Most ‘Nones’ Still Keep the Faith

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When research looks beyond affiliation, the move away from religious institutions becomes more nuanced.

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.”

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 …

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