“Rise of the nones” part 1: Understanding the trend
The “nones” or religiously unaffiliated are now the largest “religious” identity category in America. What does that mean for our culture? What does it mean for the church as we engage with people around us, who are today more likely to be a “none”? We will explore this topic in two parts.
For part one, we spoke with Dr. Dan Cox, Research Director of the Public Religion Research Institute, to help us understand better the trending “rise of the nones.” PRRI has been on the forefront of researching religion trends in the US and recently released an important study on this topic.
But more than just increase our awareness, we need to be equipped. Jana Harmon, fellow with the CS Lewis Institute, shared what it looks like to step into relationship with atheists with love and intentionality. We will address this in part two.
First, a quick introduction to a few terms. This is important because not all “nones” are the same:
Atheist: person with an affirmative expression of disbelief, who says, “There is no God. God does not exist.”
Agnostic: person who says, “I just don’t know.”
Apatheistic: person who says, “I just don’t care.”
If we were going to engage three different varieties of nones with the tools of propositional apologetics we would need: cosmological arguments to converse with the atheist and epistemological arguments to converse with the agnostic. But to converse with the apatheist we need to be equipped with both realism and hope. That means that we have to listen to the none before we can speak.
Who are the nones?
Dan Cox: This is probably one of the most important religion stories in the 21st century. We are seeing an increasing number of Americans who are opting out when it comes to a religious identity. They are saying they have no particular religion, they are agnostics or atheists. We found in our most recent poll that one in four Americans are now religiously unaffiliated. This is a dramatic increase over the last two decades. In the early nineties, only 7 or 8 percent were religiously unaffiliated.
“This is not just young people. In each age group, we are seeing an uptick. Now, young people are much more likely to be unaffiliated, but across generations, we are seeing an increase.”
“A wide swath are actually religiously apathetic, or apatheist. They don’t spend a lot of time thinking about religion or God. They are kind of ambivalent and don’t show a lot of interest in religion. That is an important dimension of who this group is. It is not just anti-religion folks.”
New patterns emerge as “nones” leave faith and aren’t returning:
Dan: “With the Baby Boom generation, there was a sense that these folks who left (faith) during the 1960s would eventually come back because it was a period of social upheaval and unrest. They were rejecting the social order and once they got married and had families of their own, they would embrace these social and cultural traditions like attending church. But what we are seeing now, that pattern is simply not happening among this youngest group.“
“Increasingly, people who are raised unaffiliated are much more likely to stay unaffiliated as adults. One of the reasons is people who are not religious are increasingly marrying others who are not religious and starting secular families of their own.”
PRRI’s study found a connection between leaving the church and divorce:
Dan: “[Divorce is] a really important factor in the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, although it does not get a lot of attention. It is a structural force that has been moving along slowly, consistently. The divorce rate topped out in the early to mid 1980s, just as the oldest members of the millennial generation were born. People who were raised by divorced parents have much lower rates of worship attendance and much lower rates of religious affiliation than those raised in two-parent households.”
So, why should the church spend time seeking to understand and respond to this research? This connection between children of divorce and leaving the faith is a prime example. While PRRI does not draw out what is the reason behind the connection, the church needs to wake up to the fact that an entire generation is now coming into adulthood from divorced families that perhaps at one time were connected to a faith community. The church has not paid nearly enough attention to this reality. God’s plan is redemptive – for individuals, for marriage, for cultures, and for creation. That means that the mission of the Church includes the calling to be a living demonstration of redeemed relationships. The Church can, and is called to be, the family of faith where the children of God – who have experienced personal and familial brokenness – experience redemption.
Read part two of this series, Equipping the Church.
For more on PRRI’s research, listen to our entire interview with Dan Cox on The Reconnect:
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