Growing Numbers of Americans with No Religious Affiliation
In 1972, only 1 in 20 Americans had no religious affiliation. They were primarily atheists and demographically young, white, and liberal. The prediction that atheism would follow modernity in the West simply didn’t hold true for the United States. The sexual revolution of the 60s, the anxiety of the 70s, and even the greed of the 80s created no change in the uptick of atheists and agnostics. The religious Nones remained an obscure and somewhat overlooked group.
But in the early 1990s something significant began to happen. The connection between American identity and faith snapped, and religious non-affiliation in the US started to rise, and rise, and rise again. In only 30 years, the number of Americans with no religious affiliation moved from 5% to nearly 30%!
In only 30 years, the number of Americans with no religious affiliation moved from 5% to nearly 30%!
The General Social Survey (GSS) puts the number of Nones at 23.7% and the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES), a survey with a much larger sample size, has the number as 31.3% of the population. Keep in mind these figures are prior to COVID-19, the tumultuous election of 2020, and the continued culture war that seems to be ripping our country apart at the seams. The graph above is clear: religious disaffiliation began to snowball in the 90s. But why? What was it about the 90s that might help us better understand the religiously disaffiliated?
What Happened in the 1990s?
I spent most of the 90s in high school and college and remember the decade well. It began with the fall of the Soviet Union, continued with the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, and was a time of economic prosperity and relative peace. It was a decade that gave us a vibrant pop culture and a few iconic television shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Fresh Prince, The X-Files, and The Simpsons.
Musically, the 90s introduced us to grunge, industrial rock, alternative, EDM, and was indisputably the golden age of hip-hop. It was a decade of Sony Discmans, Palm Pilots, and Play Stations. Technology was advancing, the internet was born, and by the end of the decade the search engine Google was founded. I am proud to be a member of Generation X.
But it was also a decade of disruption, and the axis on which religious disaffiliation began to snowball. Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, wrote a fascinating book titled The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going. The book tries to interpret the most recent data on religious affiliation. He writes, “One thing that fascinates me is how fast [the Nones] are growing. It is just incomprehensible. Change is glacial for most religious groups, but the Nones are growing a point or two every two years. You just don’t see that with other groups.”1
There are three important trends that began in the 90s and help explain the rise in religious disaffiliation. They may also provide a roadmap for future innovation as we grapple with the massive changes in our culture and society.
1. Political Division
The first and perhaps primary cause of religious disaffiliation in the 1990’s is politics. Burge is even more adamant. He writes, “The best and clearest explanation for the rapid rate of religious disaffiliation can be traced back to the recent political history of the United States.” Disaffiliation began occurring in the 90s almost entirely among people who placed themselves on the left side of the political spectrum. This was not always the case, and the chart below shows the exponential increase.
In 1991, there was only a five-point gap between liberals and conservatives who considered themselves religiously unaffiliated. By 2000 that gap had grown by ten percentage points as 23% of liberals considered themselves religiously unaffiliated. Today the number stands at a whopping 40%!
Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, interprets this shift as a reaction to the Moral Majority movement founded in 1979 and continuing throughout the 1980’s. Smith writes, “The marriage between the religious and political right… disgusted liberal Democrats, especially those with weak connections to the Church. It also shocked the conscience of moderates, who preferred a wide berth between their faith and their politics.”2
The Christian right’s powerful role in conservative politics… pushed many marginal believers to disaffiliate with religion as their political alliances became stronger than their faith commitments.
Smith said it’s possible that young liberals and loosely affiliated Christians first registered their aversion to the Christian right in the early 1990s, after a decade of observing its powerful role in conservative politics. This pattern pushed many marginal believers to disaffiliate with religion as their political alliances became stronger than their faith commitments. If the Republican party was branded as the “Christian” party, then many Democrats would begin to see themselves as a different kind of religion.
In my neighborhood I’ve seen a growing trend of yard signs that begin with the words, “In this house we believe…” and continue with political talking points that amount to nothing less than a religious creed. Following the polarizing election of 2020, the trend of politics becoming a new religion shows few signs of slowing.
2. Postmodern Confusion
Postmodernism is a second cause of religious disaffiliation that began to take root in the 1990s. The movement has mutated over the years. The first phase of postmodernism was the period from 1965-1985 when French scholars and philosophers began the process of deconstructing the world around them. The deconstructive phase of postmodernism burned out in the mid-1980s and out of its ashes came a new mission to apply postmodern principles to reconstruct a much different world unshackled from its previous foundation.
The theories that emerged out of this second phase of postmodernism began to take root in the 90s and embedded principles of postmodernism in American colleges and universities, eventually trickling out into the general public. The trickle has now become a flood. In their book Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay unpack a few of the major principles of the movement.3
First, there is a blurring of boundaries that disrupts categories by making things appear fluid, ambiguous, and indefinable. This is most clearly seen in queer theory and the confusion of sexual ethics and identity in our culture. Second is an obsession with language, as words are seen as powerful and dangerous. This has redefined words like love, justice, and equality, and introduced us to safe spaces, microaggressions, trigger warnings, and what we now know as “cancel culture.” Finally, there is a growing cultural relativism where any viewpoint offered from a position of power is dismissed as oppressive.
The applied postmodernism that began in the 90s is only gaining momentum and seeks to undermine any overarching metanarrative, including the exclusive claims of Christianity. This philosophy has created an incredible challenge for the Church as it quickly dismisses its prophetic voice as merely oppressive and seeks to redefine morality.
3. Internet Consumption
Politics have created division, postmodernism has created confusion, and the internet has served to amplify both. I remember my freshman year of college walking across campus to the library to access the internet. The year was 1995 and Netscape Navigator was the browser of choice with close to 10 million users. Home internet was virtually non-existent at the time, and I still remember the sound of the computer connecting online a few years later.
However, by the year 2000 nearly 50% of households had home internet; shortly thereafter, nearly every household in America had a personal computer and access to the World Wide Web. In 2007, Apple released its iPhone, a technology that would soon change the social fabric of our society.
The advent of the internet, especially tied to smart phones, has created a narcissistic, self-obsessed consumerism that seems difficult to break.
With these new technologies that were introduced in the 90s, information that was previously transmitted through family, community, and the local church was now accessible online. Today the internet provides an onslaught of 24/7 news cycles, open access to pornography, waves of on-demand entertainment, and mind-numbing distractions with apps and social media. The advent of the internet, especially tied to smart phones, has created a narcissistic, self-obsessed consumerism that seems difficult to break.
Nothing in Particulars
The rise of the Nones correlates closely with the introduction of these three major themes of the 90s (political division, postmodern confusion, internet consumption), but it’s important to understand that the Nones are by no means a monolithic group. The CCES survey puts the number of Nones at 31.3% and they are often subdivided into three primary groups: (1) atheist, (2) agnostic, and (3) nothing in particular.
Atheists make up about 5% of the US population. Studies have shown that in the last ten years the percentage of atheists that have switched affiliation to Christianity is less than 0.7%. This doesn’t mean we should abandon outreach to this group, but it does mean that the likelihood of immediate fruit is slim. A slightly larger number of agnostics make up about 6% of the US population. While atheists are very difficult to convert, agnostics aren’t much better. Only 3.6% have switched affiliation in the past decade.
The third group of religiously unaffiliated are often referred to as “Nothing in Particulars.” They come in at a whopping 20% of the US population and are by far the fastest-growing mission field in the United States. The 2020 census revealed that there are now 258 million adults over the age of 18 living in the United States and 51 million of them identify as “nothing in particular.”4 They are also markedly different from atheists and agnostics.
Nothing in Particulars don’t want to be associated with Christianity or the church. They aren’t seeking answers from the established church. While most aren’t hostile to the claims of Christianity, they prefer to keep their distance for the many reasons listed in the article above. Most view the church as too political and don’t understand the need for the gospel; others simply don’t care.
If you want to reach the Nones, your best efforts ought to be aimed toward the Nothing in Particulars. They’re persuadable, but are also living in the confluence of political division, postmodern confusion, and internet consumption.
According to Burge, the Nothing in Particulars are more open than other groups when it comes to exploring the Christian faith. He writes, “The data indicates that one in six of them will move back toward the Christian tradition over a four-year period.” The point being, if you want to reach the Nones, your best efforts ought to be aimed toward the Nothing in Particulars. They’re persuadable, but are also living in the confluence of political division, postmodern confusion, and internet consumption.
The triple threat of division, confusion, and consumerism has always been with the human race, but it escalated and took on a unique role in the 1990s. The division became primarily political; the confusion a direct result of the influence of postmodernism; and the consumerism tied to the internet and smart phones. This brings us to a final question.
With a new understanding of our largest mission field, how can the church innovate to reach the 50 million Americans who consider themselves “nothing in particular”?
In future articles, we will attempt to provide a few examples, testimonies, and stories from a few of the most innovative new churches and ministries that are tackling this very question. Our world is changing, and while there will always be new problems to solve, we serve an innovative God.
- Statistics in this article (unless otherwise noted) are from the book by Ryan Burge, The Nones: Where they Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going (Fortress Press, 2021).
- Helen Pluckrose and Lindsay, James, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (Pitchstone Publishing, 2020).