American Nones Left Religion Because They “Stopped Believing,” Study Finds

October 6, 2016
American Nones Left Religion Because They “Stopped Believing,” Study Finds

While the rise of America’s non-religiously affiliated population has been the topic of speculation for several years, a study released last month offers further insight into the reasons Americans leave religion.

After conducting a survey of 2,201 adults, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) distributed their findings in a publication called “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back.”

Among the PRRI’s most significant discoveries was the breakdown of defectors across religious traditions. Americans raised Catholic are by far the most likely to leave their tradition—while nearly one-third of all Americans are raised in the Catholic tradition, only 21 percent of Americans currently identify as practicing Catholics. While non-white Protestant (1.6 percent) and non-Christian traditions (0.2 percent) are experiencing modest gains in membership, by far the fastest-growing affiliation group is the non-religious, which has a net gain of 15 percent.

A second key finding was the survey’s insight into why Americans leave the church. While religious leaders have speculated that everything from the style of their service to their theology are driving members away, 60 percent of respondents indicated that they had simply “stopped believing” in their religion’s teachings.

Secondary reasons many Americans reported leaving their childhood tradition included their family never having been “that religious” (32 percent) and their tradition’s “negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people” (29 percent). Women were twice as likely as men to identify negative teachings about LGBT people  (40 percent versus 20 percent) and clergy sexual abuse scandals (26 percent versus 13 percent) as motivating factors in their disaffiliation.

The PRRI also attempted to differentiate between “types” of religiously unaffiliated Americans. “Rejectionists,” or those who say religion is “not personally important in their lives and believe religion as a whole does more harm than good in society,” accounted for 58 percent of unaffiliated Americans. “Apatheists,” who “say religion is not personally important to them, but believe it generally is more socially helpful than harmful,” were the second largest group at 22 percent of the unaffiliated. The smallest group was the 18 percent of nones deemed “unattached believers,” who “say religion is important to them personally.”

For professor of religion Elizabeth Drescher, the nones’ rejection of religious beliefs suggests that religious institutions need to reevaluate how they attempt to reach drifting members.

“The way religious education and formation is set up in mainline and Catholic churches parallels high school,” Drescher told Religion News Service. “Once you graduate from it, you got it. You know, don’t be a jerk, do unto others, and nones just kind of get bored with it and move on.”

In Religion Dispatches, author Kaya Oakes wrote that religious traditions err by pushing outdated moral agendas on young people while ignoring the social justice work to which many millennials are committed.

“Some emerging religious leaders…offer a new understanding of morality that is intrinsically linked with social justice, which might appeal to religiously unaffiliated people seeking a greater meaning in these troubling times. But more often than not, what religion is offering looks deeply unappealing,” Oakes said.
“Hokey ‘young adult’ ministries, clunky social media, static notions about gender, deeply skewed perceptions of sexuality, out-of-touch clergy with political axes to grind, and little to no evidence of religion as a meaningful presence in their daily lives do nothing to lure back those who have left.”

While the religiously unaffiliated now account for 25 percent of the adult population in America, the PRRI’s study suggests that they are not yet a powerful voting bloc. In the 2012 presidential election, “nones” comprised 20 percent of the public but only 12 percent of voters, while white evangelical Protestants made up 20 percent of the public and 26 percent of voters.

For those unaffiliated adult who will make it to the ballot box, 62 percent expressed their “strong preference” for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Only 21 percent of religiously unaffiliated adults indicated a preference for Republican candidate Donald Trump.

--by Caroline Matas

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