September 14, 2016

The factors driving the growth of religious ‘nones’ in the U.S.

The share of Americans who do not identify with a religious group is surely growing: While nationwide surveys in the 1970s and ’80s found that fewer than one-in-ten U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, fully 23% now describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”

But there are differing ideas about the factors driving this trend – and its implications for society. While it appears the U.S. is becoming less religious, some contend that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, they say, the growth of the “nones” may simply indicate that people who are not religious are becoming more forthright and willing to say they have no religious affiliation, perhaps because being a “none” has become more socially acceptable.

Do survey data support this notion? The answer is yes – but only partly. Two, or even three, closely related things seem to be going on. Americans who are not religiously active and who don’t hold strong religious beliefs are more likely now than similar people were in the past to say they have no religion. But that’s not the whole story, because the share of Americans with low levels of religious commitment (on a scale combining four common measures) also has been growing.

Another factor is generational change. If you think of America as a house of many different faiths, then instead of imagining the “nones” as a roomful of middle-aged people who used to call themselves Presbyterians, Catholics or something else but don’t claim those labels anymore, imagine the unaffiliated as a few rooms rapidly filling with nonreligious people of various backgrounds, including young adults who have never had any religious affiliation in their adult lives.

Indeed, our Religious Landscape Study finds a clear generational pattern: Young people who are not particularly religious seem to be much more comfortable identifying as “nones” than are older people who display a similar level of religious observance. Nearly eight-in-ten Millennials with low levels of religious commitment describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” By contrast, just 54% of Americans in the Silent and Greatest generations who have low levels of religious commitment say they are unaffiliated; 45% claim a religion. A similarly striking gap between Millennials and others is also seen among those with a “medium” level of religious commitment.

Highly religious Millennials also are more likely than highly religious members of older generations to identify as religiously unaffiliated, but only modestly so.

In addition, the share of the population that exhibits low levels of religiosity is growing. In 2007, for instance, 14% of U.S. adults had a low level of religious commitment on our scale, which is based on self-reported rates of attendance at worship services, daily prayer, certainty of belief in God and self-described importance of religion in people’s lives. Just seven years later, in 2014, the share of U.S. adults with low religiosity had grown to 19%.

Again, age plays a role. While the overall decline in the country’s religiosity is driven partly by modest declines among Baby Boomers and those who are part of the Silent and Greatest generations, generational replacement appears to be an even larger factor. In other words, Millennials, who make up a growing share of the population as they reach adulthood and older Americans die off, are far less religiously observant than the older cohorts. Whether Millennials will become more religious as they age remains to be seen, but there is nothing in our data to suggest that Millennials or members of Generation X have become any more religious in recent years. If anything, they have so far become less religious as they have aged.

Topics: Religion and Society, Generations and Age, Religious Affiliation, Religious Beliefs and Practices, Religiously Unaffiliated

  1. Photo of Gregory A. Smith

    is an associate director of research at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Alan Cooperman

    is director of religion research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Brian VI11 months ago

    I am genuinely curious as to why so many people are so eager to identify by or label themselves as something other than themselves. I generally agree on the “liberal” side of most social issues (and understand the need for that label in order to describe a general disposition with any sort of brevity for example) but if I were to explicitly identify myself as a “liberal” I would be putting myself in a box and one that agrees with a list of liberal positions that I may not necessarily agree with depending on the time and circumstances they are applied. much like every other person, i follow my own moral compass and if a law was passed by a Conservative today that managed to end world hunger I would endorse it. None of us are liberal/atheist/Christian; we are the product of the decisions we make; and every political party we follow or religion we endorse is open to interpretation. Your flavor of Lutheranism is different than your brothers. Simply identifying yourself as Jewish doesn’t make you any more or less capable of something than someone who doesnt. These tags are meaningless, irrelevant and only seem to lead to misunderstanding and judgement. what do we have to gain from them?

  2. Nigel Hilton11 months ago

    The old adage that the internet is the place where religions come to die has a lot of truth to it however it is possible that we will see a colonization of parts of the internet that will be self-enforcing of religious minorities and cults which will then become even more prone to abuse. For me the realization that god was surplus to requirement in explaining anything was hugely important, but most likely the main driver of a societal move towards non-religion is social welfare provision by institutions other than the churches.

  3. Anonymous11 months ago

    Religion has become a cancer because the fundamentalist have gained too much political power. People should read Hitch, Dawkins, Erhman, Harris, and realize they have Beleifs that a based on oral legends and are just untrue. Thor is not real.

    Faith has evolved from believing without evidence TO believing despite the evidence.

  4. Rita Ihly11 months ago

    Truth to tell – I’m 88, and gave up any affiliation with a specific ‘religion’ when I was 18. From my “long view’, I feel that the comment where surveys queried about religion, participants simply agreed they were “Christian” or whatever to avoid the obvious had merit. Given the scandals, the deceit (Think Tammy) and pushing their morality issues to include all us ‘sinners’, has caused a backlash. Our youth may find it rewarding spiritually to find seeking their own path a better choice. One can always visit different denominations, read about world religions and not anchored to the choice of their folks. To simply declare that one is constantly seeking and admits ‘it’s a Mystery’ might be closer to the truth.

  5. Anonymous11 months ago

    I am always a little puzzled by these kinds of studies. I was raised Catholic but for 20+ years would have said I had a low level of religious convictions. Then in 2012 I joined the Unitarian Universalists (who welcome unaffiliated, agnostic, even atheist members) and now would say I have a high level of my religious conviction. But it is a VERY DIFFERENT sort of religiosity. Where would I fit in your statistics? Are you undercounting UUs by how you frame your questions?

  6. Anonymous11 months ago

    I know with the Catholic priest molesting little boys and the church by covering it up has left a bad taste in everyone mouth And still to this the pope has still a lot of work ahead of him to reconcile that disgusting unforgivable behavior

  7. Anonymous11 months ago

    The same trends are found in New Zealand and probably other western countries. Data from the New Zealand Election Study shows that, if you separate people into groups based on their stated religiosity (as in the second table above) there is within each group a strong generational trend to reduced affiliation in the younger generations. Thus older generations are more willing to say they belong even though they don’t believe, but not so the younger generations. And as well as that there are reducing numbers of people ticking high levels of religiosity in the younger generations (confirming the trend in the third table above). This agrees with the gist of Pew’s analysis. (Dr Barry McDonald, Massey University, New Zealand).

  8. Anonymous11 months ago

    So why are there more admitted “nones” and people of low or no religious commitment? Pew Research did not or could not address this question in it’s survey. I believe the answer is related to the acceptance of science as the answer to important personal decisions. Religion is playing a lesser role in national policy and personal lives because more people are skeptical of faith based claims. Religion’s political clout is weaker as scientific methodology has strengthened. Preposterous miraculous religious claims are no longer accepted as answers to personal and social problems.

  9. Anonymous11 months ago

    Why would one want to affiliate with a mainstream denomination which has abandoned the tenets of the faith. Better to remain silent and quietly practice your belief system within. Why support an institution that doesn’t support you.

    1. Anonymous11 months ago

      because your bible clearly instructs you to.

  10. Anonymous11 months ago

    Great! This is also repeating in Brazil but in a slower pace among the youth, according to a recent survey made in the city of Rio de Janeiro, among the youth fully 42% identify themselves as either unnafiliated or non-Christian religions.

  11. Anonymous11 months ago

    Back in the 1950s, the proportion of Americans who were “nones” was measured as under 5% — that is, as under one adult in 20.

    Now it is approaching one adult in FOUR, a level commonly found in post-W.W.II Europe.

    This social transformation explains some of the civic anxiety felt by conservative Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

  12. Anonymous11 months ago

    Back in the early 1970s, I remember published survey analysis describing the religiously un-affiliated or un-involved as being ” RELIGIOUS INDEPENDENTS .”

    A parallel was drawn between “Political Independents” (those NOT affiliated with a political party) and those NOT affiliated with a church or religious organization.

    Adhering to ideological partisanship and adhering to a religious denomination still strike me as psycho-sociologically similar.

    As a former Sunday school teacher & church member and as a former party official and campaign activist who is now consistently un-affiliated (both church-wise and party-wide), I would urge your future data analysis to take this perspective into consideration.

  13. Anonymous11 months ago

    It would be interesting to find out you many people have been effectively run off from organized religion by the TV Preachers and their tent revival predecessors. My first doubts came at an early age when all of the little kids at Sunday school were made to kneel. The teacher asked those who “loved Jesus” to raise their hand. They were given a lollipop. The kids who didn’t raise their hand got nothing. My first lesson in the value of lying at six years old.

    1. John Whaley11 months ago

      Suggestion would be to identify more with those who have more maturity in life than what you found when age 6 or with flaky Televangelists. You are on the right track for rejecting these past false notions of organized religion. Talking with a wider diversity of people who have more maturity, asking for book recommendations, and habitual prayer can give you peace with organized religion.

  14. Anonymous11 months ago

    I would appreciate some consideration for Deism…some of the US founding fathers would as well.

    1. Anonymous11 months ago

      I do, but most people don’t and haven’t throughout all of history because “Deism” was never a movement or community of followers.