None of the Above: Who Are They?


BOB ABERNETHY: Welcome, I’m Bob Abernethy. It’s good to have you with us as we begin today a new three-part series we call “None of the Above.” It’s about the fast-rising number of people in this country who say they have no affiliation with any particular religion. According to a new survey released this week by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in partnership with this program, that number is now the highest it’s ever been in any previous Pew polling.

When pollsters ask whether people are Baptist or Catholic or Jewish or some other religious tradition, more and more people say, in effect, “None of the Above.” So they have come to be called the Nones.

We wanted to know who these Nones are, why they are unaffiliated, and what that says about the future of American religious life. Greg Smith is a senior researcher at Pew’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Greg Smith, Pew Forum on Religion and Public LifeGREG SMITH (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life): Today in 2012 almost one in five American adults, 20 percent, describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. That equates to about 46 million adults in the United States, so this is a big, growing, important group in American society. To see its continued growth at this kind of rapid rate has been very striking.

ABERNETHY: Striking indeed. In the early 1990s just under 10 percent were unaffiliated. Since then that number has doubled. About 13 million are atheists and agnostics. Thirty-three million more describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” By education and income and other common measurements, the Nones are very much like Americans as a whole. Except for age.

SMITH: About one-third of all American adults under the age of 30 describe themselves as either atheists or agnostics or say they just don’t have any particular religion. And that large number is a big part of what’s driving the overall growth in this population.

ABERNETHY: Being unaffiliated means not being a member. It does not mean being a nonbeliever or being hostile to religion. Indeed, many Nones have kind words for places of worship.

SMITH: They say that religious organizations are effective in providing help to the poor and to the needy. They say religious organizations do a good job of helping bring communities together.

ABERNETHY: Two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they believe in God, or a universal spirit. More than a third, 37 percent, call themselves spiritual but not religious. About one in five say they pray every day, and the same number say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. With all that religiosity, then, why do 46 million Americans say they are unaffiliated with any religious organization?

SMITH: They tend to be much more likely than the public as a whole, for example, to say that religion and religious organizations are too focused on rules, too concerned with things like money and power, too focused on politics.

ABERNETHY: We spoke with several young Nones, among them Rachel Mariman, a junior in college who was raised in a very religious home. But during her senior year in high school, she says, she turned away from all religion.

Rachel MarimanRACHEL MARIMAN: My church was actually pretty good, but I sort of just had issues with religion in general. Young people are becoming increasingly willing to tolerate people who are different. To tolerate different sexual orientation, different religion, different ethnic background, whatever. We don’t want to be told that we can’t accept gay marriage or that we can’t support birth control or abortion. You can still be moral and you can still be a good person without being religious.

ABERNETHY: Twenty-seven-year-old Kellen McClure describes himself as very spiritual. He believes in God and visits churches, but not for their worship services.

KELLEN MCCLURE: I don’t necessarily feel like I need to be guided through my relationship with, you know, the higher power or whatever you will call it. I feel like it’s a very personal relationship and I don’t necessarily need to be sitting in a church to experience that relationship. So that’s why I’ve never really been drawn to attending services regularly.

ABERNETHY: Instead, Kellen meditates, here in a basilica.

MCCLURE: Being spiritual to me means reflecting that maybe I’m not just a biological creature. It means that there’s something else and that something else could be a higher power, and it’s that something else that connects us to each other.

(praying): Thank you very much for everything that we have.

ABERNETHY: Kellen says he gives thanks daily.

MCCLURE: Every day my girlfriend and I sit down to dinner. I am insistent that we say a grace, and that grace is not necessarily a religious grace. It’s just a moment that we can both sit there and reflect on how lucky we are.

ABERNETHY: Kellen also said one reason he does not go to church often is that Sunday mornings are his only times to rest.

MCCLURE: We live very hectic lives. I work. I go to school. It leaves a very short amount of time to do things on my own free time.

ABERNETHY: Among religious leaders and social scientists, there are lots of theories about why there are so many Nones. Some say many people don’t want to join anything, religious or otherwise. Some think there’s a general softening in religious belief and commitment. Many of the Nones say they want no part of the conservative politics some churches embrace. Others say society in general has become much more tolerant of non-believers, so it’s easier than it used to be for some people to acknowledge publicly what they have long been in private, to come out of the atheist or agnostic closet.

But we spoke with a nonbeliever, Lauren Anderson Youngblood, who thinks discrimination against atheists has by no means stopped.

LAUREN ANDERSON YOUNGBLOOD: My mother taught us not to tell people that we didn’t have a belief in God because she feared persecution, and many atheists today are fearful of coming out because of that discrimination, and because of the fact that they very well may lose friends or family members, they may be shunned.

ABERNETHY: Many people of faith may be troubled by the findings in our survey. For instance, three-quarters of all the Nones say they were raised in religious homes. Very few of them say they are seeking a church that is right for them; they seem quite content to remain unaffiliated. Indeed, for people in any age group, the percentage of unaffiliated when they are young remains the same as they get old.

MCCLURE: I think that if I have children I think that’s the same thing that I would like to teach them is that religion is important, being spiritual is important. What’s not as important is to join and to go every week.

ABERNETHY: However people interpret our survey, Greg Smith insists the results are snapshots, not predictors.

SMITH: While the number of religiously unaffiliated people is growing, it’s also true that the vast majority of Americans continue to be affiliated with a religion and that’s even true of young people. If one-third of young people are unaffiliated it means that two-thirds of them do continue to identify themselves as members of a religious faith.

ABERNETHY: And if 20 percent of all adults say they are religiously unaffiliated, that means 80 percent are still connected.

  • Bill Orpheum

    Groups promoting the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot are showing declines as well… I wonder what they all have in common?

  • Virginia

    I’m perhaps the opposite of the Nones. I’m a member of two churches and sometimes attend another but I’m leaning toward atheism. I like to say that I’m not religious but I like to hang out in churches. I find that people in (liberal) churches are more likely to share my values than strictly secular people.

  • Frances Brewer

    Add me to the none of the above list.

  • Keith

    I would definitely fall into your “None of the Above” category. I would best be described as Agnostic. I feel most of my reasons are explained in this video of Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining his own beliefs:

  • Felix

    I think that many people find a sense of community and the freedom to explore their own thoughts about religion and God on the internet without the pressure of conforming to a set of dogma as would be the case if they affiliated with an organized religion.
    Also, they are allowed to be critical of religion at times without being shunned. Good people or people who seek community with others with similar values and open mindedness can do it without the strict control of a few who somehow claim to be Gods earthly shepherds. They can express and share their views with more anonymity. This prevents someone trying to tell them how to think or what is acceptable to God when these people are often no more inspired nor is their behavior any more acceptable to God than their own.

  • Dona Lynette Stewart

    True Religion, is not attending Church, or reading a Bible, necessarily, It is in doing, the Good Samaritan, visiting the widow, and orphan. These are guidelines, for us to approximate, the definition of charity, witness, and love. The desire is to have God design good works for us, and guide our journey through this world, to continue to make our lives personally meaningful to God.

  • Humanist

    This is good news. Some people are seeing the fact that all religions and all religious books were/are created by people, mostly men and that there is no evidence that God exists. So, be good and do good until you die.

  • Jane

    Doing good without religion keeps man as the center of the universe.It’s called self-glorification. We become self-appointed judges and if we are endowed with greater intellect than others, we call ourselves superior and allow ourselves the right to control others.
    Relgious awareness is to understand that the universe is infinite. We were born into the world which was not created by us. We adapt. We die. The fact that God presence was revealed to humanity and God’s desire to elevate humanity to a greater dignity means that there is a higher reality and a fuller human dignity to be had which is a gift given freely. Nothing is free, I hear you say. So then, what is the cost for accepting that free gift? The cost is sacrificing our selfishness. Ah such a high price to pay.
    What does “going to church weekly ” mean for those going to church weekly???
    It means deepening a spiritual life IN ORDER to perceive the real needs of the human condition and addressing them in those suffering right here in our own communities.
    Being spiritual is a human capacity. But it NEEDS a community to be developed in its relational aspect deeply. Life is dynamic, not static. To remain static is for spirituality to die.

    Rely on the Sciencific facts: Abortion is a medical procedure which removes nascent life.
    Medical procedures have always been determined to restore life. Abortion does the opposite.
    Abortion conflicts human reason because we are being socially controlled to repel the natural process of scientific knowledge of natural law.

  • Nancy D.

    I’m glad to see this issue being covered. I’m an ”out” Atheist and parent, and raising my kids w/secular beliefs. I think the reason almost a 1/4 of Americans are ”none” is b/c they’ve experienced discrimination in the church, either sexism (as in my case) or homophobia, (in my friend’s case). I personally have no use for religion/god(s)(goddesses) and can live my life ”morally” w/o subscribing to any religious doctrine.

  • Ashley H.

    The article as well as the comments were very interesting to read. I would like to pose a question to the None of the Above commentators who are obviously moral people: Where do you feel you developed your sense of morality from?

    Also Nancy D. I can understand why you would gravitate and teach your children secular beliefs. Being discriminated against in religion is very down-heartening and does not bring dignity to the person(s) that are victims.

    However, have you experienced those types of discrimination you mentioned in all religions? or just a few?

  • James G.

    I run into the comment “I don’t have a religion, I have a personal relationship with God” and this puzzles me on how they think this is not a religion in itself. I’ve also learned about morals and ethics, and found morals can be shifty depending on information, popularity and approval while ethics has a basic litmus test of outcome of benefit or harm, and I would think we should weigh our actions both to ourselves as well as others and evaluate whether our beliefs and behavior are harmful, hurtful or neutral. On another note, I like music as a way to experience sacred space, time and fellowship with others as it transcends understanding and usually brings smiles and dancing, something people should do more (I guess that’s my moral)

  • Ashley H.

    @ James G.

    “I’ve also learned about morals and ethics, and found morals can be shifty depending on information, popularity and approval while ethics has a basic litmus test of outcome of benefit or harm, and I would think we should weigh our actions both to ourselves as well as others and evaluate whether our beliefs and behavior are harmful, hurtful or neutral.”

    —–This statement was a very good way of possibly gaining insight as to why so many people do say “I don’t have a religion”.

    People know they are made to worship or give higher honor to something. Some get frustrated in trying to find out who or what. Others get sidetracked because of personal ambitions. Some are disgruntled over the behavior of religious teachers who say one thing but live another. And frankly, you have some who are just lazy :)

    I liked the point where you said to evaluate our own actions. It is always important for us to do self-examination especially when it comes to religion and what we choose as our preference.

    However, you have to have a standard to compare the end results of your self-examination with because the Bible does admit that our hearts are “treacherous”. So that old advice ” follow your heart” is really kind of not good advice. Our figurative heart will overrule sound judgement every time if we let it.

    The original standard of worship that was set in place when we were created should be the golden standard so to speak. How do you feel about that?

  • Bruce Robinson

    I have a suggestion on the terminology used to refer to the “none of the above.”

    “Nones” is quite a reasonable abbreviation in written form, but is a disaster when spoken. “Nones” sounds identical to “nuns” with often comical results.

    At we use the acronym “nota.”

    This can stand for “None Of The Above.”

    It can also stand for “NOT Affiliated.”

    If we can all make the transition from “NONES” to “NOTAS” now, then we can save a pile of pain in the future.

    Bruce Robinson

  • Janet Potter

    When I take those surveys I must check “None of the above ” yet I do belong to an organized religion. I am an active member of the Baha’i Faith yet there is no section to put it down.

  • Kimberlee

    The problem is not the teachings given by the major prophets or messengers from which the major world religions have been founded. These prophets/messengers were as educators for the human race and their beautiful teachings reflect the golden rule and call people to lead ethical and peaceful lives. What happened to make “religion” a bad word to so many, was primarily the man-made doctrine and dogma that developed after the passing of the founders, and the less than perfect way in which their followers understood and practiced the teachings.

  • Hilda

    I grew up in evangelical protestant churches – ironically, listening to Dr. Dobson of Focus on the Family years ago on the radio about understanding scripture, I began understanding it as I hadn’t before and I realized I didn’t need anyone else to interpret God’s Word for me. I also realized that while I am a strong believer, I no longer agreed with “them” on social and political issues as well. The overriding reason for not attending church for me has been my personal experience with clergy sexual abuse. Like the Catholic Church, it was ignored and covered up.

  • Kimberlee

    And you may even find you will still be able to be good and do good AFTER you die! Wouldn’t that be a fun surprise, like icing on the cake?…:))))