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Religious 'Nones' are now the largest single group in the U.S.

Religiously unaffiliated people now make up 28% of U.S. adults, according to a new study from Pew Research. That's a larger cohort than Catholics or evangelical Protestants.
Natacha Pisarenko
/
AP
Religiously unaffiliated people now make up 28% of U.S. adults, according to a new study from Pew Research. That's a larger cohort than Catholics or evangelical Protestants.

When Americans are asked to check a box indicating their religious affiliation, 28% now check 'none.'

A new study from Pew Research finds that the religiously unaffiliated – a group comprised of atheists, agnostic and those who say their religion is "nothing in particular" – is now the largest cohort in the U.S. They're more prevalent among American adults than Catholics (23%) or evangelical Protestants (24%).

Back in 2007, Nones made up just 16% of Americans, but Pew's new survey of more than 3,300 U.S. adults shows that number has now risen dramatically.

Researchers refer to this group as the "Nones."

Pew asked respondents what – if anything – they believe. The research organization found that Nones are not a uniform group.

Most Nones believe in God or another higher power, but very few attend any kind of religious service.

They aren't all anti-religious. Most Nones say religion does some harm, but many also think it does some good. Most have more positive views of science than those who are religiously affiliated; however, they reject the idea that science can explain everything.

Nones could prove to be an important political group

Gregory Smith at Pew was the lead researcher on the study, titled "Religious 'Nones' in America: Who They Are and What They Believe."

He says the growth of Nones could affect American public life.

"We know politically for example," Smith says, "that religious Nones are very distinctive. They are among the most strongly and consistently liberal and Democratic constituencies in the United States."

And that could change electoral politics in the coming decades.

The political power of white Evangelicals has been well-reported in recent decades, but their numbers are shrinking while the number of the more liberal Nones is on the rise.

However, Smith points out that Nones are also less civically engaged than those who identify with a religion – they're less likely to vote. So, while they identify as Democrats, getting them to the polls on election day may prove to be a challenge.

Within the Nones, however, atheists and agnostics are more likely to be politically and civically engaged, whereas those who responded that their religion is 'nothing in particular' are far less likely to vote.

Pew also found that, overall, Nones are less likely to volunteer in their local communities than religiously affiliated adults.

Logic and avoiding harm help moral decision making

Beyond their numbers and their behaviors, Pew also asked respondents what they actually believe.

The survey found Nones are less satisfied with their local communities and less satisfied with their social lives than religious people.

While many people of faith say they rely on scripture, tradition and the guidance of religious leaders to make moral decisions, Pew found that Nones say they're guided by logic or reason when making moral decisions.

"And huge numbers say the desire to avoid hurting other people factors prominently in how they think about right and wrong," says Smith.

People of faith also say they use logic and the avoidance of harm to make decisions, but those factors are in concert with religious tradition and scripture.

Nones tend to be young, white and male

Demographically, Nones also stand out from the religiously affiliated.

Nones are young. 69% are under the age of fifty.

They're also less racially diverse. 63% of Nones are white.

Similar studies by Pew and other groups such as the Public Religion Research Institute have found that people of color are far more likely to say religion is important in their lives.

But Smith says to keep in mind that the Nones are comprised of three distinct groups – atheists, agnostics and those who describe themselves as 'nothing in particular.'

Nones who describe themselves are atheist or agnostic are far more likely to be white.

"People who describe their religion as 'nothing in particular' are more likely," says Smith, "to be Black or Hispanic or Asian."

At first glance, Nones appear to be evenly divided be gender. But digging deeper into the data shows that men are significantly more likely to say they're atheist or agnostic whereas women are more likely to describe their religion as 'nothing in particular.'

Smith says that's consistent with other research as well, which shows, "women tend to be more religious on average than men."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.