Unbelief is on the uptick. People who check “None” for their religious affiliation are now nearly one in five Americans (19%), the highest ever documented, according to the Pew Center for the People and the Press.
The rapid rise of Nones — including atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe “nothing in particular” — defies the usually glacial rate of change in spiritual identity.
How high the Nones numbers might go depends on demographics, says Mark Chaves, professor of Sociology, Religion and Divinity at Duke University, an expert on the General Social Survey.
Two forces could hold Nones’ numbers down. First, they are disproportionately young, often single, and highly educated — all groups with a low birth rate. Second, the number of believers who immigrate to the USA from particularly religious nations, such as Catholics from Mexico, fluctuates with government policies and economic issues, Chaves says.
But the chief way the category grows is by “switchers.” A 2009 Pew Forum look at “switching” found more than 10% of American adults became Nones after growing up within a religious group.
Chaves says there’s another dimension to the unbelief trend worth watching.
“Americans famously say they believe in some variation of God. Over 90% do,” Chaves says. “But it used to be 99% decades ago. The change is slow, but we can see it coming.”
The last paragraph is of particular interest. It is one thing to declare no religious affiliation. It is quite another to say that you don’t believe in a God.