Magazine article The Christian Century

The Rise of the 'Nones'

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Rise of the 'Nones'

Article excerpt

The number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation has hit an all-time high--about one in five adults--according to a study released October 9 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Labeled "nones" because they claim either no religious preference or no religion at all, their ranks now total 46 million people. Much of the growth is among young people--one in three U.S. adults under 30 are considered nones.

The report also found that the number of self-described atheists and agnostics has hit a peak--13 million people, or 6 percent of the U.S. population. That's a rise of 2 percentage points over five years.

And while the nones are growing in number, Protestantism is on the decline, shrinking from 62 percent of the religiously affiliated in 1972 to 48 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, the number of Catholics held steady, at about one in four Americans.

"These are continuations of longer trends in American religion," said Greg Smith, a lead researcher on the study, as he and colleagues presented the findings to the 63rd annual Religion Newswriters Association conference in Bethesda, Maryland. "I think it goes without saying these are pretty significant changes in the American religious landscape."

The changes have some pretty significant political implications, too. The study shows that "nones" lean heavily Democratic-75 percent voted for Barack Obama in 2008, about the same percentage of evangelical Christians who voted for John McCain.

John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said the Pew survey showed that the unaffiliated have become a large and important constituency of the Democratic Party--perhaps larger than that of black Protestants, who turned out in large numbers to support Obama.

"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party," Green told reporters. "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties and sharper divisions within [the parties]."

The unaffiliated are also increasingly liberal on social issues--another finding with major political implications. Nearly three in four say abortion should be legal, compared to 53 percent of all Americans. A slightly smaller number (73 percent) favor same-sex marriage (compared to 48 percent of all Americans). …

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