‘Nones’ now largest religious category in U.S., new report says

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Religiously unaffiliated people, often referred to as “nones,” now make up the largest religious category in the U.S., according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.

Pew’s new report, released Jan. 24, shows that nones now account for 28% of the total U.S. population, outstripping the next largest group, Catholics, who make up 20%.

The recent data is consistent with a long-term trend of Americans rejecting religious affiliation in growing numbers, with the percentage nearly doubling from 16% in 2007.

The rise of the nones has resulted in not only lessened religious participation but also a decrease in civic engagement with nones being less likely to vote, do volunteer work, or have strong friend groups or community, according to Pew.

What is a ‘none’?

Although nones do not ascribe to a particular church or religious group and are much less likely to attend church services, not all are atheists. Only 17% of nones identify as atheist, while 20% describe themselves as agnostic. The majority of nones, 63%, simply identify themselves as “nothing in particular.”

Most nones, 69%, do still believe in God, though only 13% of them believe in God as described in the Bible. Additionally, 49% of nones say they are spiritual or that spirituality is very important to them.

On average, nones are younger than religious people with 69% being under the age of 50 versus only 45% of religiously affiliated people being under 50. 

While atheists and agnostics tend to have attained higher levels of education than religious people, persons in the “nothing in particular” category tend to have less education, with 27% having graduated college compared with 34% of religiously-affiliated people having completed college.

Most nones, 67%, cite disbelief and skepticism as their reason for not ascribing to a religion, according to Pew.

Just over half, 55%, say they are not religious because they don’t like religious organizations or have had bad experiences with religious people, while 44% say they don’t need religion or don’t have time for it.

What do they believe? 

Nearly half of nones, 43%, believe that organized religion does more harm than good while over half, 56%, believe that science does more good than harm.

Even still, nones still show a great openness toward belief in the spiritual realm. Fifty-six percent of nones believe that there are limits to science and that there are some things science cannot explain. That is coupled with the fact that half of them say spirituality is very important to them and that many believe that animals and parts of nature, such as mountains and trees, have “spirits or spiritual energies.”

Most nones, 83%, say that the “desire to avoid hurting people” guides their morality, while 82% say that logic and reason also guide their moral compass.

Despite this, nones are significantly less likely to do volunteer work, with 17% saying they volunteered in the last year versus 27% of religious people saying they recently volunteered. 

Nones are also significantly less likely to vote, with 39% of nones saying they participated in the 2022 election versus 51% of religious Americans. 

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Pew also says the nones are typically “less satisfied with their local communities and less satisfied with their social lives.”

What does this mean for the country and the Church? 

Michael Pakaluk, a social research and business professor at the Catholic University of America, told CNA that Pew’s report “just touched the surface” on the impact the nones’ rise will have on society and that it “will not be good.”

He pointed to the fact that nones are “less engaged in their communities and in the project of appropriating civilization and passing it on” as especially worrisome. 

“The popes have taught throughout the last century, ‘when we lose sight of the Creator we lose sight of the creature as well,’” he said. 

Pakaluk said he believes the steady rise of people being religiously unaffiliated is a “direct consequence” of two things: “secularized education (including weak religious education at most religiously affiliated colleges and universities); and the trauma and poor example of divorce.”

Despite the dangers, Pakaluk said that this is a great time for evangelization. 

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“The fields are there and are ripe for the harvest,” he asserted. “If someone says, ‘nothing in particular,’ then in my view they are right back where the Church started, among pagan nations, and that is great for us, for evangelization.”

Bishop Barron goes to bat

Bishop Robert Barron, who is head of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, and has become well known as founder of the Catholic media apostolate Word on Fire, has long been a proponent of making evangelization efforts to the nones a major priority for the Church. 

According to Barron, the rise of the nones is directly related to what he has called the dumbing down of the Catholic faith, a phenomenon he described in an interview with EWTN News last September as “a pastoral disaster.”

“That’s not just my private opinion,” Barron pointed out. “You can see that in every survey. When you ask people why they disaffiliated, in the Western world anyway, they’ll often say ‘I never got my questions answered, religion seemed stupid, it’s out of line with science,’ etc., etc.”  

“We dumbed down the faith in an attempt to make it relevant and we undermined ourselves. It’s a vibrant, smart, beautiful Catholicism that people find compelling,” he emphasized. 

Barron has been at the forefront of addressing the problem of nones leaving the Church before his fellow bishops. At the 2019 fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops he delivered a detailed presentation on the topic and pointed to the work of groups such as the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) and even of Canadian psychologist and author Jordan Peterson as worthwhile efforts to bring intelligent and authentic religion as well as the truths of the Bible to the forefront of people’s minds.

Religious education vital

Most nones in the U.S. were raised Christian yet now feel disconnected from religious institutions, according to Pew. In light of this, Pakaluk said that solid religious education is vital to reversing the trend.  

“We need to be prudent about religious education, which must be simple, straightforward, and concrete,” he said.

Offering several practical tips for parents educating their children in the Catholic faith, Pakaluk said that “memorization is very important: sacraments, commandments, doctrines, Bible verses.” 

“All effective catechisms have had a simple Q&A form, for recitation and memorization,” he said, adding that “the lives of saints and the drama of the history of the Church should have a central place.”

Scripture, too, Pakaluk said, must play a central role in Catholics educating their children. “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” he recalled.  

When it comes to higher education, Pakaluk added that “Catholic parents should think twice, or three times, before they send their children to any colleges except faithful, vibrant, Catholic colleges.”

This story was updated Jan. 26, 2024, with the analysis quotes from Bishop Robert Barron.

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