the shape of leadership

Five Things You Need to Know About “Nones”

Understanding this growing demographic

Hannah Quick on May 25, 2018

Nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated, present a unique ministry challenge for the American Church. To connect with this group, it is critical to understand who they are and what distinguishes them from those claiming a religious affiliation. Below are five key things you need to know about today’s “nones.”

1. Globally They Are Declining, Though Increasing in the U.S. and Europe

In the U.S. and Europe, most of the growth in religious “nones” is coming from “religious switching” rather than large numbers of people growing up in an unaffiliated family, Pew Research Center indicates.

Pew notes that in the U.S., four people raised in a religious background have become “nones” for every person raised in an unaffiliated background who became religious. In fact, only 21 percent of “nones” grew up in a religiously unaffiliated household.

Globally, however, researchers expect lower fertility rates among the unaffiliated to outweigh the growth of “nones” from religious switching. Mothers who identify as “nones” give birth to an average of 0.8 fewer children than religiously affiliated mothers.

In the Asia-Pacific region, which currently has the world’s largest “nones” population, the “nones” mortality rate is expected to exceed the “nones” birth rate by 2030. Pew estimates that by 2060, “nones” will make up only 13 percent of the global population, down from their 16 percent share of humanity in 2015.

2. They Are Primarily Young White Men

Pew found that while the number of “nones” has increased across all ethnic groups, the vast majority — 68 percent — are white.

In addition, 27 percent of men, but only 19 percent of women, identify as “nones,” meaning that males account for 59 percent of the religiously unaffiliated. “Nones” are also overwhelmingly young. In 2014, the median age among adult “nones” was 36.

Comparatively, the median age among Christians was 49, and the median age among the American adult population as a whole was 46.

From 2007-14, the number of people who describe themselves as “nones” increased most sharply among older millennials (born 1981-89), with a jump from 25 to 34 percent. While the study did not show the 2007 affiliations of younger millennials, (who would have been 11 to 17 in 2007), “nones” now comprise 36 percent of this demographic.

Only 21 percent of “nones” grew up in a religiously unaffiliated household.

Older generations show both a smaller overall percentage of “nones” and a smaller increase in “nones” from 2007-14. During that time, the share of “nones” grew in Generation X from 19 to 23 percent, in Baby Boomers from 14 to 17 percent, and from 9 to 11 percent among those born in 1945 or earlier.

3. They Lean Left Politically

A 2016 Pew study found that the religiously unaffiliated account for more than a quarter (28 percent) of registered voters who are Democrats or Democrat-leaning. These Democrats and Democratic leaners comprise a significant majority (63 percent) of all “nones.”

This political preference culturally separates “nones” from many Christians, especially evangelicals, who tend to be more conservative. “Nones” are also more likely than the general public to say the church is too involved in politics.

4. Many Would Describe Themselves as Spiritual

According to Pew, 68 percent of the religiously unaffiliated say they believe in God, nearly a third (30 percent) say that religion is “somewhat” or “very” important in their lives, and 21 percent report that they pray daily. Further, many “nones” have positive views of religious organizations, with more than three-quarters saying they believe religious organizations can strengthen communities.

However, the attitudes of “nones” toward churches and religious groups are not uniformly positive. They are more likely than the overall public to say religious organizations are “too focused on rules,” and nearly 4 in 10 (37 percent) say they are “spiritual,” but not “religious.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the “none” category is gaining traction more rapidly among those with lower levels of religious commitment (defined in the study based on self-assessment of commitment, certainty in God, and frequency of prayer and church attendance).

In 2014, the unaffiliated made up 72 percent of those with “low” religious commitment, a quarter of those with “medium” commitment, and a mere 5 percent of “high” commitment people (respectively, a 9, 5, and 1 percent increase over 2007).

5. They Increasingly Live with a Partner Outside of Marriage

Although “nones” have increased across all categories of marital status, the most dramatic rise is among those who live with a non-married partner.

Between 2007-14, the percentage of unmarried people living with a partner who identify as “nones” grew from 26 to 35 percent. By contrast, the percentage of married people who identify as unaffiliated grew only 4 percent (from 14 to 18) in the same period.

“Nones” are culturally and demographically distinct from both the Church and the American population as a whole. Recognizing and understanding those differences can help your church build more effective strategies for reaching this growing demographic with the message of the gospel.


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