I pastor an American Baptist church in a small town in rural Illinois. When the current building was dedicated in 1968, there were more than 300 members. By the last 1990s, there were about a hundred. When I became the pastor in 2006, just 50. Now, on a good Sunday I can look out from the pulpit and see 20 souls in the seats.
Where did they all go? I became a social scientist, in part, to try to figure that out. In my forthcoming book, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, And Where They Are Going, I document in detail how and why so many Americans are now counted among the ranks of religiously unaffiliated in the United States.
What I discovered was that while many people have walked away from a religious affiliation, they haven’t left all aspects of religion and spirituality behind. So, while growing numbers of Americans may not readily identify as Christian any longer, they still show up to a worship service a few times a year or maintain their belief in God.
The reality is that many of the nones are really “somes.”
Nones by Belonging
Religious disaffiliation is at an all-time high—claimed by nearly a quarter of the population—when measured through surveys on religious belonging. The General Social Survey, for example, asks a common version of the question: “What is your religious preference?” Respondents can choose from a long list of options, including “no religion.”expand graph
In 1972, just 1 in 20 Americans had no religious affiliation. That share inched up only marginally for the next two decades, before beginning its climb in the 1990s. The unaffiliated jumped about 4 percentage points between 1993 and 1996, up to nearly 1 in 6 (nearly 15%) by the new millennium.
The number of respondents indicating they had “no religion” continued to grow, reaching 1 in 5 in 2012 (19.6%) and close to 1 in 4 (23.7%) in the most recent wave of the survey available.
There’s ample evidence emerging that the GSS undercounts the share of Americans who have no religious belonging because some survey respondents may be more reluctant to indicate to a live interviewer that they are religiously unaffiliated. Still, all surveys agree on this point—those without a religious tradition are growing every year, the so-called rise of the nones.
In my book, I note how the only other religious tradition to change in size in a significant way are mainline Protestants (such as United Methodists and Episcopalians). The data indicates that many nones are people who were raised in one of these traditions, but walked away from it as adults.
Nones by Behavior
While belonging is the most popular way to measure religiosity, there are other dimensions of religious life. If we believe “actions speak louder than words,” we may look to whether religious behavior has shifted as dramatically.
A good place to look is church attendance. Social science knows that communal worship gatherings are crucial for generating social capital, providing theological education, and encouraging the faithful to remain devoted to the tenets of their faith tradition.
Like religious affiliation, religious attendance in the US has been declining since the 1970s, but incrementally.expand graph
In the 1970s, about 3 in 10 Americans indicated that they attended worship services at least once a week. At the other end of the spectrum, about 2 in 10 said that they never or rarely attended church services. The percentage of Americans who fell into this lowest category of church attendance stayed stable through the 1980s then incrementally increased from that point forward. By the 2010s, nearly a third of all Americans said that they never attended church or attended less than once a year.
At the same time, the share of Americans who were weekly attenders has decreased slowly. Between the 1990s and the 2010s, the share in this top category dropped about 2.5 percentage points. Currently, about a quarter attend weekly or more, and two-thirds attend a worship service at least once a year.
What is driving this drop in attendance? For decades, social scientists believed that young people would drift away from religion in early adulthood, but then come back to church when they got married, had children, and settled down. That was true for Baby Boomers, but now the data indicates that among younger age cohorts, that’s not occurring as much. More young people stop attending church in their 20s and never return.