Nones, Atheists, and Sectarian Protestants—Winners and Losers in the 21st Century

2006-2014 General Social Survey

2006-2014 General Social Survey

The punditocracy is all a flutter about the latest non-scientific poll by Pew which found many things based on the 10% of targeted respondents (liberally defined) who bothered to respond. It’s sickening that Pew gets all the press when Mike Hout and Tom Smith at NORC did a very nice summary of GSS religion findings from an actual scientific poll.

One thing that people have been pondering, because they failed to read my book, Changing Faith , is how the rejection of religious identification matters for the religious character of the nation. Particularly, does this mean that America is becoming more secular? The OTHER problem with Pew is that at critical junctures they conflate identification with religious organizations with religious beliefs. That is a huge shortcoming for anyone trying to make sense of believing and belonging, because many people who do not believe, nonetheless belong. And, many people who do believe, do not belong. I address this at length in Changing Faith and am updating those findings to the 2014 data.

Still, above you can see REAL estimates (0r the best we have) from 2014 on the proportion of Americans who reject religious identification, and how that has increased over time (from 16% in 2006 to 21% in 2014). A similar trend is found for rejecting belief in a god (combining atheists, agnostic, and people who “believe in a higher power but not a god”)–with more than one in five Americans rejecting belief in a god. A more strict definition limited to atheism and agnosticism shows an increase from about 7% to 9% between 2006 and 2014—and about 7% of 2014 GSS respondents are atheists or agnostics who also reject religious identification (“nones”).  If we broaden that to non-theists, nearly 13% of Americans are nones who don’t believe in a god.

The growth of nones and atheists and atheists nones is mirrored by a decline in sectarian protestant identification—which decreases from nearly 25% in 2006 to under 20% in 2014. If we take out the non-whites, because they are not real Americans, the proportion of Americans who are white sectarian protestants falls from about 16% to about 13%—so non-theist “nones” are as prevalent as white sectarian protestants. Just for shits and giggles, I note that mainline Protestants are not in the freefall claimed by Pew and others—their proportions decreased from about 19% to just under 17%—and Catholic proportions fluctuate randomly around 23%. White sectarian Protestants are a minority of American Christians, and they are in decline.


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