They’re Not Coming Back: The Religiously Unaffiliated and the Post-Religious Era

Courtesy of flickr user Alison Killilea via Creative Commons
Courtesy of flickr user Alison Killilea via Creative Commons

The wistful refrain among religionists has for some time now been the same: the religiously unaffiliated will return to religious practice one of these days. New numbers from a survey jointly conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service, however, might crush whatever hope is left about luring Nones back into the fold.

The survey follows up on Pew’s recent studies of the same demographic of religiously unaffiliated Americans, but shows an even sharper increase in their numbers. According to PRRI, in 1990 the religiously unaffiliated made up only 6 percent of adults. From 1998 to 2004, that percentage held steady at around 14 percent, but today, 25 percent of Americans “claim no formal religious identity.” This percentage continues to primarily consist of adults under the age of 50. The survey also makes it clear that this decline began among those who were young adults in the ’90s, and has only sped up today.

That percentage means there are more Americans who are unaffiliated with religion than there are practicing Catholics.

A third of Americans are raised Catholic, but only one in five currently identifies as a member of the church, and only 2 percent of Americans have left other religious traditions to become Catholic. Mainline Protestants have also seen a decline, but they represent a smaller percentage of the population. White evangelical Protestants and black Protestants experience higher rates of retention—although among younger adults, white evangelicals are also beginning to experience a loss.

As increasing numbers of people turn to yoga classes and mindfulness meditation instead of a church, mosque or schul, the links between understanding spirituality as the work of the spirit, or of the soul, become less and less meaningful.

So what’s behind this newest set of numbers?

Reasons people list for leaving religion remain about the same as they were in the Pew survey, but with some striking differences. Those who have “stopped believing” in a tradition’s teachings are now at 60 percent, those from families that were not very religious are at 32 percent, and those who left because of “negative religious teachings” about LGBTQ people are at 29 percent.

The latter number, tellingly, is even higher among former Catholics. A full 39 percent of Catholics say they left the church because of its treatment of LGBTQ people. And the church lost huge numbers because of the sex abuse scandal—which drove away a full 23 percent of Catholics.

But back to the idea that religiously unaffiliated adults will some day return to religious practice. Both Pew and PRRI use the term “religious switching” to describe both those who change religions and those who leave organized religion. Whereas in the ’70s those who grew up religiously unaffiliated were not likely to stay that way as adults, two-thirds of adults today who were raised without religion stay nonreligious. In other words, this is becoming permanent.

Circumstances, of course, have changed since the 1970s. Greater rates of religious intermarriage, including marriages between religious and nonreligious couples, mean that children are growing up with differing ideas about religiosity than they had in the past. Gen Xers are old enough to have children now, and those children are more likely to be raised in nonreligious homes. There is less and less depiction of religious practice in television and films, or in the case of films like Spotlight, religion comes off looking like a disaster.

And religion, arguably, has not played a significant role in the current election cycle— unless floundering and flubbing count as discussions of religion worthy of a national stage. It’s no wonder that younger adults have become deeply cynical about or uninterested in religion.

While the Pew survey found that many religiously unaffiliated people said that religion was helpful in strengthening community bonds and contributing to social good, 66 percent of those in the PRRI survey claim that “religion causes more problems in society than it solves.” Given the high percentage of those who have left because of the treatment of LGBTQ people, one can easily see why this negative perception exists. As many Americans came to an acceptance of the equal rights of LGBTQ people, multiple religions floundered in their understandings of gender and sexuality.

For many years, “spirituality” has been used as an ambiguous tag that could be pinned on those who choose not to belong to a religion. But that word is increasingly hollow today. PRRI states that only 4 in 10 nonreligious people describe themselves as moderately or very spiritual. The caveat here is that there is no agreement as to what “being spiritual” really means.

As increasing numbers of people turn to yoga classes and mindfulness meditation instead of a church, mosque or schul, the links between understanding spirituality as the work of the spirit, or of the soul, become less and less meaningful. And as traditions rooted in Asian culture and tradition are stripped of their religious roots and are co-opted as one-size-fits-all “spirituality,” the term itself is so vague as to be nearly useless. Seen in this light, the designation “spiritual but not religious” does not mean much of anything. A group of white women chanting Hindu sutras in a hot yoga class is not spirituality: it’s an exercise class with a Sanskrit soundtrack.

Spirituality, in that and too many other contexts to enumerate, is a marketing tool. And marketing-savvy younger adults are beginning to recognize and reject it.

Hokey “young adult” ministries, clunky social media, static notions about gender, deeply skewed perceptions of sexuality, out-of-touch clergy with political axes to grind, and little to no evidence of religion as a meaningful presence in their daily lives do nothing to lure back those who have left.

The persistent belief in God among the religiously unaffiliated still remains a mystery. But rarely are these adults asked to define what they mean by “God.” Perhaps this is because polling requires people to define God in such specific terms and often conflates belief in God with a kind of moral goodness. The PRRI survey says they tend to see “a person with whom one can have a relationship” or “an impersonal force” but that God is not necessary in order to “have good values.” However, this notion of being good with or without God is not news to most of us who work with, befriend, teach, or marry religiously unaffiliated people.

Earlier this year, I gave a talk via Skype to the Yale Humanists, a group organized by writer and Yale Humanist Chaplain Chris Stedman. Stedman told me the group had mostly begun with atheists and agnostics, but increasingly more and more Nones were turning up. And these Nones were interested in community service, community bonding, and working alongside the religious, not in opposition to them.

I found the same among the many people I interviewed for The Nones Are Alright, and among my mostly nonreligious students at UC Berkeley. If an ambiguous notion of God exists among these adults, it may be because they are too preoccupied with the multiple environmental and social crises bombarding them at every turn. The mistake religions often make of guilt-tripping them about adherence while ignoring the work they are doing to bring about social equality reduces them to statistics rather than trying to understand what their way of thinking about as “God” really means in a post-religious era.

Some emerging religious leaders like Rev. William Barber or Rev. Osagyefo Sekou offer a new understanding of morality that is intrinsically linked with social justice, which might appeal to religiously unaffiliated people seeking a greater meaning in these troubling times. But more often than not, what religion is offering looks deeply unappealing. Hokey “young adult” ministries, clunky social media, static notions about gender, deeply skewed perceptions of sexuality, out-of-touch clergy with political axes to grind, and little to no evidence of religion as a meaningful presence in their daily lives do nothing to lure back those who have left.

If religions are still asking what they can do to bring the religiously unaffiliated back, the better question might be this: what can religion do without them? Because all evidence points to this conclusion: they are not coming back, and given what they’re being presented, why should they?