The Rise of the “Nones”

By Jeremy Fejfar, April 14, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

The religiously unaffiliated, or the “Nones” as they have come to be called, is the fastest growing religious identification in the United States. These are people who answer a survey question about their religion by saying they have no religion, no particular religion, etc.

According to a PEW survey from October 2012, the “Nones” have increased from 15% to 20% in just the past 5 years. This has many leaders in the Christian community frantically trying to arrest the scattering of their flock. Many of the religiously unaffiliated say they believe in a god (or “universal spirit”), but it doesn’t seem to be the same sort of deity the typical religious person believes in. Only 18% of this group self-identified as a “religious person”, and most will never be found warming a pew. 72% of the “Nones” report Never/Rarely attending worship, and 88% of them are not looking for a religious identity, generally feeling religious organizations are too concerned with money and power and two-thirds feel they are too involved in politics.

What is fueling this rise in the religiously unaffiliated? One factor is generational replacement. 34% and 30% of those aged 18-22 and 23-30, respectively, ticked the “none of the above” box, while only 5 % of those over 85 years old did. I expect to see this momentum continue as these young Americans start families of their own, and choose not to make religion an important part of their childrens’ lives.

Politicians are seeing the Christian Right’s once-formidable influence diminish while increasingly vocal secularists are looking for politicians to end the unconstitutional pandering to religions. Groups like the Secular Coalition for America are stepping up their lobbying and giving a political voice to the “Nones”.

Membership in secular and skepticism advocacy groups is at an all-time high. The Secular Student Alliance, which had 50 affiliate groups in 2006, now has 408 groups- including a chapter at UWL.

While some had successfully managed to dupe Americans during the cold war by falsely conflating atheism and communism, this boogeyman is no longer effective to malign nonbelievers. Since 9/11, radicalized religion has come under the microscope as the greatest threat to civilization.

The internet is another variable that is likely contributing to the decline of religiosity. There is a reason small religious groups have often tried to isolate themselves from outsiders. Exposure to dissenting opinions can be toxic to one’s religious convictions. The vast majority of the world’s population disagrees with your religious affiliation (regardless of your religious affiliation), and our increased interconnectedness exposes us to opposing views like never before. Religious leaders know this, and some groups have tried to reduce this variable by restricting the access their flock has to the internet, through governmental action or spiritual threats. However, they will fail. Truth will always prevail, despite the best efforts of the overzealous peddlers of ignorance. Galileo taught us this lesson.

The media has also fueled the rise of the “Nones,” putting nonbelief on the map like never before. Since the publication of The End of Faith in 2004, and The God Delusion in 2006, atheism has experienced something of a renaissance. An avalanche of books has turned a skeptical eye on religion.

Main characters in popular television shows like House, Scrubs, Glee, The Big Bang Theory, The Office, and The Mentalist are either stated atheists, or have expressed skepticism of religion. Comedians like George Carlin and Tim Minchin present religious skepticism in the context of humor, where people are less defensive to criticism of their religion. Their videos, and others like them, have garnered many millions of views on YouTube. This has shown viewers that not belonging to a religion is an option, where in the past this would have been unfathomable.

The stars of the two most downloaded podcast shows, Adam Carolla and Ricky Gervais, are outspoken atheists. Many other award winning podcasts (such as Reasonable Doubts, The Atheist Experience, Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and Penn’s Sunday School) promote the virtue of skepticism to new audiences globally via iTunes. Skeptics and nonbelievers have embraced social networking, podcasting, and YouTube to find community even when they are not able to find others in their region who openly share their views.

Lastly, many church scandals and social issues are causing young Americans to be wary of religion. Evidence of the institutionalized protection of child rapists by the Catholic Church continues to come to light. From California to Australia, Milwaukee to Ireland, the depth of these crimes seems to know no bounds. Further, many sects of organized religion find a gulf separating them from the two-thirds of adults under 31 years-old who support gay marriage and nearly universal approval of birth control. Once again, organized religion finds itself on the wrong side of history.

In this rapidly-changing religious landscape in America, many young people are choosing to part ways with religion altogether. And they are increasingly finding they are not alone.

Jeremy Fejfar is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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