America News Analysis

Does the future belong to the ‘nones’? It’s not that simple

‘The nones have it.” So goes the conventional wisdom on American religiosity. We’re told that those who identify with the faith of “none” – that is, none to speak of – are on the rise. It isn’t atheism so much as apatheism. They don’t care enough about God to actively doubt His existence.

But is that true? New analysis by Glenn Stanton of the online magazine The Federalist suggests it may not be. He points out that “the ‘nones’ are certainly not a new group of unbelievers exiting the pews of our nation’s churches. They are merely a group who are identifying more accurately what they have always been, those without any real religious practice.” As atheism becomes more socially acceptable, those whose faith was never more than lukewarm to begin with now don’t bother affiliating with the denomination their parents belonged to. What Stanton calls “CEO Christians” – Christmas and Easter Christians – no longer identify with the faith of their fathers, while the number of active and practising Christians remains steady.

Stanton draws from Baylor University’s Rodney Stark, who writes in his book The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious than Ever that “The entire change [the rise of the nones] has taken place with the non-attending group… In other words, this change marks a decrease only in nominal affiliation, not an increase in irreligion.” Moreover, Stark argues that the data “does not support claims for increased secularisation, let alone a decrease in the number of Christians. It may not even reflect an increase in those who say they are ‘nones’.”

Stanton also quotes Professor Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, who coined the term “nones”. Kosmin, he says, “expresses frustration that the larger press has not really gotten the story right on what belief group is actually seeing the largest size increase”.
More relevant than the “nones”, Kosmin argues, is the rise of non-denominational Christianity. He observes that “the percentage gain among the ‘nons’, or non-denoms, is ‘many times larger’ compared to those we have come to know as the nones.”

Further to Stanton’s point, he refers to Greg Smith of the Pew Research Center, who points out that the intensity of Americans’ religious faith is also on the rise. “We show that rather than religion fading into irrelevance as the secularisation thesis would suggest, intense religion – strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism and evangelicalism – is persistent, and in fact, only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States,” Smith says.

No doubt it’s preferable that statistics reflect the actual affiliations of the American public. Better to know more precisely what percentage of Americans remain unconvinced by the claims of traditional religion. But does this signify (as the title of Stark’s book suggests) the triumph of faith?

The most obvious question that presents itself is: “Why do the ‘nones’ no longer feel the need to identify with their ancestors’ faith?” Even for non-believers, one’s faith or denomination was part of one’s identity. From the blue-blooded Episcopalians to the blue-collar Methodists, these affiliations said a lot about a person. For American Protestants, bean suppers were the quintessential community gathering. Clearly, these identities are dissolving as the centres of community life are no longer houses of worship.

Clearly, Christians are not like Jews who continue to identify with their faith even when they no longer profess the core supernatural beliefs. The rise of the “nones” does surely indicate that Christian identity – for better or worse – is largely contingent on belief in God, the Creeds, etc. In other words, there are no “secular Christians” the way there are “secular Jews”.

Moreover, those who do continue to call themselves Christian don’t always adhere to the doctrines of traditional Christianity. This is especially pronounced among Catholics. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that 59 per cent of those who continue to call themselves Catholic believe women should be “allowed” to become priests. Yet the Church holds that this is impossible. Unlike, say, priestly celibacy, which is a matter of discipline and therefore subject to change, the Catholic Church holds that women cannot become priests under any circumstances. Seventy-six per cent believe the Church should permit birth control, and 46 per cent want her to recognise same-sex unions. Again, both are impossible.

According to these figures, therefore, only between 25 and 40 per cent of US men and women in the pews adhere to the fullness of the Catholic faith. The rest actively dissent from her unchangeable teachings. Are the remaining 60 to 75 per cent just “nones” who haven’t owned their unbelief and left the Church? That seems doubtful.

No doubt these statistics are equally relevant to those interested in tracking the religiosity of American Christians. Regardless of whether it holds true for Protestants as well, surely one ought to acknowledge the unprecedented number of believers who dissent from orthodoxy and yet remain within the Catholic Church. In any event, there’s certainly more to the “nones” phenomenon than the data first suggests.