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Rising numbers of unchurches 'Nones' alarm church leaders

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Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life - 'Nones' on the Rise Study
Portrait of a None
Note from a None


One of the fastest growing groups in the country isn’t much of a group at all. You join it by not joining. The requirements for membership are simple: Don’t join a religion, even if you believe in God.

For the first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. One reason: The number of Americans with no religious affiliation is on the rise.

Nearly 20 percent of Americans now identify themselves as “nones,” or people with no religious affiliation and the percentage of Protestant adults in the U.S. has reached a low of 48 percent, the first time the number has fallen below 50 percent. The drop comes at a time when no Protestants are on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Republicans have their first presidential ticket with no Protestant nominees.

While the nones or unaffiliated category, as defined by Pew researchers includes atheists, it also encompasses majorities of people who say they believe in God, and a notable minority who pray daily or consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” Still, Pew found overall that most of the unaffiliated aren’t actively seeking another religious home, indicating that their ties with organized religion are permanently broken.

Implications shape institutions

Many Baltimore-Washington Conference clergy said that although the survey does not bode well, it is not a time to retreat.

“The biggest thing we need to learn as a church is that Sunday worship cannot be our main focus,” said the Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol, pastor at Mount Vernon UMC in Washington, D.C. “It has to be one of many focuses. How do we develop as many connections with people outside our church that lead to ongoing relationships with folks? These folks might not ever come to our church on Sunday but they would still consider our church ‘their church.’”

The growing none group trend also has political implications. American voters who describe themselves as having no religion vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, according to the study. Pew also found that Americans with no religion support abortion rights and gay marriage at a much higher-rate than the U.S. public at large. The religiously unaffiliated are becoming as important a constituency to Democrats as evangelicals are to Republicans.

Redefining Religiosity

The Pew analysis, conducted with PBS’ “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly,” is based on several surveys, includinga poll of nearly 3,000 adults conducted June 28 to July 9, 2012, and a larger group of more than 17,000 people. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.9 percentage points, Pew researchers said.

Researchers have been struggling for decades to find a definitive reason for the steady rise in those with no religion. Now, religion scholars say, the decreased religiosity in the United States could reflect a change in how Americans describe their religious lives. In 2007, 60 percent of people who said they seldom or never attend religious services still identified themselves as part of a particular religious tradition. In 2012, that statistic fell to 50 percent, according to the Pew report.

“Many of my friends fall into the 46 million who maintain an active spiritual life -- praying to the Universe, maintaining a belief in Karma – but do not feel the urge to identify with any particular religious community,” said the Rev. Kevin Wright, director of social justice ministries at Foundry UMC. “Their absence from a religious community has to do with the ways in which they perceive those communities to be antiquated in values, unnecessarily dissentious, and restrictive of personal identities and orientations.

“It is not that these individuals do not perceive the need for a centering community and an accompanyingsense of belonging, but rather that the church has in some way broken their trust and now stands as an impediment rather than a viable means to enjoying meaningful community with others,” Wright said. “Why would a gay person go to church only to hear that they are going to hell? Why would someone who expresses doubts about the divine want to have dogma shoved down their throat? Why bother to attend a church when it is going to answer questions that no one is asking?”

Along ethnic lines, the largest jump in nones has been among whites. One-fifth of whites describe themselves as having no religion. One-third of adults under age 30 have no religious affiliation, compared to 9 percent of people 65 and older. Pew researchers wrote that “young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.” They aren’t expected to become more religiously active as they age.

Discovering Opportunity

“The Church has done a poor job of teaching the younger generations the path of Christian Spirituality,” said the Rev. Kendrick Weaver, pastor at Union Memorial UMC in Upper Marlboro. “As a result, these generations have created their own spirituality from an amalgamation of insights and practices -- from talk show hosts, self help literature, celebrities (spiritual or secular) and other religions. And from their perspective this is working just fine. What the Church must do in response is deceptively simple. She must rediscover her own spirituality and then begin to share it in all its beauty with the world,” he said.

Claycomb Sokol agreed, adding that instead of fighting the growing trend, the church should instead be seeking opportunities.

“We have to learn not to be threatened but instead how to be faithfully challenged,” she said. “And we have to stop pouring money into massive buildings and get out into the community. God is bigger than the church, and God is a whole lot bigger than the UMC. How is the church being faithful to everyone and to God”?

Issue Date: 
Wed, 11/14/2012


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