Much Ado About 'Nones'

If you're a reader of the New York Times, or a listener to National Public Radio, or a follower of the Religion News Service, you'd have good reason over the past week or so to come to the conclusion that the United States -- and indeed the world -- is becoming less and less religious.

The Times recently ran an article on atheism in which, almost in passing, the author cites a Pew Forum study to support the claim that "roughly 20 percent" of Americans are "secularly inclined" as opposed to religious. National Public Radio ran a series this week entitled "Losing Our Religion." Religion News Service ran a story that the Christian Century published under the headline, "Unbelief is world's third-largest 'religion.'"

And yet all of this is misleading, subtly but decisively. Each of these stories, in various ways, combines and collapses three categories: "Atheist," "Agnostic" (these two combined currently constitute only about 5 percent of the U.S. population) and "Unaffiliated," that is, those who do not claim a particular religious affiliation (the so-called "Nones," who constitute about 15 percent). But if you read the Pew Forum's report on the rise of the Unaffiliateds, you'll find that 70 percent of them believe in God; 60 percent call themselves either "religious" or "spiritual," and 40 percent of them pray. Lumping together this group with atheists and agnostics, or calling their increase a rise in "unbelief" or a case of "losing our religion," is sloppy analysis at best.

Worse, this kind of categorization lends support to the false impression that U.S. society, and world society with it, is turning away from religious convictions and toward atheism or agnosticism -- a conclusion the data simply do not support. Affiliation patterns are changing, it's true (this is also true of political affiliations: "Independents" are on the rise in the U.S.). But we also live in a breathtakingly religious age: in percentage terms, religious belief and practice are basically holding steady in the U.S. overall, and globally, no less than 84 percent of the world's 7 billion people claim a particular religious affiliation -- and a great many of the other 16 percent, while they may not identify as members of a particular brand of religion, nevertheless call themselves "religious" or "spiritual."

Religion deeply, widely matters, and will continue to do so, both at home and abroad. Thinking otherwise will lead our thoughts astray, whether we are within or without religious communities. And the stories we tell about religious trends matter, too.

The more we mislabel data and suggest that "roughly 20 percent" of the U.S. population are atheist or agnostic (to take the New York Times example), the more we run the risk of concluding that religion is on the way out -- the "secularization thesis" that has come and gone, and now has come again, on the American scene. What's more, this misunderstanding runs the risk of actually contributing to the trend it falsely announces, since it conjures visions of a stampede for religion's exit door ("20 percent!") -- and as every antelope knows, stampedes attract followers. On the other hand, the secularization myth may be especially tempting for historically mainline churches today, since it provides a handy excuse for any failure to attract or retain younger generations ("well, it must be them, not us"). In other words, for churches, too, mis-telling the story leads us to misinterpret our situation.

The point here is not that Christian communities should be complacent about the rise of the Unaffiliateds, or simply rest assured that religion is alive and well. Rather, the point is that we should read the data rigorously and wisely, resisting the "secularization" interpretation as long as the data do not support it, and instead working to be nimble enough to engage Unaffiliateds according to their own cherished values: independence and flexibility, to be sure, but also, in many cases, a genuine, vital interest in religion and spirituality.

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