Explaining the rise of the Nones

Are best-sellers by the New Atheist likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens responsible for the rise of the Nones? Noting that this is a common belief in the atheist community, my RNS colleague Chris Stedman posed that question yesterday to Phil Zuckerman, whose new book, Living the Secular is based on interviews with non-religious men and women across the country. Zuckerman, who directs the Secular Studies program at Pitzer College, took an agnostic position: “It is almost impossible to know if aggressive mocking of religion actually does any good, or has much of a societal impact.”

The answer, I’d say, is more like “No,” and for a pretty simple reason. The rise of the Nones — Americans who say they have no religion — began in the 1990s, years before the New Atheism appeared on the scene.

The first study to register the rise was the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), which found that the proportion of adults who answered “none” to the question “What is your religion, if any?” had increased 42 percent in the previous decade — to 14.1 percent from 8.2 percent in 1990. But that finding was little noticed at the time the survey was released, just two months after the 9/11 attacks. Then, what understandably drew the most attention was the doubling of the Muslim population. The last thing on anyone’s mind was religious decline.

The first new Atheist books — Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism — weren’t published until 2004. They were followed by Michel Onfrey’s The Atheist Manifesto (2005), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006), Victor Stenger’s God: the Failed Hypothesis (2007), and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great (2007). And let us not omit to mention Bill Maher’s 2008 feature film Religulous.

What’s telling is that despite this explosion of anti-religious propaganda, and the attendant publicity that led to its identification as “The New Atheism,” the Nones rose barely at all between 2001 and 2008 — by less than one point, to 15 percent, according to the 2008 ARIS. What the New Atheism did, however, was establish the public narrative for that result. In 2009, ARIS’ discovery of the rise of the Nones was all over the media: Secularism was taking over America!

Since then, in fact, the Nones began another marked rise, to 20 percent or so over the past five years. Certainly, it can be argued that, in addition to setting the terms for a new story about religion in America, the New Atheism has provided them with an ideology that has helped fuel their recent growth.

But many Nones are believers of one sort or another who do not consider themselves anti-religious. And there has always been a significant portion of the American population that is simply indifferent to religion. My guess is that the single most important important factor in the new growth of the Nones has been the establishment of “Nones” as an available demographic category.

Don’t belong to a religious institution and don’t care to? Now, instead of reaching back to whichever one you were brought up in, you can simply say, “None.”