Decline in Institutional Religion in the United States

One-Fifth Now Religiously Unaffiliated

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, OCT. 12, 2012 ( The number of people referred to as “nones”, that is those who state they have no particular religion, has risen sharply in the United States.

This week the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a survey bringing together a number of studies and polls titled, “Nones on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation.”

The report did mention that it is preferable to use the term “religiously unaffiliated” instead of “nones” as many of those who declare no affiliation do believe in God and describe themselves as religious or spiritual.

In the last five years, the percentage of those religiously unaffiliated has risen from 15.3 to 19.6% of the adult population. By age the proportion rises to a third for adults under 30 years of age. This compares to only 9% among those 65 and over.

There is, therefore, the report notes, a generational change taking place, with young adults today being considerably more likely to be religiously unaffiliated, compared to previous generations.

Another notable finding was that for the first time since the Pew surveys started the Protestant share of the adult population has dipped below 50%.

In 2007, 53% of adults in Pew Research Center surveys described themselves as Protestants. By the first half of 2012 only 48% of American adults said they are Protestant.

The report also noted that the decline in Protestant numbers is concentrated among white Protestants, both evangelical and mainline.

Thus, while one-fifth of whites now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, the share of blacks and Hispanics who are religiously unaffiliated has not changed by a statistically significant margin in recent years, the report commented.

The Catholic share of the population has held steady in recent years, the Pew Forum said, but in part this is due to the continuing number of immigrants from Latin America.

Still religious

In spite of the latest finding the Pew Forum observed that even today the United States remains a highly religious country. The number of Americans who say religion is very important in their lives is at 58%, and has changed only marginally in recent years. This is significantly higher than in Britain (17%), France (13%), Germany (21%) or Spain (22%).

Many of the 46 million adults who describe themselves as unaffiliated – some 68% – do say they believe in God and the number of declared atheists or agnostics is quite low, at 6% of adults. Just over a third affirm they are spiritual, but not religious, and 21% say they pray every day.

No less than 74% of those who now describe themselves as unaffiliated grew up in a household with a religious tradition. The report, however, does not examine in depth the reasons for their change to an unaffiliated status.

It does point to a number of theories, ranging from opinions that the unaffiliated consider the established bodies are too concerned with money, power and rules, to what is perceived by some as excessive political involvement.


At the same time, the report observed, a majority of those religiously unaffiliated think that religion is a positive force, with 78% saying religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds, and a similar number saying religious organizations play an important role in helping the poor and needy

As well, around two-thirds of American adults, including 63% of the religiously unaffiliated, say religion as a whole is losing its influence on American life. A large majority of those who think religion’s influence is on the decline see this as a bad thing.

Another characteristic is that the group of the unaffiliated are about twice as likely to describe themselves as political liberals and are also solidly in favor of legalized abortion and same-sex marriage.

In recent elections, the report commented, the religiously unaffiliated have become one of the most reliably Democratic Party supporters in the electorate.

The report did, however, find that there is little evidence that the unaffiliated are interested in New Age spirituality, Eastern religious ideas or other beliefs from non-Abrahamic faiths.

On the whole, the report observed, the religiously unaffiliated population is younger, more heavily male and more likely to be single than the general public as a whole.

Just over a third of unaffiliated adults – 35% – are under age 30, compared with 22% of the general population. There are more men – 56% – than women – 44%. And unaffiliated Americans are more likely than U.S. adults as a whole to be living with a partner or never married.

Just 39% of the unaffiliated are married, compared with 51% of the general public.

Will the views of those unaffiliated change as they grow older, marry and have children, or are we in the midst of a major change? What role will the continuing high levels of immigration into the United States have? Will established organizations be able to attract the interest of the younger generations? In the end the report raises more questions than answers.

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