Are We Approaching the End of the Secular Surge?
The Nones are still growing, but there are signs that could change
One of the defining demographic trends of the past several decades has been the rise of the “Nones,” also known as the religiously unaffiliated. The General Social Survey (GSS), which has measured national religious identity since the early 1970s, first identified the spike in nonreligious affiliation starting in the mid-1990s. In recent years, there have been no signs that this trend is slowing down.
However, a recent exchange with Ryan Burge, author of The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, piqued my interest about whether the rate of secular identity may be leveling off. Burge’s analysis shows that younger adults are no longer less religious than the immediately previous cohort. This plateau would suggest that the rate of unaffiliated growth will slow.
This is not the only evidence that suggests the explosive growth of the Nones over the previous two decades may be slowing down. In 2020, PRRI found that fewer Americans identified as unaffiliated (23 percent) than the year before. Gallup, which has also been tracking religious affiliation for years, shows a leveling off of unaffiliated Americans in 2017. Gallup’s most recent estimate of the religiously unaffiliated is 21 percent.
But this is where things get complicated. Two of the most reliable sources of religion data tell a very different story. The most recent release of the GSS revealed a massive increase in the unaffiliated population. The 2021 GSS shows unaffiliated Americans at 29 percent of the adult population. While it’s worth noting that the GSS has faced significant data collection issues in the past year, the Pew Research Center has also shown a pronounced surge in unaffiliated identity over the past few years: Today, Pew also has the unaffiliated group at 29 percent.
So how many Americans are actually religiously unaffiliated? The true size of this group most likely lies somewhere between 21 percent and 29 percent. Yikes. So, where does this leave us?
Well, we can be confident about a few things. First, it’s unlikely that the unaffiliated population has reached its peak. Younger adults are still far less religious compared to older adults. And the generational divide is larger today than it was a few decades earlier. In 2021, Gallup showed a significant generation gap in religious identity. More than one in three (35 percent) young adults are unaffiliated compared to only about one in ten (11 percent) seniors. As long as younger adults continue to identify as less religious than older Americans, we should still see the number of unaffiliated Americans tick up due to generational replacement: less religious people aging in and more religious people aging out.
But that’s only the case if people do not return to religion as they get older. At one time, it was largely assumed that disaffiliation was a temporary experience — that when people age, they return to religion. But there is little evidence for this. A few years back, Amelia Thomson-Deveaux and I wrote about the fact that Millennials were not coming back to religion even as they were settling down, getting married, and having children. We noted a couple of reasons why:
“For one thing, many millennials never had strong ties to religion to begin with, which means they were less likely to develop habits or associations that make it easier to return to a religious community.
Young adults are also increasingly likely to have a spouse who is nonreligious, which may help reinforce their secular worldview.
Changing views about the relationship between morality and religion also appear to have convinced many young parents that religious institutions are simply irrelevant or unnecessary for their children.”
Predicting the future of religion is difficult. Catching an acceleration or deceleration of a trend is even more complicated because it’s possible that we’re capturing some amount of noise in the data. A few years back, Pew predicted that it would take four decades for the unaffiliated to reach 26 percent. But, according to Pew’s own polling, we passed that milestone several years ago. There’s a lot that goes into making these predictions—differential birth rates, patterns of disaffiliation and reaffiliation, death rates, etc. Get any one of them wrong and the prediction is going to miss the mark. Unforeseen events, such as a global pandemic, can throw off these estimates as well.
The good news is that we now have access to more research than ever before about patterns of religious belief, identity, and practice. No one survey can provide the definitive answer, but together they move us closer to understanding where we’re headed. Putting my own cards on the table, at the Survey Center on American Life we generally find about one-quarter of the public is religiously unaffiliated, placing us somewhere in the middle of the range. In the near term, I would predict continued growth in secular identity, and while that may not be a satisfactory answer, we may have to be content with that for now.
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