Weekend thinker: Yes, turns out we did need another study, more news on 'Nones'

GetReligion readers: Please raise your hand if you have read a news report that discusses the "Nones."

OK, I imagine that this is 100 percent of you. I would think that 90-plus percent of you have read a piece in the past week or so that references, in some way, the Pew Forum's famous "Nones on the Rise" research. I would be hard pressed to name a religion-news related survey, during the past quarter century or more, that has received more coverage.

"Nones," of course, fits better in a headline than the term "religiously unaffiliated," meaning the rising number of Americans -- especially the young -- who say that they no longer affiliate with any particular religious organization, tradition or even heritage.

One of the big problems with that blast of data in 2012 is that many people see the term "None" and immediately think that it means "none," in terms of people having no religious beliefs at all or interest in their own solo, improvised, evolving version of spirituality. Yes, think Sheila and her tribe.

Personally, I think the religiously unaffiliated numbers are tremendously important and I've been following that trend -- reading scholar John C. Green and others -- for more than a decade.

We need more research on this, especially in terms of how it affects (1) marriage and family demographics and (2) which religious traditions rise and which ones fall. The bottom line: Demographics is destiny.

This brings me to a recent Religion News Service feature that I think needs to stand on its own as a weekend think piece, pointing readers toward a new study building on all of those Pew numbers. Yes, the political spin is justified. Here's how this piece opens:

(RNS) A quarter of U.S. adults do not affiliate with any religion, a new study shows — an all-time high in a nation where large swaths of Americans are losing faith.
But while these so-called “nones” outnumber any religious denomination, they are not voting as a bloc, and may have little collective influence on the upcoming presidential election.
The rapid growth of the religiously unaffiliated, charted in a survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute Thursday (Sept. 22), is raising eyebrows even among those who follow trends in American religiosity. The number of unaffiliated young people has jumped fourfold since 1986 -- from 10 to 39 percent. And overall 1 in 4 Americans call themselves unaffiliated, up from 1 in 5  in 2012.

Daniel Cox, PRRI research director, co-wrote the study, titled “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion -- and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back.”

The survey ... hints at how their growth may portend a nation where religion no longer informs a predominant cross section of Americans on what it means to be a good person and citizen.
“I wouldn’t say we are destined to become a completely secular country by any means, but we are venturing into uncharted waters in terms of our religious identity,” said Cox. "Historically most people consider this country a Christian nation, or a country where Christianity has been central. We may be entering a period where that is no longer true.”

Dig in deep and it's pretty obvious that these trends are not really new. What appear to be major changes are actually larger waves caused by earlier shifts.

While everyone talks about the young, that's not where this story begins. I thought this passage was fascinating:

While the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans grew up with a religious identity and then dropped it, an increasing percentage of nones started out that way — with no religion to leave.
According to the study: About three-quarters (74 percent) of those under 50 who were raised in unaffiliated homes remain unaffiliated as adults. That compares to half (49 percent) of those 50 and older who were raised without a religious identity and who still do not identify with a religion.

Read it all. The trends shown here are now part of the fabric of national life, especially for the Democratic Party and theologically progressive religious groups.

You ask, "Why?"

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