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Posts Tagged ‘nones’

In 2002, then-Berkeley (now-NYU) sociologist Michael Hout and I published a paper pointing out a new trend in Americans’ religious identity: A rapidly increasing proportion of survey respondents answered “no religion” when asked questions such as “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” In the 1991 General Social Survey, about 7 percent answered no religion and in the 2000 GSS, 14 percent did.* We explained the trend this way:

the increase was not connected to a loss of religious piety, [but] it was connected to politics. In the 1990s many people who had weak attachments to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion.

If that is what religion is, most of the “Nones” seemed to be saying, count me out.

In the years since, the trend has continued, Nones reaching 20 percent in the 2012 GSS. And a good deal of research has also accumulated on the topic (some of it reported in an earlier post). Notably, Robert Putnam and David Campbell refined our argument in their 2010 book, American Grace, pointing more sharply to lifestyle issues as the triggers for Americans declaring no religious identity.

Mike and I have just published a paper in Sociological Science updating the trend over an additional dozen years, applying new methods to the trend, and retesting explanations for the rise in Nones. We – actually it’s 90 percent Mike’s work – find that our earlier account stands up even more strongly.

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In 2002, Mike Hout and I identified a new trend in Americans’ relationship with religion. Around 1990, the percentage of respondents to the General Social Survey (GSS) who, when asked their “religious preference,” picked the “no religion” option starting rising, doubling from about 7 percent, where it had been for many years, to 14 percent by 2000.

That finding and our efforts to explain it stirred interest among scholars and leaders of American religion. A few weeks ago, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life convened a briefing session for journalists on what we know about these “nones” now, a decade after that report. Pew brought together researchers to discuss what the trends look like in three different national surveys – the GSS, the Gallup Poll, and the Pew survey itself.

Although the methodologies of the three survey organizations differ (the GSS is the only one using in-home interviews) and the questions about religion that they use vary, there was nonetheless strong agreement on key points: By 2012, the percentage claiming no religion was between 18 and 20; the substantial increase in “nones” does not necessarily represent a decrease in Americans’ religiosity; and the trend in “nones” seems to be really about the act of declaring no religious preference.

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