The evolution of religion and the rise of the nones

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The decline of Christianity in the United States does not mean that “religion” is dead or dying. News of the death of religion may excite humanists, but it is unlikely to go extinct. Religion is an adaptable social phenomenon. Religious beliefs and behaviors have always evolved. In a free country, this evolution will continue.

Secularism and the rise of the nones

The Pew Center released a recent report predicting the continuing decline of Christianity in the United States. This corresponds with a prediction about the rise of the “nones”—the folks who say “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation. The rise of the nones has been widely discussed. Phil Zuckerman has been talking about it for over a decade. So have I.

The new Pew report is an important reminder of how religious liberty works, as I argued recently. In a secular society, people are free to switch religions. Our shifting religious demography is a sign of our freedom.

There is no uniform story about switching here. Some will move from one congregation to another within a given tradition. Some may change from one faith to another. But the majority of those who are switching seem to be switching out of, without switching into, another faith tradition. The nones are moving away from specific religious traditions and ending up unaffiliated. Another way of describing these folks is to speak of them as “the unchurched.”

The Pew Center shows that during the past 50 years, the nones grew from 5% in 1972 to around 30% today. They predict that if trends remain the same, in fifty years, 41% of the population will be nones.

The increase of the unchurched is coming at the expense of Christianity. Pew reports that in 1972, 90% of Americans identified as Christian. But today only 64% of Americans are Christian. If the rate of changes stays the same, Pew predicts that the Christian population will be 46% in 2070. That means that Christianity will no longer be the majority religion in the U.S.

The nones are not all atheists

Atheists and humanists may celebrate this result. But before the atheists pop the champagne, let’s make sure we do not over-interpret this data. This does not mean that atheism or humanism will grow as fast as we might think.

Most of the nones are not atheists or agnostics. The recent Pew report did not predict the growth of atheism. But Pew has published information on atheism and agnostic in a related report from 2021. In 2021, 4% described themselves as atheists and 5% said they were agnostic. But another 20% said “nothing in particular.”

Now it might be that “nothing in particular” is a way station on the path to atheism. Perhaps those who say “nothing in particular” are afraid to admit they are atheists. I know my own journey to atheism worked that way. At one point, I stopped believing. But I was reluctant to embrace the term atheism. It took a while, and a bit of courage, to come out of the religious closet, so to speak. So, there may be some nones who keep moving along a similar trajectory and end up as atheists.

Spirituality and religiosity

But among the nones, there are those who are called “spiritual but not religious.” These folks don’t understand their spiritual identity in terms of any specific faith. Pew has also been tracking these kinds of people. In a 2017 report, they say that 27% of Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This category is fuzzy. So, we want to be careful about over analyzing things here.

But we can imagine what this might mean. The spiritual but not religious folks are people who believe in some higher power and some spiritual notion of the soul. They may celebrate religious holidays. They may even pray and practice some rituals. But they do it on their own, apart from any organization, authority, or set of official dogma.

I suspect that the growth of the nones will include the growth of the “spiritual but not religious” folks. Our culture is awash in unchurched spirituality that is idiosyncratic and syncretic—and not easily categorized as part of any given tradition. As an example, we might consider the growth of yoga.

One reason to suspect the persistence of spirituality and religion broadly construed is that this is an important part of human culture and psychology. Authors such as Dan Dennett, Robert Bellah, and Nicholas Wade suggested that there were social, psychological, and evolutionary pressures at work in the creation of religion. Spirituality is psychologically satisfying. And religious organization serves social purposes.

History of the evolution of religion

It is likely that spirituality and religion will persist as part of a basic human need for meaning and structure. But, and here is the exciting part of the story, religion will change. The history of the evolution of religion shows that there has always been ongoing evolution. Religions are born, mature, and evolve in response to social and psychological pressures. It is likely that religion will continue to evolve in this way.

The contrarian Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong made a similar claim in a book published over 20 years ago, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. His point was that the old myths no longer make sense to the present generation. A religion that does not evolve and adapt will soon go extinct.

History shows us that religion has always adapted. Christianity developed as a response to the Judaism of the Roman empire. Islam appeared later as Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and others mingled on the periphery of the Roman and Byzantine world. In the United States, new religions appeared as Christianity evolved to become Mormonism, Christian Science, and other offshoots. A similar story can be told about the evolution of Buddhism out of Hinduism. And so on.  

Celebrating the freedom to create religious meaning

The rapid shift we are witnessing in terms of religious affiliation and identity is a time of foment and transformation. These are exciting times for those who study religion. And while I might prefer that more people would embrace humanism, I know this is unlikely.

For my part, I want to make sure that religious liberty remains fundamental. And so long as we are free to think, innovate, and experiment with religion and spirituality, I’m content to watch the evolution of religion, as Americans use their liberty to explore what it means to be human.