October 22, 2020

Michael Bell: Taking Another Look at the “No Religion” Data

IM First Officer Michael Bell takes a second look at the “no religion” data in the Pew Forum Studies.

I have received a lot of interest and feedback on my last two posts on InternetMonk, concerning how and when people switch between their childhood religion and their current faith. For those who have not had the opportunity to read them, you can read them here and here.

religiousswitching2The question that I have been asked the most is about historical trends in the data. For example, from the graph that I provided you can see that about 50% of adults who were raised non-religious, subsequently joined a faith group. How has this changed over time? (For the purposes of this posting I am using the word “religious” in the way it has been used historically, that is, someone is religious if they are an adherent to a particular faith tradition.)

Bradley Wright, who teaches Sociology of Religion at the University of Connecticut, was kind enough to pass on a source of data where this was analyzed:

Fischer and Hout, in their recent book “Century of Difference” (2006) used General Social Survey data to analyze historical data about religion and childhood. For the most part, the graphs that they provide match up quite nicely with the chart that I provided. Historically, the outflows from Evangelical and Mainline Protestant church have been pretty constant over the last 100 years. Evangelicals have done a better job at retaining member than Mainline Protestants, and so over time have fared better. Typically about 75% of Evangelical 16 year olds will continue their Evangelical affiliation into adulthood. 25% will switch out, a number that is quite similar to what is seen in my chart. Catholics retention is not as strong as it used to be, but according to the Fischer and Hout data is now similar to that of Evangelicals.

The most striking change was for the non-religious. If you were raised non-religious between 1920 and about 1950 then you were more than 70% likely to join a faith group after the age of 16. This started changing rapidly in the 1960s, and by the time Fischer and Hout collected their data and published their book in 2002, the rate that at which non-religious became religious was down to 25%.

My chart, by nature of it looking at all adults regardless of age, had an averaging effect of younger adults and older adults, so my percentage of outflows from the non-religious was quite a bit higher than the 25% currently being reported by Fischer and Hout. What this means that if we were to somehow update my chart, and look at flows that were happening today, Protestant and Catholic outflows would be very similar to what you see on the chart, but outflows from the non-religious would only be about half as wide as are drawn on the chart.

These numbers should not surprise us. As my wife said to me last night, there is so much more support for the non-religious in school, media, and society in general than there was 50 years ago. It is not surprising that they are now retaining 75% of their adherents. I should also point out the trend in the non-religious retaining their adherents has not slowed. It may already be significantly higher than the 75%.

I hate being a bearer of bad news. I really do. People who know me, know that I am a pretty optimistic kind of guy. I don’t like to see that the non-religious are gaining ground. I have a lot of neighbors and co-workers who are not religious. Most of them do not see any need whatsoever for religion, or faith, or whatever you might want to call it. This is certainly a wake up call that tells me how important it is for me to live a Christ like life, to at least show them, if not tell them, that Jesus Christ is something worth considering.

As usual your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Tertullion says

    Yes, part of this is because there is less discrimination against the irreligious (with Protestants being the main culprits). Of course we still have far to go, with vast regions of the USA still falling under the cultural sway of religious [Mod edit.].

    Another aspect is the rise of religious pluralism, which makes disaffiliation hard to distinguish, socially speaking, from just another spiritual identity.

    It occurs to me that many of the irreligious are probably going through some sort of spiritual search at some point in their lives, but unlike previous generations, turning away from available religious offerings. While Protestants had many of the same scandals going on a century ago, it may be that only now, as societal mores have evolved, that we are able to see them as significant and blameworthy. (Similar to how Catholic scandals have been going on for centuries, and have only now come under broad social condemnation.)

  2. Dear Mr. Bell,

    By the words “No religion” you mean people who do not affiliate themselves with a particular organized faith, right? Because I don’t think it’s so much people no longer having a need for “faith” or spirituality, just that they no longer have a need of organized religion.

    Most people, by that I mean an overwhelmingly large percentage of Americans, still believe in God or some sort spiritual realm of existence; it’s just that their sense of spirituality is mainly individual and relativistic. Everyone has their own religion nowadays, and most are perfectly content with that. “Neopaganism” anyone?

  3. Kudos Mike Bell, and thanks. We had a fellow in church that had never been in a church before in his 33 years of life. No weddings , funeral, nada. He liked the singing, said it made him feel ‘up’ and found the sermon interesting. he had previously thought church was a morbid event.
    Personaly I try not to tie the word ‘religious’ with a faith in Christ, but for the purpose of the study you must.
    Show them, trumps tell them. [ for the Imonk and other good Baptists reading, trump is a card playing term and refers to out ranking].

  4. Willoh:

    Thank you, but myself and other fundamentalists have an extensive background in Rook.


  5. So …. Michael Bell is your Spock? 😉 Couldn’t resist. I’m sure you didn’t mean he was your Fletcher Christian. Besides, with all the numbers and graphs, Spock seems like a good fit.

    I don’t really have much to add. I didn’t and still don’t see anything that surprised me in the data.

    And Jin Woo, that’s a separate question than the one in this post. By and large, the percentage of actual ‘atheists’ (as opposed to agnostic or a more undefined spirituality) does remain fairly low overall. This post was simply illustrating that people raised with no particular religious affiliation don’t tend to acquire one as adults, something that was not true in the earlier decades of the 20th century.

  6. красиво, сделал! Благодарю!!!

  7. An interesting question … I wonder if data would bear out that they have a sense of fulfillment and if so, I wonder what sorts of things they would report as providing that fulfillment.

    I have a friend with whom I have fallen out of touch who was once a Protestant minister, left the faith, and last time I knew (several years ago) was really trying to start a church for atheists. He recognized the need for community and so wanted to have a Sunday gathering for atheists with signing and discussion and teaching.

    At the time … OK, and still … it reminded me of Hazel Motes and his “church without Christ” in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood”

  8. That should be “signing” not “signing” … though I’m sure for the hearing impaired they would have some accommodation as well.

  9. I did it again. Good grief. Could you just edit that out Michael? What has happened to my typing.


  10. I wonder if the non-religious tended to marry into a religion as an adult 50+ years ago. With fewer Americans marrying or staying married, I wonder if that intersection of worlds no longer happens. Perhaps it is one explanation.

    I think the reason that non-religious became religious in the past may not be all that helpful for those hoping to lead them to a saving relationship with Christ today. The cultural role of religion in the past may have had more to do with being a part of the social club of the significant and powerful, and not a guide to ultimate meaning in life. The social clubs of today are definitely among secular organizations (health clubs, golf courses, professional societies, unions, sport bars, political parties, Hollywood).

    Internet social networking may change that. It is amazing how social connections from religious, family, to professional all seem to intersect, inter-act, and blur within facebook.

  11. Very perceptive comments for a dumb ox.

  12. The change in the religiously unaffiliated is interesting and dramatic.

    Any other thoughts as to why the change, in addition to your wife’s suggestion of public change and dumb ox’s suggestion of differences in marriage?

  13. I think that Jin Woo raises an important distinction. Many of the people who don’t affiliate with a religion do believe in God or a higher power. I wonder if the phrase “religiously unaffiliated” would be more accurate, since some of them have strong, personal religious convictions (as opposed to public religious affiliations). Thoughts?

  14. Jin Woo and Brad Wright,

    Here is the break down of the “No Religion”

    It is currently comprised of atheists (1.6% of total adult population), agnostics (2.4%), and those of no particular faith (12.1%). Of those who have no particular faith, roughly half of them (6.3%) would classify themselves as secular, and half (5.8%) would call themselves religious.

  15. Pastor M says

    I still don’t see any acknowledgement of faith development in this. James Fowler’s work in Stages of Faith looks at this. Scott Peck covers it in a helpful way in Further Along the Road Less Traveled. The faith I see referred to here is what Peck would label as “stage two.” When people leave that or move on, they go to “stage three,” which appears to “stage two” people as abandonning the faith. If “stage three” people keep pursuing truth, they will come back to God in what Peck labels “stage four,” where people use the same language and terminology as “stage two” people but with different meanings and insights. What I wonder is when anyone is going to look at evangelism in terms of getting people to “stage three” to “stage four?” All evangelism of which I am aware tries to move/convert people from “stage one” (pagan, for lack of a better term) to “stage two” (Faith with structure, rules, and real life change–a very positive step).