The “Nones”: When No Religion Is The New Religion

In the history of the human species, few ideas come more naturally to us than the belief that everything is going to hell in a handbasket. Along with pastors, politicians, and social scientists, funeral directors can be heard observing that the world seems to be losing its religion, and that this is probably a bad thing.

Nothing shows the present ruin more vividly than the light of a sacred past.

Perhaps it is ominous, then, that one of the fastest-growing and largest religious segments in the United States today is the group known as the “Nones,” who comprised 2 percent of the population in the 1950s but now make up between 20 and 25 percent, depending on the survey.

The Nones are defined in the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2008 as a “nonreligious, irreligious and anti-religious bloc” who answered the identification question with “None” or “No Religion”. Survey respondents could fall into any of the following categories: “None, No religion, Humanistic, Ethical Culture, Agnostic, Atheist, Secular.”1

Exact percentages of Nones within the U.S. population have varied, but the trend has been similar among all surveys of American religion. Because the Gallup organization has the longest record of tallying such information, I’ve used Gallup results for the past 70 years to create the following graph:2

The data raise interesting historical questions, such as what occurred in America in the 1950s to cause such a return to religion, and then what happened in the 25 years after 1992 to cause such a falling off.

For my purposes, the more relevant questions have to do the “Nones” themselves, including what they believe, and what kind of changes they might signal, or even cause, in American funeral practices.

Even more important, both for people who may be buying funerals and those who may be selling them, is the bigger question of what exactly is the relationship between religion—or lack thereof—and funerals. The Nones give us a useful angle for exploring such questions because they will eventually have a direct influence on American funerals when they make the purchases.

Answering these questions will require a series of posts, beginning here, with a brief look at who the Nones are, and where they really are on the “religious” spectrum.

First let’s look at the growth of this segment: The ARIS survey data depicted in the following graph3 show that from 1990-2008 the U.S. population of Nones grew by 138 percent. While Catholics and Other Christian segments each had about 21 percent of the total population increase during that span, the Nones made up almost 38 percent.

Source: ARIS 2008 Summary Report, pg. 4

(The ARIS report authors also note, regarding the fifth line of data, that “The population we know least about, those who do not know or refuse to reveal their religious identification, grew the most rapidly.”4 For the glass-half-empty religious observers, that might be an additional worrying trend.)

Nones are largely in the younger part of the population, but the trend toward religious disaffiliation transcends demographic boundaries. As shown in the chart below, a 2012 Pew Research Forum study found that “generational replacement is not the only factor at play” as the percentage of Nones grew in every cohort except for among the oldest Americans.5

The Nones tend to be more skeptical of churches, with 70 percent believing that religious organizations are “too concerned with money and power” compared to 51 percent of the general public and 47 percent of the religiously affiliated holding that belief. Sixty-seven percent of Nones also believe that churches “focus too much on rules” and “are too involved with politics,” which is also 20 percent or more above the share of other Americans with those opinions.6

But the picture is not as stark as these data might lead one to think.

A large majority of Nones—over three-quarters—say that “religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds” and “religious organizations play an important role in helping the poor and needy.”7

Of the estimated 46 million adult Nones in the U.S., the Pew study found that 68 percent say they believe in God, 37 percent call themselves “spiritual” (but not “religious”), and 21 percent pray every day.8

The phenomenon of “non-religious” Americans with surprisingly religious-friendly attitudes, turning away from institutions but not from their beliefs, is not new.

Surveying data from the 1970s, George Gallup and David Poling found that Americans who were not affiliated with a church overwhelmingly held religious views similar to those of churchgoers. Two-thirds of the “unchurched” Americans believed that Jesus is God and they also believed in the resurrection, and a majority said that in their personal lives they “turn to God frequently and expectantly.”9

I noted in a previous post the two Toms—Long and Lynch, the preacher and the funeral director— see the growing ambiguity in American religiousness and funerals as being of a piece, showing a lack of seriousness toward ritual, death, and life itself.10

It could be that an apparent growing shallowness American attitudes is becoming manifest in our funeral practices, and it could be this bodes ill for certain traditional practices. Funeral celebrant and industry observer Glenda Stansbury says that “The Gen-Xers are getting ready to bury us. They have no language, no commonality for what a religious funeral would look like.”11

But maybe the religious and non-religious are not as far apart as we sometimes think, especially when it comes to how we deal with death.

Or, more accurately, maybe the way people who don’t self-identify according to the traditional religious categories are not so different from other Americans when it comes to dealing with death, and maybe the change in “religiousness” of funerals can be attributed to a lack of imagination on the part of providers rather than a lack of belief by their customers.

When it was almost universally accepted by academics that America was becoming a secular society, as evidenced by “modernization” and declining participation in certain denominations in the decades leading up to the 1980s, the anthropologist Mary Douglas noted that “religious” societies tended to seem more so in hindsight. Going back to the beginning of recorded religious history, we don’t find cultures imbued with uniform devotion so much as leaders chastising their societies for constant misbehavior and lack of faith:

There is no good evidence that a high level of spirituality has generally been reached by the mass of mankind in past times, and none at all that their emotional and intellectual lives were necessarily integrated by religion … when we recall also that charlatanism, skepticism, and forsaken churches are also part of our heritage, we dare to question the whole modernization argument.12

This returns us to the question about the relationship between funeral practices and religious belief, or lack of belief—or, in our modern scenario, lack of religious identification—and how things have really changed over time. What is different today, when people seem inclined to make different funeral choices than they did a few decades ago? How do today’s choices differ from those of many decades, or centuries, ago?

Is our “religion” really at the center of what we need from funerals?


  1. Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, “American Religious Identification Survey 2008: Summary Report” (Hartford, Connecticut: Trinity College, March 2009), 2, 23, http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/ARIS_Report_2008.pdf

  2. George Gallup and Jim Castelli, The People’s Religion: American Faith in the 90’s (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989), 120; Albert L. Winseman, “Religion in America: Who Has None?” Gallup.com, December 2005, http://news.gallup.com/poll/20329/Religion-America-Who-Has-None.aspx; Lydia Saad, “In U.S., Rise in Religious ‘Nones’ Slows in 2012,” Gallup.com, January 2013, http://news.gallup.com/poll/159785/rise-religious-nones-slows-2012.aspx; Frank Newport, “Five Key Findings on Religion in the U.S.” Gallup.com, December 2016, http://news.gallup.com/poll/200186/five-key-findings-religion.aspx; Frank Newport, “2017 Update on Americans and Religion,” Gallup.com, December 2017, http://news.gallup.com/poll/224642/2017-update-americans-religion.aspx

  3. Kosmin and Keysar, “American Religious Identification Survey 2008,” 4

  4. ibid., 4

  5. Cary Funk and Greg Smith, “‘Nones’ on the Rise: One in Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, October 2012), 16, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/

  6. ibid., 23

  7. ibid., 23

  8. ibid., 9–10

  9. George Gallup and David Poling, The Search for America’s Faith (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 89–91

  10. Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch, The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)

  11. Peter Smith, “Funeral Service Changes Mirror Evolution in Attitudes About Death and Grieving,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 2016, http://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2016/03/16/Funeral-service-changes-mirror-evolution-in-attitudes-about-death-and-grieving/stories/201508240129

  12. Mary Douglas, “The Effects of Modernization on Religious Change,” in Religion and America: Spiritual Life in a Secular Age, ed. Mary Douglas and Steven M. Tipton (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), 29

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