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Why the “Nones?”

According to a recent survey and analysis by political scientist Ryan Burge, approximately 23% of Americans now identify as having no religion. These so-called “nones” are therefore tied with the percentage who identify as Christian evangelicals and Catholics. Self-identified believers who are not Christians come in next, followed by mainline Protestants.

The following describes the change in percentages between 1972 and 2018:

  • No Religion (“nones”): 5% in 1972 to 23% today
  • Catholic: 27% to 23%
  • Evangelical: 17% to 23%
  • Other Affiliations: 21% to 14%
  • Mainline Protestants: 28% to 11%

There is some variability in the trend lines across this 46-year time span, but the two major take-aways are the following:

  • Mainline Protestantism declined significantly
  • “Nones” grew significantly

The rise of the “nones” has been written about previously by many others. In general, they tend to be younger and unmarried. Ryan Burge has also postulated that unmarried people and people without kids tend to have less of a religious affiliation; as people get married and have kids they tend to gravitate to church (full article here).

In addition, the decline of Mainline Protestant denominations has also been discussed heavily. Most analysis focuses upon the fact that mainline denominations have become more like the culture around them and less distinct as Christian denominations. That is to say, as they’ve abandoned Christian belief or tenets, people have either left them for other denominations or just left the faith entirely. For cultural Christians who once attended church out of habit or due to cultural norms, once their congregation or denomination becomes indistinct from the surrounding culture, there is no longer a reason to stay.

One 2017 article by David Haskell stated:

… we found 93 percent of clergy members and 83 percent of worshipers from growing churches agreed with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb.” This compared with 67 percent of worshipers and 56 percent of clergy members from declining churches. 

Thus, churches which proclaim the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection grow, while those who don’t decline. This is a simple, yet also theologically profound, finding. Churches who lost their focus on Christ and instead focused on other issues (such as social justice) as their first concern lost their very reason for being. Non-Christians who once attended church (again, due to culture or habit) eventually leave, and many Christians likely became “nones” due to the lack of witness to Christ in the churches which they attended.

The rise of the “nones” therefore has less to do with there being less Christians in the population, but rather that those who never were Christians (or had little real attachment to Christianity) no longer feel cultural pressure to identify as Christians. The point is that the “nones” were always there, but now feel comfortable identifying as such.

The Church, meanwhile, needs to keep bearing witness to its “first love,” Christ.

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