The nation’s religious composition – as revealed in a recent presentation by Luis Lugo of the Pew Research Center – is changing. In 2012, America ceased to be a majority Protestant country – the result, mainly, of a decline in the numbers of mainline Protestants (though there have been smaller losses among white evangelicals as well). Catholicism is holding its own with a stable 22 percent of the public, but its ethnic composition has shifted dramatically – about half of all Catholics under 40 are Latino.
One group, however, has swelled: those with no religious affiliation, also known as “nones” (as in “none of the above”). In the 1950s, this was about 2 percent of the population. In the 1970s, it was about 7 percent. Today, it is close to 20 percent. These gains can be found in all regions of the country, including the South. The trend is particularly pronounced among whites, among the young and among men.
Not all the nones, it is worth pointing out, are secular. Only about 30 percent of this group – 6 percent of the public – are atheists or agnostics. The rest of the nones describe themselves as indifferent to religion or as “nothing in particular.” Sixty-four percent of the nones, however, say they believe in God or a universal spirit with “absolute certainty.” Even 9 percent of atheists and agnostics – defying both dogma and the dictionary – report themselves absolutely convinced of God’s existence. About equal proportions of the religiously unaffiliated (19 percent) and the affiliated (18 percent) report having “seen or been in the presence of a ghost.”
So the nones are united, not by reading Richard Dawkins or by any particular set of theological beliefs but by a complete lack of attachment to institutional religion.