, reported attendance also falls over this time. So both religiously affiliated and religiously unaffiliated Americans are becoming more secular.
This trend is likely to continue with time. The “Nones” have a much younger demographic profile than other religious traditions, meaning that they’re likely to be around for sometime to come. In particular, Mainline Protestants are in a lot of trouble: their average age is 57.4 (for comparisons, Evangelicals are 50.1, Catholics are 48.9, and Nones are 42.1). Barring a major revival, the Mainline Protestant Church, once the largest religious group in the United States, is poised to die out over the coming decades.
Why is this happening? The book is a bit inconclusive. One explanation offered is a sort of a reversion to the mean. Basically, that the United States is becoming more like other wealthy, highly educated countries, which tend to be less religious.
Another is that as Christian traditions and the political right have moved closer together, moderate and liberal Americans have begun to feel unwelcome and left the church.
Neither of these explanations are well tested by the book. I’d love to see a deeper dive into this question.
Some other things that stood out to me:
- Nones include 3 groups: Atheists, Agnostics, and “Nothing in Particulars”. Atheists and Agnostics are both about 6% of the adult population. Nothing in particulars are 20%.
- Americans really don’t like atheists. The book shows a chart with attitudes towards different groups. At the top are groups like working class people (83.1) and the military (80.5). At the bottom, 4 points lower than Congress (42.3) are Atheists (38.4)
- Other than political leanings, one of the biggest things that impacts whether or not someone has religious affiliation is whether or not they have children
1: These categories come from The General Social Survey, which has been asking the same questions about American religion since 1972, making it useful for understanding changes over time.