Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

FFRF hails survey showing rise of ‘Nones’

Vol. 38 No. 07 September 2021
Religion chart 1                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is celebrating findings that show a shrinking white Christian majority and a stable percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s “2020 Census of American Religion” documents that white Christians, previously a supermajority, have declined by nearly a third in the last few decades, from 65 percent in 1996 to a low of 43 percent in 2017. Today, white Christians comprise 44 percent of the population.

The number of “Nones,” those with no religious affiliation, has tripled since the 1990s, to comprise 23 percent of the U.S. population in 2020. “The increase in proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans has occurred across all age groups but has been most pronounced among young Americans,” the report states.

Ryan Burge, a researcher from Eastern Illinois University, said that Generation Z, those born after 1996, are “the least religious generation we’ve had in American history.”

“At the same time, the rate of disaffiliation is continuing,” he continues. “However, Gen Z has a long way to go before they all show up in the data. It will be eight more years until the youngest members of this cohort reach adulthood.”

The “Nones” have made substantial inroads in all sectors. One in five Black Americans and one in five Hispanic Americans today is religiously unaffiliated. More than a third of multiracial Americans are religiously unaffiliated, as are 28 percent of Native Americans. Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander Americans are overall the most likely to be religiously unaffiliated, at 34 percent.

Burge says the age factor will only increase the number of Nones in the future.

“Consider this: every day in America, hundreds of people from the Silent Generation (19 percent Nones) and the Boomers (25 percent Nones) die off and are replaced by members of Generation Z (45 percent Nones) having their 18th birthday,” writes Burge. “This, by itself, will make the United States much less religious in 2030 than it was in 2020.”

A majority of white Americans still identify as Christian, breaking down as 50 percent Protestant, 23 percent evangelical, 27 percent mainline Protestant and 19 percent Catholic. Jews are at 2 percent and Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or other religions make up less than 1 percent of the white U.S. population. 

Seventy-two percent of Black Americans, three-quarters of Hispanic Americans, 34 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans and 60 percent of Native Americans identify as Christian.

“This groundbreaking study shows how important it is that we ‘Nones’ must flex our collective muscle, through our ballots and our lobbying presence, to ensure that our government and courts know we are here,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “White Protestant evangelicals represent only 14 percent of the population, yet their views, which are often Christian nationalist, are so disproportionately represented in Congress, statehouses and on court benches.”

Survey stats

• Over the last few decades, the proportion of the U.S. population that is white Christian has declined by nearly one-third. As recently as 1996, nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) identified as white and Christian. By 2006, that had declined to 54 percent, and by 2017 it was down to 43 percent.

• Since 2006, white evangelical Protestants have experienced the most precipitous drop in affiliation, shrinking from 23 percent of Americans in 2006 to 14 percent in 2020. 

• Only 16 percent of Americans reported being religiously unaffiliated in 2007; this proportion rose to 19 percent by 2012, and then gained roughly a percentage point each year from 2012 to 2017. The proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans hit a high point of 26 percent in 2018 but has since slightly declined, to 23 percent in 2020.

• Americans ages 18–29 are the most religiously diverse age group. More than one-third of young Americans (36 percent) are religiously unaffiliated.

• White evangelical Protestants are the oldest religious group in the U.S., with a median age of 56, compared to the median age in the country of 47. Religiously unaffiliated people are among the youngest median age at 38, just behind Muslims (33), Buddhists (36) and Hindus (36). 

• Both major political parties are majority Christian, with 83 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats identifying as Christian. Two-thirds of Republicans (68 percent) identify as white and Christian, compared to 39 percent of Democrats

• The share of religiously unaffiliated people among Republicans has increased dramatically. In 2006, just 4 percent of Republicans identified as unaffiliated. That proportion more than doubled to 10 percent in 2013 and continued to grow to 13 percent in 2020.

• The share of unaffiliated Democrats also more than doubled between 2006 (9 percent) and 2013 (22 percent). From 2013 to 2018 (28 percent), the share of unaffiliated Democrats grew slightly each year, before dropping to 23 percent in 2020. 

Religious diversity

The religious diversity index is calculated so that a score of 1 signifies complete diversity — every religious group is of equal size — and a score of 0 indicates a complete lack of diversity and one religious group comprises the entire population of a given county.

The average religious diversity score by county in the U.S. is 0.625.

Religious diversity is highest in urban areas. The five highest religious diversity scores are:

Kings County, N.Y. (0.897)

Queens County, N.Y. (0.896)

Montgomery County, Md. (0.880)

Navajo County, Ariz. (0.876)

Santa Clara County, Calif. (0.876)

Religious diversity is lowest in the southern part of the U.S. and in rural areas. The lowest diversity scores among counties with more than 10,000 residents are:

Noxubee County, Mississippi (0.228)

Panola County, Mississippi (0.281)

Conecuh County, Alabama (0.283)

Amite County, Mississippi (0.284)

Marion County, Mississippi (0.284)

Religiously unaffiliated Americans are spread throughout the country but are most concentrated in the West and the Northeast. The five highest concentrations of religiously unaffiliated Americans in counties with greater than 10,000 residents are (by percentage):

San Juan County, Wash. (49)

Multnomah County, Ore. (48)

Glacier County, Mont. (45)

Humboldt County, Calif. (45)

Tompkins County, N.Y. (45)

Nearly four in ten (39 percent) religiously unaffiliated Americans live in urban areas, 44 percent live in suburban areas, and 17 percent live in rural areas.