Here Come the “Nones”

Volume 42, Issue 4, by Michael J. Crosbie

Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, recently released its third “American Religious Identification Survey,” which seeks to determine whether respondents regard themselves as adherents of a religious community (download a copy of the survey’s summary report). Previous surveys took place in 1990 and in 2001. America is still predominantly Christian, but less so (86 percent identified themselves as Christian in 1990, compared with 76 percent now). Mainline Protestant congregations experienced the steepest declines in membership (from 17.2 to 12.9 percent). In contrast, between 1990 and 2001 the percentage of Buddhists more than doubled, from 0.2 to 0.5 percent; it has remained flat since then. Muslims doubled as a percentage of the adult population, from 0.3 in 1991 to 0.6 in 2008.

Fifteen percent of the adults surveyed are not affiliated with an organized religion, are agnostic or atheist, or describe their religious affiliation as “None” (the moniker that the study uses for this group). The greatest growth was from 1990 to 2001, when the percentage of Nones jumped from 8.2 to 14.1 percent (the survey suggests that this in part might have been owing to Catholics’ leaving the Church during the sex scandals of the 1990s). Since 2001, Nones have grown by only 1 percent. From this, the study concludes that the percentage of people who are not religious is growing, but is this really the case?

Here’s a surprising finding: self-described agnostics and atheists nearly doubled (from 0.9 to 1.6 percent between 2001 and 2008). However, when people were asked their beliefs about whether or not there was a God or a supreme being, 12.3 percent responded that “there is no such thing,” “there is no way to know,” or they are “not sure.” These answers, which can be described as atheist/agnostic, come from a much larger percentage of the population than the percentage who identify themselves as atheist or agnostic.

In the study, slightly less than 70 percent responded “there is definitely a personal God.” But if 76 percent of Americans self-identify with Christianity, and 80 percent with a religion, how do we square these numbers? The study suggests that “many millions do not subscribe fully to the theology of the groups with which they identify.” This, I would say, leads to the conclusion that many of us belong to a religious community for nonreligious reasons, or…we’re hedging our bets: “I’m pretty sure there isn’t a God, but just in case….”

The study found erosion in participation in religious ceremonies for marriages and funerals. The study concludes with the observation that “…the United States in 2008 can be characterized as a country with a Christian majority population but with a growing nonreligious or irreligious minority. The growing nonreligious minority reduces the traditional societal role of congregations and places of worship in family celebrations of life-cycle events. The forestalling of religious rites of passage, such as marriage, and the lowering expectations on religious funeral services, could have long-lasting consequences for religious institutions.”

What do these numbers portend about religious art and architecture? Organized religion continues to decline, and those who identify themselves as members of a religious group aren’t necessarily there to find God, but perhaps to find a community. Maybe we will need fewer structures for worship but more space for fellowship.

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