How Many Young Americans Have No Religious Affiliation? May 7, 2009

How Many Young Americans Have No Religious Affiliation?

How many young Americans are not religious?

According to Harvard University professor Robert Putnam — and I paraphrase here — a whole $%&#load.

Putnam says the percentage of “nones” has now skyrocketed to between 30 percent and 40 percent among younger Americans…

30-40%? Incredible.

The last time I heard a number for young “nones” was two years ago and that was an astounding 20%.

It should be noted that the “nones” are not necessarily atheists:

“Many of them are people who would otherwise be in church,” Putnam said. “They have the same attitidues and values as people who are in church, but they grew up in a period in which being religious meant being politically conservative, especially on social issues.”

Putnam says that in the past two decades, many young people began to view organized religion as a source of “intolerance and rigidity and doctrinaire political views,” and therefore stopped going to church.

So the politicization of the Christian faith backfired and pushed people away from the churches. If the trend continues, I predict a few things will happen:

  • Megachurches will wane in influence in the future.
  • The Christian leaders of the future will be more concerned with issues like poverty and social justice than which Republican should become president.
  • It won’t be long before guys like Rick Warren are seen as out of step with the mainstream and on the fringes of the faith. People like Rob Bell and Don Miller will take their place.
  • Atheism will become much more “acceptable.” Just about everyone will know an atheist.

I hope atheists don’t screw up this positive trend… churches are doing enough to help us out right now.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Kay

    Do you see the connection between this and the current “America’s Spiritual Heritage” resolution?

    Cuz I sure do.

  • Jason R

    It’s an important time in history (when is it not?)

    I hope that atheists stay positive. As religion declines, there can be a social backlash towards atheism as only the ‘hardcore’ religious remain. I expect more and more talk of the ‘end times’, apocalypse, antichrists and other hullabaloo to increase.

  • When I was about ten years old I told my father that by the time I was 40, no one would go to church anymore. He looked at me shocked (especially since I didn’t know what church was actually for, or who Jesus/God were at the time).

    “Why do you think that?” he asked. I told him everyone my age always complains about how much they hate going, so why would they keep doing it when they grow up. He just chuckled at me, thinking this was a ridiculous idea.

    Maybe in 19 years people will still be going to church, but I still consider this trend a victory. Take that, dad 😉

  • Nick

    Has anyone else ever heard of any people who say that “true” Christianity isn’t a religion? I’ve heard some younger people say this. Is it a common thing?

  • Brian C Posey

    To Nick’s Comment:

    I had a co-worker once tell me that she didn’t have a religion. I figured she was an atheist/agnostic. She however “informed” me that Christianity is not a religion. I think I may have offended her when I simply said “of course it is”.

    Of course, strictly speaking, it’s a mythology too.

    I’ve found this is a linguistic trick to make their beliefs seem special. Because all those “religions” are so obviously false.

  • Has anyone else ever heard of any people who say that “true” Christianity isn’t a religion? I’ve heard some younger people say this. Is it a common thing?

    I heard quite a bit of this growing up in a Jehovah’s Witness household. For all intents and purposes JWs are Christians, but they don’t see themselves that way. Instead they say the have “The Truth” and Christianity – “Christendom” is the term they use – is a lie.

    Interesting that non-JW young people would essentially have the same idea regarding “true Christianity.”

  • Ian S.

    Though I truly hope for many of your predictions (especially two and four), I am not quite so optimistic. I have an entirely unscientific feeling that it may cause the megachurches and fundamentalist far-right groups to dig in even more, increasing their vehemence. While this would likely drive away the last of the moderates, I think that they have the numbers to still remain a powerful force. :-/

  • Has anyone else ever heard of any people who say that “true” Christianity isn’t a religion? I’ve heard some younger people say this. Is it a common thing?

    Yes it’s a common thing. People have been saying it at least since the 70’s. Stuff like “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord” and “I’m not religious, I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

    Quite ridiculous actually, but based on the idea that religions are man-made and false but Christianity is the truth coming from God.

  • absent sway

    To Nick’s question:
    Absolutely, this was very common in my neck of the woods. “Religious” was pretty much a pejorative because of its legalistic connotations.

    Hemant, I think these are pretty reliable predictions (as far as predictions go), especially 2 and 3, which are well underway in some parts of the U.S. already (urban California for one, unsurprisingly).

  • Ben

    I’m stakin’ out that megachurch property market. I figure once they start to go, they’ll fall like dominos. And I’m gonna be right there to take it off their hands – and a fat discount! And donate a bunch to CFI, too.

  • Mi42789

    I am a 20 year old college student, and honestly, I can count the number of reilgious friends I have on 1 hand, and have 3 fingers to spare. Even those who are religious are only really in it to see friends at youth group meetings and have fun without the pressure of alcohol or drugs being put on them. So these statistics really don’t surprise me. Like I said, the majority of my friends dont claim to have a religion, and even those that do never talk about god or even go to church. All it is for my generation is a label that our parents passed down onto us, not a fundamental crusade. Religion is just there, and yet, nothing all that important. Kind of like a rainy day; you see the dark clouds, you feel the drizzle, then you just shrug it off and grab an umbrella. Religion is all around us, I just don’t think anyone my age really cares to stop long enough and let it affect them. *shrugs*

  • Churches walk a delicate line with the notion that one is “not religious but has a personal relationship with Jesus“. Churches live on the 10% tithe. People can figure out pretty quickly that they can have a “personal relationship with Jesus” and not tithe. I’ve heard pastors tell their flock that to have a personal relationship with Jesus, you must tithe the 10%. That puts things back in the institutionalized religion camp again… Its kind of funny.

  • Aj

    I hope that this is a good sign but I don’t think no religion is necessarily better than religion if there’s a wide spread culture of faith in harmful ideas. I’d only call it a win if science, skepticism, and reason won out. Of course politically having a divided and weaker religion is better for us. We thought religion was going to go away quietly before, and it didn’t, just like zombies we have to aim for the head to make sure they stay dead.

  • I second (thirteenthed?) the notion that these numbers may not be a clear picture of the situation.

    I remember running into some youngins this past Lent and I overheard them talking. One said he was definitely not religious which made my heart swell. This “nonreligious” kid went on to tell his Catholic friend all about the death and resurrection of Jesus as if it was fact. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this was that this kid had his “facts” all wrong and dates mixed up. No, Jesus didn’t die on Sunday — no one believes that.

    So are these “nonreligious” kids going to grow up to just believe whatever they want to believe? I’m not sure I’d prefer that over legions of Catholics or Lutherans or whatever else. At least Catholics are predictable.

  • Now that I consider it, the general populace may be confused about the differences between the words “religious” and “dogmatic.”

    I may be off base, but I assume people use the word religious when describing the nuts and bolts of a particular faith, but they don’t consider simple belief to be a “religious” matter.

    Hence, “I’m not religious. I just believe in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”

    Perhaps they don’t mean they aren’t religious, they mean they aren’t…what? Dogmatic? Ritualistic? Practicing?

    In any case, I can only assume the term “religious” means the whole she-bang to some people, so those who don’t go to church, don’t evangelize, etc. wouldn’t see themselves as religious.

  • Brooks

    I was raised in a fundamentalist church although it wasn’t a megachurch or anything like that. I’ve noticed recently that Rob Bell had become popular with the college age Christians there recently. But what exactly are his beliefs? I’ve tried looking him up and I’ve seen a few of his Nooma videos, but I’m not sure about the specifics of his beliefs. Like what does he believe regarding the inspiration of scripture and politics? I’ve also noticed that my parents’ church has become less politicisized this year. Like they used to have a rant every other week about how the gays and godless liberals are “persecuting” them and about how America was founded on “Christian values.” But I’ve noticed that ever since Obama became president, they’ve been oddly quiet about politics and are more concerned about “getting right with Jesus.” Are other fundie churches becoming less focused on politics and more focused on evangelizing? But I agree we should be cautiously optimistic about this development. This could just be the eye of the storm before the fundamentalists strike back with revenge in the 2012 presidential election.

  • Dave

    In my humanities class this semester(waste of time class, but I picked it up to be full time) we had a debate, for god or against god. I was fully expecting me and the one other obvious atheist to be arguing against the entire rest of the class…It ended up being about 40% of the class on the against god side…boy was I surprised.

  • Kevin M

    I’m actually not surprised. Many people my age agree that religions are all lies.

  • I really think that many of these are just those “not into religion but have huge faith in God” kind of people. They have no religious affiliation, but that doesn’t mean they’re atheists; be careful not to make that mistake.

  • Twewi

    I believe this, simply because a large portion of my generation seems to define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In high school, the concept of spirits/souls came up, and a friend of mine, who had previously told me he was an atheist, asked incredulously, “You don’t believe in a soul?”

    I think a lot of the younger crowd is not into organized religion, i.e. going to church or other group worship, and may not even believe in god, but they do often subscribe to general mysticism, woo, New Age nonsense, etc. Overall, I think it’s an improvement, but less so than this article may lead one to think.

  • deej

    i think its about time people are starting to live there lives without the pressures of church and faith, people are starting to realize practicing all this faith to an imaginary thing like “god” or a fictional character like “Jesus” who is no more real than santa clause takes a great burden of there life. And they can start believing in more things like themselves and family, instead of whispering prayers to thin air, hoping for a miracle that we all no isnt gonna happen because of some “God”.

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