(More observations from American Grace).
Perhaps the most momentous change that has occurred in the past 20 years in the U.S. religious landscape is what the authors refer to as "the rise of the Nones." The Nones are those who, when asked to identify which religious affiliation they claim, claim no religious affiliation at all. Right now, about 17% of Americans identify themselves as "Nones." In 1990, only 7% of Americans made such a claim. Among incoming college freshman, those who claimed no religious affiliation jumped form 11% in 1990 to 28% today.
Going deeper into the statistics does not make the picture any prettier for Christians. In 2000, for the first time ever more American youths (age 18-29) identified as "none" than as Evangelical Protestants. Since 2000, the gap has widened every year, and in 2008 the Nones held a 10% advantage. To paint an even bleaker picture, the authors looked at the "Percentage of people raised in a religious tradition who remained in that religious tradition." In the last decade, for the first time in U.S. history, the "Nones" had the highest retention rate of any religious tradition - Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, everything. In other words, not only are more young people identifying as Nones, those children raised in a home where there is no religion practiced are staying away from religion when they reach adulthood.
So what happened that caused such this dramatic shift, and who are these "Nones" anyway?
The authors postulate that a key factor was the strong reaction by American youths (age 18-29) against the rise of the Religious Right. As the 80's progressed, Christianity came to be identified more and more with political conservatives. Those with politically liberal beliefs found themselves uncomfortable with the political rhetoric coming from the pulpit, and many chose to leave religion all together. The percentage of those who would "agree strongly that religious leaders should not try to exert influence on how people vote" rose from 30% in 1991 to 45% in 2008. And that's not even taking into account those who might have a milder form of disagreement. The authors note: "The new Nones are drawn heavily from the center and left of the political spectrum...few of the Nones come from the right half of the political spectrum."
It should be noted that contrary to what might be expected, very few of the Nones would claim to be atheist or agnostic. Indeed, the authors point out that "Most of them express some belief in God and even in the afterlife...they reject conventional religious affiliation while not entirely giving up their religious feelings."
It will be interesting to see what impact the Nones will have on American society and religion. One thing that the authors are clearly aware of is that Christians will be trying (and indeed, are trying) to reach this new pool of potential converts. They write, "Given the rise of religious nones, it would seem there is a potential constituency for a new form of religion within the contemporary United States. We thus speculate that religious entrepreneurs will increasingly seek to reach this untapped pool."
Any observer of current evangelical Christianity can clearly see that it is this category of "Nones" that has, in part, led to the rise of a wide variety of Christian expressions that eschew identifying with political conservatism. These range from the Acts 29 Network to the Emergent village, from being missional to gospel-centered to having a generous orthodoxy. Time will tell what the fruit of these movements will turn out to be, and how many "Nones" are turned into somethings.