The Nones Are Rising March 22, 2011

The Nones Are Rising

***Update***: An interesting addendum: The BBC reports that the percentage of nones may be rising a lot more than you think:

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.

The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.

The team’s mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.

I haven’t had a chance to read the actual article, so feel free to let me know if this is all just wishful thinking and bad use of extrapolation.

(via Canadian Atheist)

We’ve known for a long time that people who fill in the “No Religion” bubble on surveys are not all atheists, but there is good news when that demographic is rising.

It means people no longer identify with a particular religion. Or maybe they’re embarrassed. Or maybe they’ve said “To hell with god; I’m an atheist now.” In any case, it means religion is losing its stronghold on society… at least by a little bit.

Glen Martin writes about this change in California, a magazine for UC Berkeley alumni:

The people who characterize themselves as “Nones” — atheist, agnostic, or no stated religious preference — grew from 8.2 percent of the population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. People who refused to state a preference rose from 2.3 to 5.2 percent of the population. The bottom line, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, is “one in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind.”

In other words, nondenominational spiritualism, secularism, agnosticism, and atheism are on the ascendant. “What we’re seeing is a hollowing out of the center,” says Tom Flynn, executive director of the New York-based Council for Secular Humanism and editor of the organization’s publication, Free Inquiry. “Yes, evangelism is a strong social movement. Millions of people have abandoned liberal mainstream churches for churches with fundamentalist doctrines. But this is a process of polarization — it flows both ways.”

Of those Americans who are Nones, says Flynn, roughly one-third are seekers who eschew religion but not spirituality. The remainder are people who feel no particular affinity for any supernatural force. “And of that remaining two-thirds, 10 percent describe themselves as ardently nonreligious — atheists or dedicated secularists,” continues Flynn. “So we have 35 million people in this country who are distributed along a nonreligious spectrum. That means there are as many Nones as there are African Americans and Hispanics, and more than Jews. In other words, there are enough to demand a place at the table.”

It’s even more exciting to realize that a bulk of the growth has happened within a younger crowd:

Perhaps the best measure of secularism’s popularity among the young and educated is the growth of — for want of a better term — faithless-based campus organizations. “Three years ago, we had 80 affiliated groups,” says Jesse Galef, communications director of the Secular Students Alliance. “Today there are 233. That kind of growth isn’t a blip — it points to a major social movement.

So let me post a few questions to you all:

Let’s say the “15% non-religious” statistic is accurate. How much higher do you think that number will go before it peaks?

And when will that happen?

And, if there’s another surge in the future, what will be the major cause of it?

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  • Sunday School

    Many of the young atheists of my generation were the first in their family to never have to go to Sunday school. In the next few years, that means there will be more and more grandparents who don’t go to church and more parents who have never been forced to go to church. When Grandma doesn’t care about christenings and confirmation, that’s when religion is really screwed.

  • NiphraDil

    Well, I can’t make predictions for the United States, but I just laid eyes on a very interesting and “encouraging” research: “Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says

  • Zac

    It will keep rising until it reaches >95%. There will always be the stupid ones.

  • Cortex

    I’d guess 25-30%, around 20-25ish years from now – long enough for today’s godless kids to have kids old enough to fill out surveys.

    I think that will be the cause of the next surge – 15% of the population believing religion is not an important part of child rearing.

  • Claudia

    Why is being an atheist or a secularist being “ardently nonreligious”? I mean, I would understand the adjective to describe many of us on this blog, because we actively oppose religious influence, think about religion, argue against it, and fight some of its more pernicious effects through activism. So I do see a degree of “ardor” in us.

    However I’m pretty certain that the majority (possibly the vast majority) of atheists do not fit that description. My entire family is atheist. Of all of us, only my parents and myself really give a shit about the influence of religion. Everyone else is an atheist yes, and if asked would probably say that religious fundamentalists are “nuts” and sometimes “dangerous” but they can hardly be called “ardent”.

    It just seems that the fact of taking an actual clear position on religion by saying you don’t believe it’s true you are given adjectives like “ardent” “militant” and “outspoken”, wheras a theist who is the mirror image of you, simply by believing there is a god, is considered entirely mild.

  • Thorny

    well in the Uk, the atheist population is about 40-44% of population and i expect that to rise a lot in the current census, so I dont think it will ever peak and start declining as there are very few atheist people who find religion and much more religious people who realise the truth

  • Sarah

    In America, non-religion will probably peak at 30-35% in the next decade or two. Science is constantly getting dogged in our education system, more devout people are choosing to homeschool their children as to not to let public schools influence their faith teachings, and super/mega churches and spiritual gurus are on the rise. If we can fix our educational systems, then I believe we may have another surge of “nones”, but until then, I don’t think the status quo will be changed all that much.

  • My daughter is a senior in high school. She engages in religious discussions regularly, and it is her experience that her peers are in no way ashamed to admit they question the religion of their parents.

    Perhaps this anecdote is simply a reflection of the rebellious nature of teens, and we live in an urban area, but one that is on the edge of the south (DC suburbs.) Atheism is much more acceptable to them than it was when I was young, when you would be ostracized for even thinking such a thing.

    I am still discouraged by the fact there is only one SSA in our entire area, though. I hoping as my younger daughter enters high school in the fall, she will be motivated to do something about that. She is more like her mother…;)

  • Blasphemy is a victimless crime

    While it would be nice to see the percentages rise in the current UK census, I am not to optimistic. I know a lot of people who have never believed in any god, have never attended any church or other place of worship yet will still unthinkingly put CoE as their religious preference.
    While I was at school, religious indoctrination was next to non existent, but they went out of there way to push the message that we should always fill out CoE as our religious preference regardless of our actual beliefs.

  • According to Black et al. (2004) 49.2% of Australians in the 18-29 age group say they are neither religious or spiritual. This represents people from 24-35 now. I have noted a rise in Atheist groups on campus in Australia too so this is another indicator of continuation in the trend.

    I need to find some newer data, but this is just before or at the advent of the ‘New Atheism’, so it will be really interesting to see if the group has changed its views; to see if people have embraced their atheism or have been put them off by the movement. Perhaps people have just encountered life circumstances like children or job hardship and this could change stats as the group ages as well.

    Cortex has a point about the 15% rearing children, Zuckerman (2009) finds that families that are uninterested in religion generally produce non-religious children. In Australia that could potentially be 49%.

  • Jay

    The BBC did a story on this, and the models predict a 100% non-religious society in the future, though it didn’t say when:

  • Kristi

    I imagine the number could potentially top out at 100%, but I do not think it will. I am guessing there will be at least 15% of the absolutely 100% sure there is a god (even though they do not know for sure).

    It honestly does not bother me that people believe in a god… it’s the people who identify with an organized religion that bother me because this is where the trouble lies. So the polls look promising. If there is no organized group trying to lobby in gov’t, then the god issue is not a problem.

  • I agree the trend that brings about a measure of hope, but it’s important to remember that small, militant groups can steer policy – partiicularly during a crisis.

  • “In other words, there are enough to demand a place at the table.”

    We are entitled to demand a place, but we are not in a position to send a delegate to fill that place.

  • Mr Z

    It will surge again in 2020, and every census year until the number of ardent believers is less than 40%
    The reasons are many but include: Child raping priests and supporters of the bastards from other religions in the form of lack of condemnation. Then the wecanknow crowd is about to make religion look F-ing stupid. It won’t be long now before a church or three jumps on the 2012 bandwagon if only as a way to get butts in the pews. It will backfire on them. About the time society is ready to stop conflating Islam and terrorism, a Christian will asplode a bomb in their god’s name with the affect of turning hatred toward all religions.

  • Phoebe

    This is great news! Religion is a lie, having the US gov’t uphold the lies and try to force them onto people is so sad and rather disgusting. I long for the day when the president doesn’t have to be a Christian that blathers ON and ON about god in every speech and isn’t apparently REQUIRED to say “God Bless America” after every uttered sentence.
    We need leaders who know what reality actually is!! It’s HIGH TIME.

  • aerie

    I’m not quite as optimistic the rest of you. I live in the south and I’m convinced of our doom.

  • Hazor

    I don’t imagine it’ll ever reach 100%, even in thousands of years. There will always be cults and secret societies and the like, I think.

    That said, I’m not optimistic about the current trend. The percentage of “None”s may rise over the next few decades, but I’m fearful of the reproductive trends in America. Non-religious folk are having few if any children, and religious people tend to have more (quiverfull families are of particular note here). I think this will serve to flatten out the “None” trend, at least in the US, well before I’m too old to care, and a generation or two after that happens I project a decline.

    Perhaps I’m pessimistic, but I live in the south and my own family is a quiver and of 8 children I am the only “None”. Of my father’s brother’s family, out of 15? children I don’t think any of them are.

  • Rieux


    Non-religious folk are having few if any children, and religious people tend to have more (quiverfull families are of particular note here).

    But that’s been true for centuries. And yet irreligion grows. (Quoth Vizzini: “You were supposed to be this colossus, you were this great legendary thing, and yet he gains!”)

    Islam is currently the only religion in the world that is increasing its share of humanity by plain old sexual reproduction. Christianity isn’t—in large part because a significant (and growing) proportion of children born to Christian parents end up non-Christian by the time they reach adulthood.

    There might be reasons that the trend of burgeoning “None” populations will level off (I’d worry about a global ecological/political catastrophe), but historical demographic data don’t support the “They’re out-reproducing us!” concern. They always have. And yet we gain.

  • Josh

    I’d like to say that I disagree with MR. Z. I hope that his prediction (About the bomber) doesn’t come true because I think it would likely lead to a backlash against religious people, by both non-religious and other religions.

    I don’t think we’re going to win this philosophical war because of violence. You forget that Christianity has sects and can always divide into more. The Baptists can blame the Catholics, the Catholics can blame the CoE, and on and on in a circle.

    My prediction (for what its worth)is that atheism will make an expontial rise in the coming decades. Unlike in the past, it doesn’t take a genius to see that there may not be any gods. I think a good detailed discussion, or a series of them, by someone who knows what they are talking about is enough to set an open minded person on a course for atheism. (or at least to not taking their feeling so seriously) As time goes by, the number builds and there will be more of these conversations. Of course, it will occasionaly have the opposite affect and create a zealot.

    Granted, not everyone who doesn’t beleive in god is interested in these talks, but I feel that this sort of thing is the driving force behind any positive atheist expansion. We don’t need people running around representing us yelling, “Fuck Jesus! He’s a terrorist!” or whatever a reactionary type might yell in that scenario.

  • It took a long time for the Greek gods to die. What is the average lifespan of a typical god? I’m sure someone somewhere already has posted a chart reflecting this data.

    What do I expect to see in my lifetime? I’m 50 now do I will hope for the nones to reach close to 50% by the time I expire.

    What will force the next surge in nones? The entertainment industry will. As soon as non believers are portrayed on TV and in the movies as decent normal human beings, then the public perception will change. It is working for the gays. it will work for us too.

  • Alt 3

    This trend will continue in a more-or-less exponential pattern until February 17, 2083 at 2.16 pm (GMT) when all religious affiliation drops to zero in the swift and bloody Robocalypse. After that the only inhabitants of earth will be hyper-intelligent machines, which, as we all know, are Unix-tarian Universalists. This will be the prevailing faith until the inevitable rise of RoboSatanism.

  • Duke York

    That means there are as many Nones as there are African Americans and Hispanics, and more than Jews.

    This seriously underestimates the situation.

    There are more non-religious people in the US than there are Jews in the entire world.

  • Blacksheep

    So is this argumentum ad populum from an atheist perspective? 🙂

  • Blacksheep

    So is this a form of argumentum ad populum from an atheist perspective? 🙂

  • Blacksheep

    (Sorry for the double posting).

  • Randy

    I wonder how many of those that claim a religion are doing so just because their parents did it, or they have always done it without thinking. I’m from the south and most of my friends didn’t attend church nor did their family.

  • saltyestelle

    I think the Nones will continue to increase, especially in places where people have access to education and things are relatively stable, security-wise. BUT when we have a major catastrophe or five, many people will run back to the comfort of church. When reality sucks, everyone wants to fantasize about heaven. There was a great/scary article on Huffington Post recently about this trend and possible reversals.

  • Crumble

    In New Zealand in the last census (2006) the “no religion” box was ticked by 34.7% of the pop up from 29.6% in 2001.

  • anti_supernaturalist

    two conjectures

    1. doubling of the percentage of ‘none’ when responding to an item about belonging to a religious institution measures dis-inhibition rather than real growth.

    after the break-up of the USSR (1992), the old xian right-wing equation of godless=communist got cast aside. today admitting to not caring about organized religions has become easier.

    2. nevertheless, 15-16% of ‘none’ in the US still measures inhibition towards admitting ‘godlessness’ — more people would admit to their non-conformity if it did not have so high a social cost. (for example, there are very few members of congress who are openly gay — the number openly ‘none’ equals one.)

    atheists are the most hated subgroup in the US. atheist bashing is akin to gay bashing and rape. the ‘other’ (atheist/glbt/woman) refused to conform and was so “provocative” in thought, action, attire, that it was OK to thrash, bash, and screw ’em all. (As in — “she was just asking to be molested.”)

    asking point-blank about money/sex/religion — in that order — characteristically elicits evasion. that’s why many indirect items are used in good research to elicit honest answers which are not directly about taboo subjects, but as a whole act as predictors of wealth/sexual practices/conformity in religion. the data themselves must be carefully looked at before accepting them as predictive.

    countries outside the US which are still nominally xian, typically have a lower social cost to expressing non-conformity in religion. (Ireland is obviously retrograde in its recent ‘blasphemy’ statute.)

    the anti_supernaturalist

  • Lion IRC

    Whenever I see stats related to the decline of religion I am often interested to see some other stats in those countries as well.
    For example, the US shows a decline in religiosity but it also shows a massive rise in national debt. (Much of that indebtedness, ironically, is to China – a country where religion is increasing.)
    But what of some other stats?

    * Youth suicide.

    * Child slavery and child pornography

    * Prison incarceration rates

    * Hospitalization for crystal meth and other hard drugs.

    * Fertility rates (bearing in mind that the contraceptive pill is cyanide for atheism)

    * Cosmetic plastic surgery (thanks Calilasseia. I owe you one!)

  • Lion IRC

    Whenever I see stats related to the decline of religion I am often interested to see some other stats in those countries as well.
    For example, the US shows a decline in religiosity but it also shows a massive rise in national debt. (Much of that indebtedness, ironically, is to China – a country where religion is increasing.)
    But what of some other stats?

    * Youth suicide.

    * Child slavery and child pornography

    * Prison incarceration rates

    * Hospitalization for crystal meth and other hard drugs.

    *Fertility rates (bearing in mind that the contraceptive pill is cyanide for atheism)

    * Cosmetic plastic surgery (thanks Calilasseia. I owe you one!)

  • ACN

    Why? Let me give you your smoking gun, let’s say all of these things have risen also over the same time periods. Are you going to gleefully announce that atheism causes “immorality” or whatever? The fact that two rates are correlated doesn’t imply that there is a causal relationship between them.

    And if that isn’t where you’re going with this, and I’d be pleasantly surprised if it were not, what exactly are you trying to say?

  • AtomJack

    It’s going to require education in rational thinking as opposed to acceptance of authoritarian behavior. I personally think that this will be quite difficult for many people to accept. In some places that are deeply religious, it’s going to cause serious problems. The deep south of the US and the middle east come to mind. Atheism is a far better solution than an Inquisition. At least (I hope) the wrong answer doesn’t get a person killed or worse.

  • AtomJack

    Lion, show me the sources for your “stats” and the religious affection of the countries involved. Looks like you have found the negative correlation batch.

  • gsw

    I saw a lovely cartoon showing that, since there are currently some 100 known gods, every monotheist is 99% atheist.

    I should love to see a campaign to remove this last 1% of indoctrination.

  • @Lion

    It takes money to be aware of (collect statistics) and act on these problems. It also takes an effective government (even for stats) and some type of welfare, health or criminal system (to deal with, define and account for such ‘problems’).They may be invisible in less governed spaces.

    I’d like to see the source of these stats but I have to ask:

    Is there really more Youth suicide, Child slavery and child pornography in countries with declining religion or are those countries better at discovering, policing and accounting for these activities?

    The data would help me decide, but either way it is a valid question.

    As far as I understand it, fertility rates go down in wealthy countries despite religion. It is usually local economic and cultural circumstances that effect the outcome. More children surviving and more to learn (more cost) = lower fertility rates.

  • Thoth

    I believe the rate will rise in the U.S., but I’m not entirely optimistic as to how much. Current religious trends in America are toward right-wing religious groups. This, I believe, is no accident. The right wing has spent years developing and galvanizing a base of religious people just so they can pander to them and thereby get their votes.

    The practical result of this is that a politician can get elected just by saying they’re against gay marriage, abortion, etc. Even if that politician later consistently makes legislation that takes money and power out of the hands of the working class (their base) and puts it into the hands of the wealthy, people will still support them.

    That base provides political power (i.e., the power to get elected), so it is entirely in the interests of the people that benefit from that power to try to grow the base as much as possible. Actually, I’d say that’s the driving force behind most of the religious extremism in the world right now.

    The question is, can atheists get someone elected into office or make a serious economic impact on a corporation? If atheists have real political or economic power, our beliefs will be taken more seriously in those spheres.

  • matt

    20% unaffiliated = 62 million people!
    That’s equivalent to California + Texas.

    Or, to put it another way, 76 times the population of South Dakota.

  • Hemant wrote:

    Let’s say the “15% non-religious” statistic is accurate. How much higher do you think that number will go before it peaks?


    I would suggest that we look beyond the national average figure of 15% and look at individual states. Here are the top 5 states in percentage of religious “nones”:

    #1 – Vermont (34% “None”)

    #2 – New Hampshire (29% “None”)

    #3 – Wyoming (28% “None”)

    #4 – Washington (25% “None”)

    #4 – Maine (25% “None”)

    Since these states seem to be functioning quite well with 25% to 34% “none,” I would expect that the rest of the nation will catch up with these New England and Western US numbers.

    Although “Nones” are presently 15% of the total US adult population, 22% of Americans aged 18-29 years self-identify as “None.”

    Because of this trend towards higher none percentage in younger generations, the ARIS study authors think that the percentage of “none” will increase in the future.

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