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Last week, NPR had a week-long series considering a recent Pew Forum survey of the religious character of the younger generations. While there is much hand-wrangling over the issue amongst our churches, this series probed deeply into the questions raised and tried to assess the reasons and thoughts of these “Nones.” I urge you to listen as you have opportunity.

Series link: Losing Our Religion : NPR

1: Losing Our Religion: The Growth Of The ‘Nones’ : The Two-Way : NPR.

2: More Young People Are Moving Away From Religion, But Why? : NPR. (part 1)

3: After Tragedy, Nonbelievers Find Other Ways To Cope : NPR.

4: On Religion, Some Young People Show Both Doubt And Respect : NPR. (part 2)

5: Making Marriage Work When Only One Spouse Believes In God : NPR.

6: As Social Issues Drive Young From Church, Leaders Try To Keep Them : The Two-Way : NPR.

In October, the Pew Research Center released a study, ‘Nones’ on the Rise, that takes a closer look at the 46 million people who answered none to the religion question in 2012. According to Pew, one-fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation, a trend that has for years been on the rise. (A more recent Gallup poll shows the uptick in religious nones slowed a bit from 2011 to 2012.)

Percentage Reporting

Source: Gallup; Credit: Matt Stiles/NPR

In a nutshell, the group:

  • comprises atheists and agnostics as well as those who ally themselves with “nothing in particular”
  • includes many who say they are spiritual or religious in some way and pray every day
  • overwhelmingly says they are not looking to find an organized religion that would be right for them
  • is socially liberal, with three-quarters favoring same-sex marriage and legal abortion

Perhaps most striking is that one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation. When comparing this with previous generations under 30, there’s a new wrinkle, says Greg Smith, a senior research at Pew.

Percentage Reporting No Religious Affiliation, By Age

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press; Credit: Matt Stiles/NPR

“Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell,” Smith tells NPR Morning Edition co-host David Greene. “This really is something new.”

But why?

According to Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who writes about religion, this young generation has been distancing itself from community institutions and from institutions in general.

“They’re the same people who are also not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club,” Putnam tells Greene. “I don’t mean to be casting that as a critique of them, but this same younger generation is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were.”

The trend, Putnam says, is borne out of rebellion of sorts.

“It begins to jump at around 1990,” he says. “These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”

And the rise of the nones has had a significant political impact. As NPR’s Liz Halloran detailed last month, the voting nones helped give President Obama a second-term victory and have become, as Smith says in the story, a “very important, politically consequential group.” Halloran writes:

The religiously unaffiliated voters are almost as strongly Democratic as white evangelicals are Republican, polls show.

Percentage Reporting No Religious Affiliation, By Gender

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press; Credit: Matt Stiles/NPR

So far, the trend has not translated to more nones in Congress, according to Pew. Only one member of the new Congress — Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — identifies as a none. Democrat Pete Stark had been Congress’ sole atheist, but he was defeated in November.

Still, religion still rules in America, as Putnam tells Greene.

“Even with these recent changes the American religious commitments are incredibly stronger than in most other advanced countries in the world,” Putnam says. “The average American is slightly more religious than the average Iranian, so we are a very religious country even today.”

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