The big news is already out – there are more religious nones in the United States than at any point in the history of the General Social Survey. In 2018, 23.1% of all respondents said that they have no religious affiliation. How do we get there, from a technical standpoint? This category, unlike evangelical or mainline Protestant coding, is incredibly straightforward. The survey asks the following question:
What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion? If you choose none, then you are a none. You can take a deeper dive into the data on the GSS Data Explorer here, but note that the GSS doesn’t wade into the morass of atheist vs. agnostic vs. nothing in particular. If you say you have no religious preference, you are a none. Simple as that.
I was at a conference about the sociology of religion at Notre Dame over the weekend, and I began to think carefully about some of the implications that emerge from the fact that nearly one quarter of Americans have no religious affiliation. The one that I kept coming back to was this: that means a lot of kids are going to be born into non-religious households, and that’s big news. America has long been a culturally religious country. Even if parents were not devout believers, they still took their kids to Christmas Eve Mass or Sunday service somewhere, as that was the socially acceptable thing to do. Today? There are millions of kids who may move into their teenage years and never have participated in a worship service beyond a wedding or a funeral. I wanted to explore that a little bit. In addition to the religion question previously noted, the GSS asks respondents: In what religion were you raised? That means we can see how many kids are born nones and how many became nones as adults.
The graph below displays the percentage of Americans that identify as nones as adults in the yellow line, which is the statistic that is getting all the media coverage, as well as the percentage of respondents who said that they were raised as a none in the blue line. The shaded areas represent 95% confidence intervals for each calculation. From the early 1970s to the late 1980s it would be fair to say that *very* few people who took the GSS were raised without a religious tradition. In fact, the percentage of people who were raised nones did not move above 5% consistently until 1996. To be fair, though, that flat line mirrors the share of Americans who said that they were religious nones as adults, which was stuck between 5 and 7% for the first 20 years of the GSS.
Then both lines begin to take off, although the adult line jumps up more quickly than the raised none group. The number of adult nones nearly doubled from 1992 to 2002, while those raised nones were up about 50%. However, what might be even more interesting to me is if you look at the two lines from 2005 until 2018. In that period of time, the adult nones has risen nearly 10 percentage points, going from 14% to 23.1%. On the other hand, those raised as nones has seen a much smaller increase. In fact, if you disregard the significant bump in 2018 (which may be the start of a trend, or may be an outlier), there has been no statistically significant change in the number of people who were raised with no religion between 2006 and 2016. That’s puzzling to say the least.
I wanted to attack this from another angle to try and figure out what is actually happening here. One well known feature of American religion is the life-cycle effect. It’s the idea that people are fairly religious as children and teenagers, then drift away from religion in early adulthood, only to return as they get married, have children, and settle down. While we can’t track that exactly with the nones, for a variety of methodological reasons, we can get a sense of how old the nones are, which could help us to understand if this is a young person’s movement or one that is more representative of the overall population. That’s what the graph below does: calculates the average age for each year in the GSS as well as the mean age for just those who claim no religious affiliation.
The first thing to note is: there’s a lot of wiggle in the early years of the nones. That’s largely because they were a very small movement: just 5% of the population or so. That’s why the shaded bands are all over the place. I chose to illustrate a representative year from this time period, which was 1980. The difference in the average age of the nones and the overall average was nearly 9 years during this period of the GSS. However, note something fascinating that has happened since that time: the nones have become much more diverse in their average age. Even until the late 1980’s the nones were a young person’s group with the average age bouncing around between 35 and 37 years old. Since that time, it’s been a slow and steady climb for the nones. Now, the average none is in their early 40’s, while the overall age of the GSS sample has stayed relatively the same. For instance, the average none today is just five years younger than the average member of American society. The gap in age has been almost cut in half.
That could mean a variety of things. First, it could indicate that a lot of people who drifted away from religion in their teens and twenties kept that orientation through the rest of adulthood, and therefore bucked the assumptions of the life cycle effect. This would lead to an overall increase in the average age of the entire group. Or, another possibility is that many of them deconverted from religion in their thirties, forties, or fifties, which would also drive this number up over time. What this analysis clearly reveals is that the religious nones are not just a young person’s movement, but now they more accurately reflect the age spectrum in American society. In fact, since 2008, over 20% of nones are at least 55 years old.
Finally, how good are religious nones at keeping their members? I know it sounds silly in that context, but it’s clearly on the minds of organized religion in the United States. To keep young people in the church is a good way to sustain its future. Do those raised none stay nones as adults? The waffle chart above visualizes that for respondents in the 2018 GSS. Each square represents 5% of the total sample for each group and I broke it down into: nones, Protestants, Catholics, and then everyone else into one group.
For the nones, two thirds of them who were raised without religion maintain that stance as adults, while a quarter become Protestants and a few become Catholics or some other faith group. How does that rate compare to other religious traditions? Well, Protestants do a little bit better, where 75% of those raised in a Protestant church still affiliate that way as adults. On the other hand, 15% now identify as nones, and another 10% become Catholics or something else. The story is roughly the same for Catholics, too. About 60% stay Catholic, 20% become nones, 15% become Protestant, and one in twenty become something else. The nones see the most converts from the other religious groups, where a quarter of those raised as Hindus/Buddhists/Muslims/etc. become nones as adults.
Taken together what do we have? There is a clear and unmistakable rise in the percentage of people who claim no religious affiliation as adults, as well as an increase in those who say that they were raised with no religious tradition. However, those who say that they were raised with no tradition has not risen as quickly as I would have guessed. In addition, nones are getting older and are now just five years younger than the country, in general. That means that being a none is not just a young person’s fad, but it has become the reality of millions of Americans at every stage of life. Finally, while a significant chunk of those raised without religion stay that way, a third of them do drift into a religious affiliation as an adult. This religious switching is largely in line with what we see among other religious traditions.
We have all heard stories of friends who were raised in strict religious households having to hide their secular music from their parents, or watching TV while their parents were asleep to avoid getting caught. Lots of those friends grew up, rebelled, and never came back to a religious tradition. Who’s to say that the reverse may happen? The natural tendency is for children to defy their parent’s wishes. If a child is told that religion is a negative thing, that may lead some of them to try it out. Here’s the amazing part: this change is so new in the United States that we won’t have enough data to test it out for the foreseeable future. We are entering uncharted waters in American religion and no one really knows the way forward.
Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for the post can be found in here.
I get into this question using the Youth-Parent Socialization panel in my book, Godless Democrats. Check out Table 4.5. Over time nones have increased intergenerational retention so that it is now as high as retention in the major religious traditions. Back in the 1960s most children of nones moved into a major religious tradition, but that is no longer the case.
Should I change my name to Ryan to avoid confusion?
Comparing your data to British experience we saw a similar pattern but it occurred about 80 years earlier. My research outlined in the paper linked below, shows that in the initial phase of atheisation the proportion of those raised atheist was low, but that proportion rose starting in the 1930s at the time when there was an acceleration in the growth of atheists (Fig 1.). You’re right to point to the delay in the emergence of second (or third) generation atheists as a generation cohort effect. Looking at the ages at which my subject fixed their non-religious belief position this predominantly occurred in their teens but some came in their 20s. Another factor is mixed belief parents, men have tended to atheise more readily than women, so families with a non-religious father and a religious mother were frequent, it was not uncommon for pre-teen children from such families to have a religious education at that time in their lives. A factor which occurred in the industrialised areas of Britain which probably has no equivalent in the US is the existence of pockets of strongly irreligious local culture rooted in socialism. From the 1880s to the 1930s socialist sunday schools existed that aped church sunday schools except that they taught an ideology of socialism and science.
In the US you have experienced a period of very rapid change starting in the 1990s which was not matched in British experience. I’d put this down to the powerful religious normalisation pressure from the cold war and into the Reagan era suppressing a more gradual growth. When this broke down you saw a rapid growth in religious nones (a proportion of whom will be atheists) as a correct. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see the overall growth rate slow while the growth pattern of raised nones follows with a 15-20 year lag.
Ryan B. are you going to publish this in a journal?
[…] that as the nones continue to grow they will become harder to avoid in the population, and more children will be raised without a religious affiliation. If this happens it’s likely that the sharp downward slope of the Republican line will moderate […]