Excerpts of "Nones" on the Rise, Executive Summary, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation
The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%)
This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.
However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country's 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as "spiritual" but not "religious" (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.
With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.
The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the "nones" – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones.4 A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.
These generational differences are consistent with other signs of a gradual softening of religious commitment among some (though by no means all) Americans in recent decades. Pew Research Center surveys conducted over the last 10 years, for example, find modest growth in the number of people who say they seldom or never attend religious services, as well as a declining number who say they never doubt the existence of God.
With their rising numbers, the religiously unaffiliated are an increasingly important segment of the electorate. In the 2008 presidential election, they voted as heavily for Barack Obama as white evangelical Protestants did for John McCain. More than six-in-ten religiously unaffiliated registered voters are Democrats (39%) or lean toward the Democratic Party (24%). They are about twice as likely to describe themselves as political liberals than as conservatives, and solid majorities support legal abortion (72%) and same-sex marriage (73%). In the last five years, the unaffiliated have risen from 17% to 24% of all registered voters who are Democrats or lean Democratic.
In addition, this report contains capsule summaries of some leading theories put forward by scholars in an attempt to explain the root causes of the rise of the "nones." These theories run the gamut from a backlash against the entanglement of religion and politics to a global relationship between economic development and secularization. While Pew Research Center surveys are unlikely to settle the debate, they may help to rule out some misconceptions about the unaffiliated. For example, the surveys show that religious affiliation is declining among Americans who do not have college degrees, as well as among college graduates, which suggests that the trend is not solely a result of attitudes toward religion on college campuses. Nor, as the new Pew Research Center/Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly survey shows, are the unaffiliated composed largely of religious "seekers" who are looking for a spiritual home and have not found it yet.
In 2007 Pew Research Center surveys, 15.3% of U.S. adults answered a question about their current religion by saying they were atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular." The number of religiously unaffiliated respondents has ticked up each year since, and now stands at 19.6%.
While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown significantly over the past five years, the Protestant share of the population has shrunk. In 2007, 53% of adults in Pew Research Center surveys described themselves as Protestants. In surveys conducted in the first half of 2012, fewer than half of American adults say they are Protestant (48%). This marks the first time in Pew Research Center surveys that the Protestant share of the population has dipped significantly below 50%.
The decline is concentrated among white Protestants, both evangelical and mainline. Currently, 19% of U.S. adults identify themselves as white, born-again or evangelical Protestants, down slightly from 21% in 2007. And 15% of adults describe themselves as white Protestants but say they are not born-again or evangelical Christians, down from 18% in 2007.5 There has been no change in minority Protestants' share of the population over the past five years.
One important factor behind the growth of the religiously unaffiliated is generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. Among the youngest Millennials (those ages 18-22, who were minors in 2007 and thus not eligible to be interviewed in Pew Research Center surveys conducted that year), fully one-third (34%) are religiously unaffiliated, compared with about one-in-ten members of the Silent Generation (9%) and one-in-twenty members of the World War II-era Greatest Generation (5%). Older Millennials (ages 23-30) also are substantially less likely than prior generations to be religiously affiliated.
But generational replacement is not the only factor at play. Generation Xers and Baby Boomers also have become more religiously unaffiliated in recent years. In 2012, 21% of Gen Xers and 15% of Baby Boomers describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, up slightly (but by statistically significant margins) from 18% and 12%, respectively, since 2007. The trend lines for earlier generations are essentially flat. Not only are young adults less likely to be affiliated than their elders, but the GSS shows that the percentage of Americans who were raised without an affiliation has been rising gradually, from about 3% in the early 1970s to about 8% in the past decade. However, the overwhelming majority of the "nones" were brought up in a religious tradition. The new Pew Research Center/Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly survey finds that about three-quarters of unaffiliated adults were raised with some affiliation (74%).
Some Evidence of Decline in Religious Commitment in the U.S. Public
The continued growth of the religiously unaffiliated is one of several indicators suggesting that the U.S. public gradually may be growing less religious. To be sure, the United States remains a highly religious country – particularly by comparison with other advanced industrial democracies – and some measures of religious commitment in America have held remarkably steady over the years. The number of Americans who currently say religion is very important in their lives (58%), for instance, is little changed since 2007 (61%) and is far higher than in Britain (17%), France (13%), Germany (21%) or Spain (22%).8 And over the longer term, Pew Research surveys find no change in the percentage of Americans who say that prayer is an important part of their daily life; it is 76% in 2012, the same as it was 25 years ago, in 1987.
In addition, the percentage of Americans who say the Bible should be taken literally has fallen in Gallup polls from an average of about 38% of the public in the late 1970s and early 1980s to an average of 31% since.9
Who Are the Unaffiliated?
The growth of the unaffiliated has taken place across a wide variety of demographic groups. The percentage of unaffiliated respondents has ticked up among men and women, college graduates and those without a college degree, people earning $75,000 or more and those making less than $30,000 annually, and residents of all major regions of the country.