November 11, 2015

Religious ‘nones’ are not only growing, they’re becoming more secular

Religious “nones” are not only growing as a share of the U.S. population, but they are becoming more secular over time by a variety of measures, a fact that also is helping to make the U.S. public overall somewhat less religious, according to surveys done as part of our Religious Landscape Study.

The “nones,” a category that includes people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular,” now make up 23% of U.S. adults, up from 16% in 2007. But there is more to the story. To begin with, this group is not uniformly nonreligious. Most of them say they believe in God, and about a third say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives.

At the same time, between the Pew Research Center’s two Religious Landscape Studies – conducted in 2007 and 2014 – we also see consistent evidence that the “nones” are becoming less religious. For example, the share of religious “nones” who say they believe in God, while still a majority, has fallen from 70% to 61% over that seven-year period. Only 27% of “nones” are absolutely certain about God’s existence, down from 36% in 2007. And fully a third of religiously unaffiliated Americans (33%) now say they do not believe in God, up 11 percentage points over that time.

Similar trends are seen on some other key measures of religious engagement. The share of religious “nones” who say they seldom or never pray has risen by 6 points in recent years, and now stands at 62%. And a bigger proportion of the unaffiliated now say religion is not important in their lives (65%) than said this in 2007 (57%).

Data from the survey can be combined with U.S. population figures to estimate the total number of what might be thought of as “nonreligious” Americans at 36.1 million in 2014. (These are adults who are not affiliated with a religious group and who also say religion is not important in their lives.) As of 2007, there were only 21 million “nonreligious” adults who fit this description.

The question of why the “nones” are growing less religious does not have a simple answer. But just as is the case for why “nones” are growing as a share of the U.S. public, generational replacement appears to be playing a role. Religiously unaffiliated Americans are younger, on average, than the general public to begin with, and the youngest adults in the group – that is, those who have entered adulthood in the last several years – are even less religious than “nones” overall.

Fully seven-in-ten of these youngest Millennials (born between 1990 and 1996) with no religious affiliation say religion is not important in their lives. A similar share (70%) also say they seldom or never pray and 42% say they do not believe in God, all bigger percentages than among religious “nones” as a whole.

Topics: Religion and Society, Religiously Unaffiliated

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Eli Kope2 years ago

    Maybe younger people don’t go to church because they have to hold three jobs to rent an apartment.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      That’s hilarious! Thank you 🖒

  2. Matt Johnson2 years ago

    There is a free book online made with the “spiritual but not religious” crowd in mind.
    I think a lot of those folks would probably like it quite a bit.

  3. Narendran Cp2 years ago

    I think your questions about measure of religiosity makes an underlying assumption that is to say given ‘God’ there can only be ‘one’ and given superior ‘power’ there can’t be more. What about those religious people who believes in a multiplicity of gods and goddesses?

  4. Judy2 years ago

    Christians cannot prove god or Jesus exist. Its easy to go on the Internet and try and find any physical archeological proof that Jesus ever existed. The bible is a book of fiction. Ergo, many people are now aware of this fact and so have rethought worshipping something that does not exist. There is zero proof or artifacts of any kind that Jesus or Christians existed between 0-250AD. In fact, there is good evidence that the Roman Flavian family created the Jesus messiah myth to fool and co-opt the Jews from rebelling against Rome. Bible says: Do not rebel against Rome; Slaves obey your masters; “Kings” have a divine right to rule as they are chosen by god. All nonDemocratic values which are also rejected.

    1. Gerry Gentile2 years ago

      You might want to examine Judaism, its teachings, and its beliefs. Then examine Christianity, its teachings, and its beliefs. Then examine Roman religion and politics, its teachings, and its beliefs. Then explain how a socio-political philosophy so completely alien to the concepts of either Judaism or Christianity could have possibly invented any of that latter belief.

      Boy, have you drunk the Kool-aid.

      1. Zenu2 years ago

        You realize that “drunk the Kool-aid” is a term of Christian legacy. Comes from the prayer vigil of the right praying Rev Jim Jones.

        The bible is indeed a rewrite of previous mythologies.

  5. Mike C2 years ago

    I find myself agreeing with Jon Cleland Host more than anyone else who has posted a comment so far (13 Nov at 1225). Although 63 years old, I’m also one of the Nones. I’m a former Catholic and mainline Protestant, but now reject supernaturalism and traditional religious language. However, I still find value in congregational life, so I participate in/support many of the activities of my wife’s church (UCC), but never attend services because of the woo-woo. I hope we’re witnessing the birth of a new Axial Age where something new is rising up that will better serve society than traditional religious institutions can. In the short term the transition may be painful, but I believe we’ll be better off for it.

  6. Frank Watts2 years ago

    I stop and pray to thank God for my many blessings almost every day when I’m in the woods or walking my dog in the hills. I seldom go to church. does that make me a more or less religious person than the norm?

  7. Brother Timothy2 years ago

    I can see that many “nones” eschew “religion” when that word is used. However, earlier Pew polling shows that when asked if they are “spiritual,” many “nones” will more often use that word to self-identify where they are on the spectrum.

    We need to keep that in mind and stop using the word “religion” when polling the “nones” and start using the term they use for themselves; including many members of mainline churches. Otherwise it skews the outcomes of the polls.

    1. Dr. Lara Medina2 years ago

      Yes, I totally agree. The majority of my students are not religious but they claim to be spiritual. Helping them articulate what being spiritual means and moving beyond an individualistic or only personal idea of spirituality is the challenge.

  8. Jon Cleland Host2 years ago

    Saying that “the proportion of nones is growing due to the fact that millennials are more likely be be nones than older generations (generational replacement)” is like saying that ” the number of democrats rose because there were more democrats”. It doesn’t address the actual cause, and raises the question “*why* are millennials turning away from religion faster that other generations are?”. A speculative answer could be that the supernatural woo of religion is more and more out of step with reality as shown by science, which millennials can easily see due to the access to information provided by the internet and use due to the ongoing increase in intelligence (Flynn effect). Anyone have any other real answers? Thanks.

    1. Paige2 years ago

      Coming of age in a world dominated by socioreligious war has turned many of this generation away from extremes and absolutes. It’s exhausting on our collective soul, but there’s hope. We’re again cycling towards globalization and enlightenment; a modern renaissance.

      1. Charles Randall Paul2 years ago

        I agree Paige. When religion in the news is exhaustingly negative, it makes us feel strong belief in God (or anything) is the problem. Wrong belief, not strong belief is the problem, but that is another subject.

    2. Gerry Gentile2 years ago

      Or, possibly, it’s because Fundamentalist Christians like Mike Huckabee, Jerry Falwell, and Bryan Fischer are seen as ugly, vicious bullies, spouting an ugly, vicious religious belief that marginalizes non-Christians, demonizes homosexuals, calls abortion “Baby-Murder”, and denies both evolution and global warming.

      When folks are exposed repeatedly to the drum-beat chorus of “God has lifted His Mighty Hand of protection from America because we’ve turned away from righteousness”, it isn’t surprising that large numbers of people are going to view atheists as a threat to America.