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The Big Shift #FoF
The Big Shift #FoF

The Landscape of Faith Does Not Look as it Used To

Over the past few years, the national conversation[1] on the changing nature of religiosity in the United States has built to a crescendo. This transformation in religious practices, assumptions and institutions is being felt in every corner of the religious sphere, and is concentrated in the generational shifts away from traditional modes of religious expression, shifts that are being led by the Millennial Generation (born between the early 1980’s and 2000). The big turn going on today is away from post-war, traditional forms of organized religion and towards the unaffiliated, the spiritual but not religious, and the “nones.” Led by Millennials, the rise of the “nones” includes a broad and diverse group of people, varied in terms of age, geography, gender, ethnicity, class, and any other measure.[2] For a deeper discussion of what is driving today’s decline in religiosity, I highly recommend Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. They delve into the unique relationship with religion found in many racial and ethnic minority communities (Black Protestant churches, Latino Catholic parishes, etc.), the different responses to religiously liberal versus conservative groups, religion’s impact on politics, and more.

Though it seems normal to expect young adults to be less observant, in fact we Millennials attend church even less than our parents did at the same age, with fewer than 18% of us attending weekly services.[3] More and more members of the Millennial generation are describing themselves as disconnected from religion, or one of the religious “nones.”

While confusing if you say it out loud (nuns?), the term “nones” describes people who respond to survey questions saying they have no religious identity or affiliation, a group now totaling 33 million Americans.[4] And though young adults are certainly a diverse group, patterns within our generation are clearly present among the “nones.”

There are two critical points to highlight in these trends. First is that, despite the diversity among the nones, they can be divided up into two big and roughly equal groups. Putnam and Campbell describe the two groups as “liminal vs. secular nones,”[5] and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (another great resource for data on American religious practice) refer to the “religious vs. secular unaffiliated.” The secular “nones” tend to be younger and more educated,[6] and the religious or liminal “nones” are a bit older and have more socio-economic and racial diversity. Liminal “nones” are so-named because their religious identity is in flux; for example, they might be married to a spouse with a stronger religious affiliation, so the intensity of their own religious identity may change from year to year. This is where you find many members of Generation X and the Baby Boom whose religious participation has declined in recent years. Secular “nones” are more fixed in their lack of religious connection and generally report lower measures of religiosity such as belief in god or daily prayer. The secular “nones” are where we find more members of the Millennial generation, among whom a staggering 33% today identify as having no religious affiliation.[7]

This brings us to the second point, which is how robust this trend is.  Every major poll, including the ones conducted by Putnam and Campbell, the highly-respected Pew Research Center,[8] the General Social Survey,[9] and the American Religious Identification Survey,[10] confirms this the shift away from religious identity, and we have been able to document its development for at least the past decade.[11] This type of broad agreement is so rare that it leaves little doubt it is real, and the trend has only been increasing as Millennials age towards becoming the dominant adult generation. This is the new religious landscape in America, and we need to respond to it.

 This post is the second in Blue Boat's #FutureofFaith series: Click here to read the previous post which introduces the series. Click here to read the next post which discusses the challenges churches face.
[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-laderman/the-rise-of-religious-non_b_2913000.html [2] Kosmin, B. A. and Keysar, A. (2008) American Nones: A Profile of the No Religion Population. Based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008. Trinity College, Hartford, CT. http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf [3] http://www.pewforum.org/Age/Religion-Among-the-Millennials.aspx (Attendance at Religious Services, by generation) [4] http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx [5] Lim, C., et al. (2010) “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 49(4):596–618. [6] Compared to the religious or liminal “nones,” secular “nones” also tend to 1. be more male, 2. reside on the East and West Coasts, and 3. include more Asian Americans. [7] Putnam, Campbell (2010). Pg 561. [8] Funk, C. and Smith, G. (2012). “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation.  The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: Washington, DC. http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx [9] Hout, M., et al. (2013). More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Key Finding from the 2012 General Social Survey. Institute for the Study of Social Issues, University of California: Berkeley, CA. http://issi.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/shared/docs/Hout%20et%20al_No%20Relig%20Pref%202012_Release%20Mar%202013.pdf [10] http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf [11]http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3088891?uid=3739696&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101819483313

About the Author

  • Carey McDonald is the UUA's acting Chief Operating Officer, helping to implement the President's agenda and overseeing major staff operations. He previously served as the UUA Outreach Director and the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, and is a former lay member of...

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[…] last post described the surge in the number of non-religious Americans, or “nones,” which are most […]

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