Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


The Hot New Trend in Religious Identity: Nothing in Particular

Topic:  The Decline of Church Attendance and Rise of the “None of the Aboves”

The Pew Forum’s research study has been blogged about, talked about, and featured in op-ed newspaper columns.  Here’s a quotation from it:

In 2007 Pew Research Center surveys, 15.3% of U.S. adults answered a question about their current religion by saying they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” The number of religiously unaffiliated respondents has ticked up each year since, and now stands at 19.6%.[2]

That is, the largest change in religious participation as a share of our population has taken place among those termed “Nones,” including atheists, agnostics, and nothing.[1]Unlike other commentators, I don’t speak of this group as the “The Nones” because it sounds like “The Nuns.”  The orders of women religious have their own problems with vitality and loss of members, but I won’t venture there. I call them the “None of the Aboves.”

According to Pew, the share of Christians in our population has declined from 78% to 73% even as the overall U.S. population has grown.  (This category includes Catholics, Protestants of both Evangelical and Mainline streams, plus Mormons and the Orthodox.)  The aggregate category of “other faiths” has grown from 4% to 6% of our population.  So the “unaffiliated” are more than three times as large as the grouping of “other faiths.”

Who Are the Unaffiliated? 

This is from the Pew Forum summary:

In terms of their religious beliefs and practices, the unaffiliated are a diverse group, and far from uniformly secular. Just 5% say they attend worship services on a weekly basis. But one-third of the unaffiliated say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. Two-thirds believe in God (though less than half say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence). And although a substantial minority of the unaffiliated consider themselves neither religious nor spiritual (42%), the majority describe themselves either as a religious person (18%) or as spiritual but not religious (37%).

Where Did They Come From?

Pew says “the growth of the unaffiliated has taken place across a wide variety of demographic groups,” i.e., education level, income, and geographic region.  However, the most striking aspect of the unaffiliated is age-related or genearational.  The 2012 survey revealed these reported levels of no affiliation by the era in which respondents were born.

Younger Millenials      (born 1990-94):                    34% of them are unaffiliated

Older Millenials          (1981-89):                               30% unaffiliated

Generation X              (1965-80)                                  21% unaffiliated

Baby Boomers            (1946-64)                                  15% unaffiliated

Silent Generation        (1928-45)                                 9% unaffiliated

Greatest Generation    (1913-27)                                  5% unaffiliated

There is no earlier statistic than 2012 for those born in 1990-94, but in every other generational category shown here, the above percentages are higher in 2012 than they were in any of the prior years back to 2007.

Only 8% of Americans identify as not having been brought up in a religious tradition.  However (as noted above), 19.6% of Americans are now unaffiliated. This means most have left something behind.  Indeed, 74% of the unaffiliated report having had a religious background.

Politically, they are liberal:  24% of those who lean toward or are registered in the Democratic Party identify as unaffiliated. In contrast, only 14% of Democrats are Mainline white Protestants and 16%  of Democrats are Black Protestants.   Twice as many of the “None of the Aboves” say they are liberal (but there are still conservatives among them).  Nearly ¾ of this group supports the legal right to an abortion and same-sex marriage equality.  As you might expect, a chunk of the unaffiliated have some negative attitudes about religious institutions, but let’s consider that in another post.

What can we conclude from this trend?

a)     The growth in the “None of the Aboves” may hold promise for a spiritually inclusive, religiously eclectic, non-dogmatic and socially progressive congregation.   We may appeal to some of those folks.  After all, many of them are socially or politically progressive and are not drawn to strict or traditional views about God, human sexuality or gender roles. (This is a summary of Pew results not enumerated in this post.)  Many identify as “spiritual but not religious,” though there is no shared agreement on what that means.

Or…

b)    The growth in the “None of the Aboves” is a cautionary trend for all religious congregations, as it shows a decline in religious participation and attendance.  This reflects a growing loss in the decades-long American tradition of going to religious services and turning to congregational institutions for spiritual guidance, fellowship, and inspiration.

Which conclusion do you think is right: (a) or (b)?  Why do you think that?

Might both conclusions have some truth?  That is, the landscape in which we do ministry is changing.  Our population is growing, but religious participation is declining.  Whatever brand of religious community we’re selling, we cannot count on a reliable market for it.  Yet as the landscape changes, we have more opportunities for ministry.  If 19.6% of the American people are “nothing in particular,” and if we reach out to, attract, and embrace merely 1/19th of that demographic group, that’s 1% of the whole population.  We UUs would grow enormously.  The same goes for any denomination, but since we are smaller than the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Jews and the UCC, it would be a bigger boost for the UUA.

“Are You Looking for a Religion that Would be Right for You?”

This question was asked of the “unaffiliated” survey respondents.  While 88% said no and 2% didn’t know or refused to answer, 10% of them did say yes, they are looking.  So if 10% of an estimated 19.6% of American adults  are unaffiliated but looking, I think that means 1.9% of the population is at looking, or least open to participation.

And this does not count those who might be surprised to find a religious community about which they can say, “I didn’t know how much I needed this until I found it,” or “I had no idea a congregation like this even existed!”  Both statements come from adults who have joined UU congregations in which I have been involved, but I can imagine a happy “seeker” might say the same thing after finding a congregation that has another brand name.


[1] To be sure, we have atheists and agnostics in UU churches but as a movement we are statistically insignificant no matter where our numbers would be categorized.

[2] See elegant summaries of the Pew results with background details at http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx – ranks

 
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