The Rise of the Nones

In the last 100 years, the global Christian population has shrunk by approximately three percent.  Moreover, the Christian demographic has shifted from a predominantly Northern Hemisphere (European and Americas) dominion to a Southern Hemisphere (Non-European based) population.

Today, Christians make up approximately 31.7 percent of the world’s population; almost 61% of that number reside in the Global South.  Source 

Concurrently, adherents of Islam make up approximately 23 percent of the global population with just over 1.5 billion followers.

So what is the next largest religious group in the world?  It’s a loaded question – since religion doesn’t play a part in it.  Depending on the study, the non-religious make up between 16-20 percent (1.1 – 1.35 billion people) of the world’s population – outdistancing Hinduism by a healthy percentage. 

Interestingly, No Religion appears to be the fastest growing “religion” on the planet – outpacing Islam.  As these numbers continue to accelerate, we can expect more attention and demographic study to be brought to bear on the Nones.  Pollsters, demographers, and social scientists will attempt to define and categorize the political views, income distribution, educational levels, support to charities, community involvement, etc., etc. of the non-religious in order to better understand the behaviors of this godless group. 

The first order of business that needs accomplishing is to understand what the Nones are and what they are not – it is in no way, shape or form a homogenous grouping.  Possibly the only single common denominator shared is that they do not identify with Christianity, Islam, or any other large world religion.

The make-up of Nones, while nowhere near as diverse as the number of Protestant sects, is still wide-ranging, and is only partially made up of the traditional usual suspects – atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and skeptics.  It also includes desists, theists, secularists, spiritualists, humanists, and flippant pagans.  Buddhists, another 6 percent of the world population can, and should, be included in these numbers as well which would elevate Nones to an aggregate whole just behind Christianity worldwide. 

Atheists, as a subset of the non-religious, are a relatively small group comprised of by best estimates to only account for 10% of the Nones.  This may have to do more with the negative connotation associated with the label “Atheist,” as most agnostics in reality are atheist as well, just on a different part of the belief scale.  Theist discrimination likely plays a large role in avoidance of self-describing as atheist – especially when surveys indicate most American’s hold atheists in similar esteem as rapists.

Studies on non-believers have only recently began to emerge in force, largely due to the fact that in years past the data was viewed as inconclusive based on the small population or data sets.  Some clear traits of atheists can be extrapolated based on education and income:

Consider the Human Development Report (2004), commissioned by The United Nations Development Program. This report ranks 177 nations on a “Human Development Index,” which measures societal health through a weighing of such indicators as life expectancy at birth, adult literacy rate, per capita income, and educational attainment. According to the 2004 Report, the five highest ranked nations in terms of total human development were Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands. All five of these countries are characterized by notably high degrees of organic atheism. Of the top 25 nations ranked on the “Human Development Index,” all but one (Ireland) are top ranking non-belief nations, containing very highest percentages of organic atheism. Conversely, of those countries ranked at the bottom of the “Human Development Index” — the bottom 50 — all are countries lacking statistically significant percentages of atheism.  

Higher education is positively correlated with atheism, agnosticism, and secularity.  For example, 42 percent of Americans claiming to have ‘‘no religion’’, 32 percent of American atheists, and 42 percent of American agnostics have graduated from college – all higher than the percentage of college graduates in the general American adult population, which is 27 percent. Attending college as well as graduate school – and having an ‘‘intellectual orientation’’ – are also significant predictors of who will reject or abandon their religion at some point in their life. Furthering the link between education ⁄ intellectualism and secularity, recent studies have found that secular people score markedly higher on tests of verbal ability and verbal sophistication when compared religious people, and secular people also score markedly higher on indicators of scientific proficiency than religious people. And Larson and Witham found that among the members of the United States National Academy of Sciences, only 7 percent claimed to believe in a personal God and only 8 percent believed in immortality, and Ecklund and Scheitle report that professors at America’s top universities are far more likely to be atheists than the general American population.

Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions, Phil Zuckerman (paraphrased)

Worth noting: the highest levels of non-religious in America are found in the West and in the North East.  Compare the following graphics:  

The least religious states in the US in Blue – Source:  Pew Forum on Religion
The most educated states in the US in pink – Source:  US Census Bureau

It should be noted that an outlier on religion/education is Mormonism – which as a group is both highly educated and religious.  Source

This is not meant to characterize Christians as undereducated or ignorant masses, but it is clear that the more educated a person becomes, the chances that that person will leave religion increases.  The Pew graphic above also includes belief in a “Universal Spirit” qualifier along with God, in essence bloating the number of “believers” to include deists, spiritualists, and others that would not count among Christians; however, the correlation is there – the higher level of education attained is related, even if indirectly, with non-belief in a traditional sense of a Christian god.  Additionally, studies on educational levels and the impact on income earnings abound, so it is reasonable to assume that higher educated atheists have a correspondingly high income level.

Again, this is not to suggest that there are not millions of highly educated Christians with lofty incomes in this country – this is simply a means looking at characteristics of the atheist population, both in America and in the world.

In Mexico, the Catholic News Agency reported in 2008 that: “while most Mexicans remain Catholic, the fastest growing group in the country is atheists.  In a recent report, the Institute said the number of atheists grows annually by 5.2%, while the number of Catholics grows by 1.7%.”  The report found that Mexicans “are increasingly more involved in the new religious movements that are gaining ground in the ambit of the faith, mainly in rural zones, poor urban areas and indigenous communities,” the report indicates.  “These faithful are characterized by two things: high rates of illiteracy and low income.”  Source

Another fairly common trait found among atheists is their resistance to group-think.  In fact, the very trait that allows for the rejection of religious dogma tends to also inhibit their ability to coalesce around a common purpose.

“One problem of atheism research is that we simply can’t agree on a unified terminology,” notes Kosmin. “Every researcher thinks he is Linnaeus [the father of modern taxonomy] and invents his own labels.”  Then he tells of a meeting of secular groups last year in Washington. They were planning a big demonstration. “But they couldn’t even agree on a motto,” he says. “It was like herding cats, straight out of a Monty Python sketch.” In the end, the march was called off. Link

Atheism, agnosticism, and general non-belief do not appear to have the same power to unite a group to a general goal such as Evangelical Christians – at least politically.  While many non-believers are generally repulsed by the I Love Jesus More Than You Republican Party, that doesn’t preclude them from being conservative on matters of fiscal policy, or being single-issue voters on the wide range of policy concerns.

Unlike religious sectarian counterparts, the label “atheist” departs no additional meaning beyond non-belief.  If a person identifies themselves as Catholic, or Baptist, or Pentecostal – the label alone conveys certain information about that person, based on their beliefs and practices.  One can assume that based on their religious beliefs they are anti-abortion, conservative in their political outlook, spend time volunteering with their church, etc.  Of course, these assumptions are based on stereotypes and when informed otherwise, it is always met with surprise.  The labels for the non-believer serve little other purpose other than a tactic acknowledgement of a lack of belief.

As a forerunner to the expected multitudes of atheist studies that will come in the future, Jesse Smith’s “Becoming an Atheist” offers exceptional insight to what it is to become an atheist in terms of the sociological identity aspect. 

Claiming an atheist identity vocally and using the label had important implications for respondents. Different factors impelled participants to “come out of the closet.” Having “known” and thought of themselves as atheists for a period of time, the desire to claim the identity grew stronger as they interacted with theists and sought to dissociate themselves from religion …. These atheists thought of themselves as such before they applied the label in the presence of others. Unlike some stigmatized and marginalized identities, atheism is not something that is readily apparent to others, or that has physical or even social indicators. ….

Further, on some level declaring an atheist identity is similar to the coming out process gays experience. That is, though difficult in the beginning, for some, publicly adopting the label and coming out as an atheist was an important step toward a new self-concept and a feeling of independence and empowerment. And like the social stigma faced by those who adopt a marginalized sexual identity … claiming their atheism not only influenced their self-concepts, but shaped their future interactions. …

Moreover, the atheist does not step into a “ready-made” identity, with a specific and definable set of roles or behaviors attached to it. To contrast, a religious identity is usually comprised of discernable social behaviors, (e.g. worship, adherence to dietary codes, tithing, professing belief in specific doctrines) which become the indicators, and to some extent, the content of the identity. Such is generally absent among atheists … Important parts of this construction process include appealing to science, committing one’s self to a secular value-system and articulating and justifying a moral sense of self …

In the United States, theism is not only the starting point for any religious identity; its pervasiveness is also what drives atheism.

In closing, although the non-religious continue to be self-isolated non-conformists, I put forward the notion that America’s future as a country where religious freedom can flourish is indelibly tied to the prospect of atheists and Nones banding together as a political force in order to preserve the secular nature of government intended by this nation’s forefathers.  However, in order to do so, as Susan Jacoby recently wrote, “American atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious.

Since the 1980s, the far right, especially the religious right, has been masterful at taking control of public language in a way that always places secularism and secular liberalism on the defensive. First, the anti-abortion crusaders seized the brilliant label “pro-life” to characterize anyone who supported legal abortion as “anti-life.” The women’s movement adopted “pro-choice” as an alternative but was never entirely successful at marketing the label, as evinced by the current efforts of those fighting abortion restrictions to characterize themselves as “the real pro-lifers.” Once you start trying to appropriate the meaning of your opponents’ already twisted labels, you’re already halfway to losing whatever battle you’re fighting.  Second, the right has made a pejorative out of both intellectualism and liberalism, often equating both with godless secularism. 
There is another related, equally important task for the secular movement today. We must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religious right, which loves to portray atheists as bloodless, “professorial” (the word always applied to Obama) devotees of abstract scientific principles that have nothing to do with real human lives.
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6 Responses to The Rise of the Nones

  1. Anonymous says:

    I'd be interested to know whether this shift is a move away from the infrastructure that is dogma and the like that makes up religion. I would hazard a guess that a high percentage of Nones actually are still highly spiritual but have realised that religions are easily co-opted by human frailties and infallibilities and as a consequnce individually probably don't require the institution itself anymore. In a sense we could have a seismic shift to a more "Gnostic" view of spirtuality where the kingdom is found within and not solely dependent on without as many religions forced peoples to believe. The "Gnostic" view in itself also lends itself to self realisation and awareness for illumination which can be far more powerful in many ways than what "without" provides. After all this "Gnostic" view point is really what the core of each of the monothestic religions essentially were at their inception. Whether we talk about the Sufis of Islam or the Essene Gnostic christian set of Jesus what we have today is really the non spirtual human made instituionalised dogma aspect of what religion started as.

  2. Sean Asbury says:

    I think it is the combination of a variety of factors. Obviously megachurches enjoy great popularity, but even they are experiencing a drop in attendance, probably more so to do with the lack of personal connection enjoyed in smaller churches. I wouldn't go as far as to say that this growing group of the irreligious are homogenous in any sense. Many believe in a god or higher power. Many would still consider themselves spiritual.Your view of Gnosticism is interesting. I explored the Gnostic gospels on my journey of leaving Christianity. The Gospel of Thomas was an interesting read as well. When taken in conjunction with the biblical texts, I became convinced of the existence of Jesus, but equally convinced he was nothing more than a man – spiritual, god-fearing, a leader of sorts, but one of many of his time…

    • Blanche Quizno says:

      Sean, the megachurches are simply consolidating smaller churches’ congregations. No religion is growing by converting adults to their faith – educated adults seem immune to religious conversion. The much-hoped-for “revival” of Christianity across the US and Western Europe is not going to happen. For every 1000 churches that starts up, 4000 close their doors forever – and that’s from a Christian source! Banks and finance companies are foreclosing on churches in record numbers, and even megachurches are leapfrogging across the countryside, leaving a trail of market-challenged real estate in their wake. It’s just a recategorizing of the Christians that are already out there, and they are graying and dying. The young people who enjoy the big churches’ youth programs while they’re in high school disappear once they reach age 18 – and they don’t come back.

      The Millennial generation, born ca. 1980 – ca. 2005, is the biggest on record – 77+ million strong, compared to the Baby Boom’s 75+ millions. And it is this demographic, the Millennials, that you are LEAST likely to find in any church. The writing is on the wall.

  3. Anonymous says:

    @ SeanYes the Gnostic Gospels are indeed interesting.If you want more info on the practical aspects (rather than historical) of Sufism, Gnosticism & Rosicrucianism (all streams and variations on the same thing) I recommend the following books -*Start Now!: A Book of Soul and Spiritual Exercises by Rudolf Steiner. *The Sufis by Idries Shah.Enjoy!

  4. Blanche Quizno says:

    I’m afraid we’re essentially juggling with bones here. Know where your figures come from, Sean? If you look into it, I think you’ll find that, regardless of the source you used, the figures are coming straight from the World Christian Encyclopedia, whose Evangelical Christian editors know which side their bread is buttered on and will make sure Christianity comes out on top, even if that means ignoring China! Also, they limit people to a single religion, so if you’re an atheist Buddhist who belongs to a Unitarian Universalist fellowship (which I was for a year or so), you can only choose one. That means the other two will be undercounted! The WCE also overestimates the numbers of Christians in China, by a factor of about 2, while ignoring the fact that the population of China is mostly Daoist-Buddhist-Confucian, all at the same time. Those don’t get counted, of course. If the numbers were being tallied honestly, we’d probably see Buddhism in first place.

    THEN there’s the issue of the funny membership numbers. The only way these religions are keeping their numbers up is by counting their members’ newborns as full-fledged members from the moment they pop out, and then keeping them on their books until they die, regardless of what they do as adults. Mormons keep all THEIR members on their books until their 110th birthdays (some sources say 120th), “just in case they come back.” Yeah, right. You can force them to take your personal information out of their records, but you have to demand it through a letter and possibly threaten legal action. The Mormons, for example, claim, what, 6 million? But their active membership is only about 10% of that number. And while Christians claim to regularly attend church, to the tune of around 40%, when the information is gathered a different way, we find less than 20% actually attending church, even when the amount of times is just 3 Sundays out of the past 8!

    So the world’s large religions are in much bigger trouble than these numbers reveal, and Christianity’s actually in desperate straits. But since Christians are in charge of providing the membership numbers for all religions to the world, they can put whatever numbers they like, and most likely no one will question! Isn’t it great?? In fact, the CIA’s World Factbook cites WCE figures!

  5. Blanche Quizno says:

    Without coercion, Christianity will not survive. Throughout its long history, the Church has relied upon force to maintain its power and ubiquity in the areas it controlled. Here in the US, the first Puritan towns forced everyone to attend church, having the police go house to house and drag anyone they found to services. Even after the Revolutionary War, the church remained the center of social life in small towns – unless you belonged, you were ostracized. That’s defacto coercion.

    But within the last 60+ years, urbanization has increased. Now, more people live in urban areas than small towns – this is an absolutely new development in human history. And in an urban area, one has many, MANY different opportunities for socializing! One might go to a sportsbar to watch the big game and make friends there; one might join Rotary or Elks or Lions, all social clubs that cater mostly to men; one might join a book club through the library, or patronize the local pub, or join the model train association, or whatever! Now, people can choose how and where they will socialize.

    Plus, Christianity continues to splinter, shattering into ever more, smaller sects, sects which can’t even provide an impressive venue for their meetings. Only the most zealous and fanatical will find a shabby office space in an industrial area refreshing and uplifting. Don’t ever overlook the “mini-vacation” aspect of church – where people can, for an hour or two, go somewhere quite different from their home/work environments, relax in beautiful surroundings, and know that it is *THEIRS*. Without coercion, churches cannot control enough wealth to provide such settings, and thus, their market share diminishes. And Christianity is in steep decline – free fall, actually.

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