You may remember a 2015 Pew report that was advertised as bad news for traditional Christianity. The report helped popularize a now-famous phrase: the “rise of the nones.” It showed a big increase in the number of Americans who identify with no religion at all. Since 2007 alone, the ranks of these “nones” grew from 16% of America to almost 23% today.
That makes “unaffiliated” the second largest of all religious groups — just behind Evangelical Protestants, just ahead of Catholics, and well ahead of mainline Protestants and all other faiths. A huge sea change, right?
Late last year, the well-known religion scholar Rodney Stark released a new book titled The Triumph of Faith. As you can guess from the title, he doesn’t agree with the conclusion that many are drawing from the Pew paper. But he doesn’t directly dispute the “rise of the nones” thesis.
Instead, Stark combines that result with another, seemingly contrary trend. He notes that over the same years when the number of officially “unaffiliated” Americans swelled, church attendance did not significantly drop. Furthermore, the percentage of self-declared atheists did not seem to increase. What can explain this paradox?
Stark solves the puzzle by arguing that almost all of the new “nones” were Americans who already weren’t attending church much — they just held on to religious labels. As the broader culture around them secularized, the social pressures that once urged nominal believers to self-identify with faiths they didn’t practice were worn away. So, by Stark’s logic, the dramatic Pew report and the “rise of the nones” actually tells a duller story: people who really weren’t religious just stopped telling pollsters they were religious.
If Stark is right, the recent “rise of the nones” may not imply anywhere near the cataclysmic collapse in the American practice of Christianity as has often been claimed.
Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)