The Rise of the "Nones"

Why more Americans are leaving religion

Posted Dec 10, 2014

Scott Renfro headed off to Iraq a Bible-believing Christian. Raised as a good Southern Baptist in eastern Texas, the son of a county sheriff and a school librarian, he rested deeply in the comfort of his religious faith as he began his sojourn as a soldier. But in due time, that faith faded. He returned home from the war an atheist.

“We were assigned to escort fuel trucks from the city of Mosul up to the Turkish border and back. Convoy operations. The route we went out on was getting hit pretty hard, and a bunch of soldiers on that same route had recently gotten killed – it was pretty terrible. Anyway, before we went out on our missions, the chaplain would come in and say a prayer. And this one morning, he said something that really put it into perspective for me. It made me say to myself: ‘OK, this doesn’t make any sense.’ This chaplain said that the reason my unit hadn’t had any serious losses yet was because God was protecting us. And I couldn’t think of a worse thing to say. I just sat there thinking, ‘Well, what about those four guys in that other unit – and I knew two of them – who got killed just yesterday morning? Where was God then?’ That’s when it really just clicked for me. I was really bothered by it. I got on to facebook that night and I contacted my youth minister back in Texas and I said, ‘Hey, I am having doubts. I don’t think I believe this anymore. What should I do?’ He couldn’t say anything that helped. We exchanged a few messages back and forth and nothing he said convinced me at all. I knew that was that. I didn’t believe anymore.”

While the details of Scott’s journey from religious to secular are relatively unique, the general shift itself is not. In fact, Scott’s story is but one example of a much larger trend currently sweeping across America: the rise of irreligion.

Back in the 1950s, less than 5% of Americans were non-religious. In the 1990s, that was up to 8%. Then it jumped up to 14% in 2001, 16% in 2010, 19% in 2013, and according to the latest national surveys -- such as Pew and WIN-Gallup -- it is now up to somewhere between 20% and 30%  today. And among Scott’s demographic specifically – those Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 -- over 30% now claim to be non-religious. These are quite simply the highest rates of secularity this nation has ever seen.

Of course, not all Americans who say they are non-religious are atheist or agnostic. But according to the American Religious Identification Survey, somewhere between 30% and 50% are; and around 75% of those in Scott’s generation are. Thus, the rise of irreligiosity in America is also a rise of atheism and agnosticism, as well.

Upon his return from the war in Iraq, Scott decided to earn a bachelor’s degree at a large state college. Within his first few weeks there, he couldn’t help but notice the heavy Christian culture on campus, and all the religious clubs in the central quad, proselytizing and organizing various activities. Feeling somewhat alienated as a new non-believer, and lacking a college community of his own, he decided to start up a club for secular students. He expected to get only a handful of members; this was Texas, after all. But within a couple of months he had nearly 150 students signed up.

The success of Scott’s secular campus group is also not unusual; many such secular campus groups are popping up these days. For example, back in 2003, there were only 42 college campus groups associated with the Secular Student Alliance (a national umbrella organization), but today, there are affiliated groups at over 365 campuses nationwide.

What is causing this recent growth of irreligion? A variety of factors are working simultaneously: a backlash against the religious right (many Americans are rejecting the identity of “Christian” because they don’t want to be associated with the likes of Ann Coulter, Michelle Bachman, or Phil Robertson), a backlash against the pedophile priests scandal within the Catholic church (many American Catholics have become ex-Catholics as the extent of the criminal activities have become widely publicized), a result of more women working outside of the home and functioning as primary household breadwinners (women tend to be the purveyors of religion in most homes, and so when they go off to work in significant numbers, religion starts to fade), the delaying of marriage and having of children (both life cycle events are correlated with increased religious involvement, so as they are postponed, religiosity suffers), the popularity of numerous television shows that are flippantly critical of religion (think Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, “South Park,” “Family Guy,” “House,” etc.) and finally, the ubiquity of the internet (no single technology so clearly increases individualism, and individualism and secularization go hand in hand).

A hundred years ago, Scott Renfro would probably have been written off as nothing more than a village atheist – an anti-social, unpatriotic curmudgeon. But today, he can’t be dismissed so readily. He loves his country, he’s no curmudgeon, and he’s far from alone in his lack of faith and disinterest in religion. Scott is actually part of a surging swath of tens of millions of Americans -- a member of the only “religious” group growing in all fifty states: those who happily live their lives without.