The Nones are Alright: An End-of-the-Year Open Letter to Pearl-Clutching Pundits

Are you the kind of person who thinks “more religion” is the answer to all our social ills? Does news about American secularization send you into a sort of frenzied moral panic, in which you feel the need to spout nonsense about “our” supposed “metaphysical needs” while ignoring the real drivers of American polarization: extreme economic inequality and a political system unfairly stacked in favor of white conservative Christian men? Are all these dadgum nonreligious whippersnappers in your life on your permanent naughty list for refusing to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus at Christmas, and/or for “destroying Western civilization”?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, you may be suffering from an overdose of Christian privilege. In which case, before reading any further, I suggest you take a few deep breaths, nice and slow now, and then repeat after me:





Really, we are—and I include my Xennial, exvangelical atheist self, since secular advocacy is an important part of what I do, even if I’m not exactly a “kid.” One thing I very much am, I should note, is far healthier and happier than I was when I was an evangelical repressing my sexuality and gender identity. I am well aware that evangelicalism is only one variety of Christianity, and that religion is far more diverse than Christianity, but leaving religion altogether is the right choice for me. And all I really want for Christmas this year—besides an end to the pandemic and for that godawful “Christmas Shoes” song to disappear into the void—is for the choice to be nonreligious to be as widely respected and validated in American society as the choice to be religious.

I repeat: the kids are alright. We are good without church, and in many cases we are good without God. And it would be nice if you all would stop projecting your anxieties onto us, even if only reluctantly and pragmatically because, according to the latest data from the Pew Research Center, America’s trend toward religious disaffiliation shows no signs of letting up, despite widespread speculation in 2019—most likely fueled as much by wishful thinking as by the available data—that the trend had stalled. 

We’re here, we’re not religious, and if all you hand-wringing pearl-clutchers don’t want to be exposed as hypocrites in your supposed support for pluralism and dialogue across polarized groups, then you need to start taking us seriously as stakeholders in the national discussion around values, politics, and the place of religion in society.

A full 29% of the U.S. adult population now consists of those with no religious affiliation, and the “nones” comprise the fastest growing religion-related demographic in the country. Exactly where the nones are mostly disaffiliating from seems to be shifting, however. Here at RD in 2016, Patricia Miller considered the contemporary evidence that the trend away from religion in America was coming largely at the expense of the Catholic Church; a tendency that, Miller noted, was almost certainly fueled by valid outrage over clergy sex abuse scandals.

Since that time, numerous incidents of sexual misconduct, abuse, and cover-ups in Protestant denominations—prominently among Southern Baptists—have also come to light, with the #ChurchToo campaign emboldening some survivors to speak out. In that connection it’s interesting to note that both evangelical and mainline Protestants are losing numbers, while Catholics are holding steady at 21% of U.S. adults according to Pew, which is where they were in 2014. Protestants now make up 40% of the adult population, a decline of four percentage points over a five-year period.

In light of the above, would it be too much to ask for a change to the way elite pundits and journalists approach American secularization in 2022? Before you hit the panic button over the fact that 29% of the adult population is now religiously unaffiliated, perhaps you could stop to remind yourself that 63% of the U.S. adult population does remain Christian, that our social calendar is still structured around Christian holidays, and, I don’t know, that the most secular nations generally fare much better than the United States in terms of violent crime rates, healthcare outcomes, and life expectancy?

Before you pen that “think” piece on the evidence-free proposition that secularization is contributing to the decline of American democracy, perhaps you could pause, just for a moment, and reflect on how your “centrist” take amounts to little more than confirmation bias, question begging, and victim blaming? And before you cite biased studies showing how religious people are happier, healthier, more moral, or more successful, perhaps you could consider the source of the study or the criteria used; or the fact that nonreligious people are stigmatized, leaving them vulnerable to poorer outcomes and therefore lower life satisfaction scores; or even studies showing just the opposite of the conventional wisdom? The truth is, religion can provide social and psychological benefits to some people, and religion can do profound social and psychological damage. There is no healthy one-size-fits-all human approach to meaning-making and community.

So before you platform yet another privileged pastor lamenting American secularization, perhaps you could consider talking to the people behind the statistics, instead of using us, yet again, as props and abstractions? America’s religious nones—there are roughly 96 million of us—have our own thoughts and feelings about American secularization. It should be widely regarded as scandalous that almost 1/3 of the adult American population—a largely Democratic constituency whose share of the electorate has surpassed that of white evangelicals since the 2018 midterms—is systematically ignored and silenced in the press. That hardly anyone even notices speaks to just how entrenched Christian hegemony is in American society, and we need to rectify this situation.

If you’re a journalist or pundit on the religion beat, I’m urging you to represent America’s religiously unaffiliated on our own terms in 2022. We deserve equality, dignity, and a seat at the table as stakeholders in the national conversation about religion, society, politics, and whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Can I get a festive, non-sectarian amen?