The term is bandied about in increasing frequency across the country’s religious landscape. “Nones.” The growing number of people who do not identify with any particular religious tradition.
For most of U.S. religious history, this was a small group; most people believed this group included mainly atheists or agnostics. But as their numbers have grown in recent years, their significance in American life has grown exponentially.
How many are there?
According to Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, which has completed a major study on the “nones,” in just the past five years, the number of people who do not identify with a religion has grown from 15% to nearly 20% of U.S. adults.
That includes 13 million agnostics and atheists, as well as more than 30 million people who do not subscribe to any religious tradition.
Today, one third of adults under the age of 30 are considered “nones.”
According to Matt Brown, founder of Think Eternity and author of the upcoming book “Awakening,” it’s important to remember that just because the “nones” don’t have a religious tradition doesn’t mean they don’t have a hunger for God.
“More and more people are growing up completely disconnected from the life of the church,” he said. “We need to be aware of them and the questions they ask about God and faith. We can’t assume they don’t care about spiritual life, because God made all of us with an inner hunger for Him that is not satisfied until we find Him.”
Why is this happening?
Part of the reason can be attributed to the ebb and flow of history. New generations emerge and develop their own habits and affiliations, which can be dissimilar to previous generations.
The Pew Research study says that “generational replacement” is a major factor behind this new movement: “the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones.”
However, the research group noted that the rise of the “nones” is also apparent among Generation Xers and Baby Boomers. More than 20% of Generations Xers and 15% of Baby Boomers consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, according to the 2012 study.
That’s another major reason for the rise of the “nones.” But these two narratives play into a much larger narrative—and that is the emergence, according to researchers, of “a gradual decline in religious commitment” across the country.
While this trend is still in its infancy, some researchers believe it could be critical if it holds true long term.
“It’s important and encouraging to remember there have always been challenges to Christianity,” Brown said. “Right now we all know the big issues, but we often forget that previous generations weren’t perfect; they faced seemingly insurmountable challenges as well in reaching their generation with the gospel. We can’t affect culture today with the tools of the past. We need wise, humble leaders to guide us into new, authentic movements of sharing God’s love.”
What do ‘nones’ believe?
Pew researchers found that “nones” are a diverse group and encompass a wide variety of beliefs and practices. Five percent attend worship services weekly, one-third say religion is “somewhat important” to them, and belief in God is held by two-thirds of the unaffiliated.
They tend to view religious institutions with some skepticism, believing they focus too much on money and power. However, a majority believe religious institutions can be a positive for society.
Needless to say, most of the unaffiliated are not searching for a church.
The Pew Research study provides some provocative theories on the reason for the rise in the number of unaffiliated. They include political backlash against what they perceive as an alignment between religion and conservative politics.
Another theory focuses on delays in marriage, which can play a role in religious affiliation.
Less social engagement and secularization are also possible reasons why more people tend not to identify with any particular religious tradition.
While churches across the country are coming to grips with the new reality of the “nones,” they are faced with challenges unlike any they have seen before. How do you reach millions of people—many of them young—with the message of the gospel in an increasingly adversarial culture?
“We need to be more intentional in teaching our congregants how to be good friends, to have a heart to connect with their neighbors and co-workers without being too pushy about faith,” Brown said. “We need a movement of believers in our nation who are full of God’s love and joy. This will draw those outside the church to the grace of the gospel, which is so different from what our world offers.”
— by Scott Noble