The rise of the 'nones' or 'nons'

by Maureen Fiedler

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If someone asked you to name the largest religious group in the United States today, what would you say? Catholics? Mainline Protestants? Evangelicals?

If you named any of these, you would be wrong. According to the latest poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, those who claim no affiliation with a religious body make up the largest "religious" group in the United States. They are at 25 percent today, and growing rapidly.

(A pronunciation note: people who speak the word "nones" pronounce as if it were "nuns," which drives me whoopee. At a recent conference of religion journalists, I stood up and suggested that we need to find a new word, or at least a new pronunciation. So I call them "nons" – not "nones" – from this point forward.)

But the most startling finding this study is the reason the vast majority of today's nons give for not affiliating with any religious body; 60 percent say they simply don't believe anymore.  

This does not bode well for a "return to the flock." In fact, the authors of the study say they are "unlikely to come back."

Because this is such a significant trend, we did a couple interviews about it for Interfaith Voices. We talked to Robby Jones of PRRI about the study itself, and Katherine Ozment who is herself a non. Then we aired a brief "dinner party" in which some youthful nons were seeking a type of non-religious ritual, in this case to deal with grief. (When you look into this phenomenon, it is fascinating to see that many groups of nons are developing "secular liturgies" to deal with marriage, children, death and just life in general.)

When I read the findings of the PRRI study, I realized that a large portion of these "nons" are ex-Catholics, and so I asked Robby Jones if the sex abuse scandal had anything to do with this. His answer: minimally. It was the same with policies toward LGBT people: minimal influence. The real reason ex-Catholic nons are nons, is like most nons: they simply don't believe anymore.

The Catholic church is the religion with the greatest percentage loss of membership with this trend: -10.3 percent. The closest group when it comes to loss of followers is white mainline Protestantism with a 4.5 percent loss.

Moreover, this PRRI survey divides these non-believers into three groups: Rejectionists (about 58 percent of the nons) who really believe that religion generally does more harm than good, Apatheists (22 percent) who say religion is not their thing but it's more helpful than harmful for society, and "unattached believers" (18 percent) who say religion is important to them, but have not found a religious home of any kind.

As a whole, this is a politically progressive group. In early August when this survey was taken, nons were 62-21 percent for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, with 12 percent favoring a third party (either Libertarian or Green Party). But the nons have a civic participation problem: they are much less likely to vote than religiously affiliated citizens.

All my instincts say that we are undergoing a profound shift away from religion in the United States today. It's a trend that demands our ongoing attention and analyses.

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