In 1972, the number of Americans who described themselves as religiously unaffiliated was 5%. In 2018, it was almost 24%. Why has the number of people answering “none of the above” to the question of their religious affiliation jumped so dramatically in recent years, and what effect will the growth of these so-called “nones” have on society in general?
My guest explores these questions in his book The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going. His name is Ryan Burge and he’s both a pastor and a professor of political science. In our conversation today, Ryan shares the data on which religions have risen and fallen, and explains why mainline Protestantism has taken a huge dive and why the number of people who have disaffiliated altogether from religion has grown to rival the number of evangelicals and Catholics in this country. We talk about the role that politics has played in these shifts, and the fact that while people once chose their politics based on their religion, they now choose their religion based on their politics. Ryan unpacks the demographic profile of the average none, breaking it down into the category’s three subgroups: atheists, agnostics, and those who label themselves as “nothing in particular.” We end our conversation with what the future growth of the nones may look like, the possible societal effects of an overall decline in religiosity, and whether younger generations may swing back to being more religious.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- General Social Survey on religion
- AoM series on men and Christianity
- AoM Podcast #253: Why Men Hate Going to Church
- AoM article on the benefits of church attendance
- AoM article on the Strauss-Howe generational cycle theory
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. In 1972, the number of Americans who described themselves as religiously unaffiliated was just 5%, 2018 it was almost 24%. Why has the number of people answering none of the above to the question of their religious affiliation jumped so dramatically in recent years? And what effect will the growth of these so-called nones have on society in general. My guest explores these questions in his book, “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.” His name is Ryan Burge, and he’s both a pastor and a professor of Political Science. In our conversation today, Ryan shares the data on which religions have risen and fallen and explains why mainline Protestantism has taken a huge dive and why the number of people who dis-affiliated altogether from religion has grown to rival the number of Evangelicals and Catholics in this country. We talk about the role that politics has played in the shift and the fact that while people once chose their politics based on their religion, they now choose a religion based on their politics.
Ryan unpacks the demographic profile of the average none, breaking it down to the category’s three sub-groups: Atheists, Agnostics, and those who label themselves as nothing in particular. We end our conversation with what the future growth of the nones may look like, the possible societal effects of an overall decline in religiosity and whether younger generations may swing back to being more religious. After the show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/nones.
Alright, Ryan Burge, welcome to the show.
Ryan Burge: Thanks so much for having me.
Brett McKay: So you got a book called “The Nones,” that’s N-O-N-E-S, not nuns like flying nun… “Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going,” this is about people who identify as not having a religion. And you are both a professor of political science and a pastor of a small Baptist church, so this book is an intersection of those two parts of your life. This combination of political science professor and pastor is not something you see very often. How did you find your way into these paths, and which came first, was it the political scientist or the pastor?
Ryan Burge: Well, the pastoring thing actually came first. I was 20 years old and I got… Somehow I fell into this job as a youth pastor at this little Baptist church about 30 minutes from where I grew up. And I really took the job because I couldn’t find another job for the summer, and that was supposed to be a three-month summer internship, it turned into a three-year youth pastoring gig, which turned into the next thing, which turned into the next thing. So I’ve been in my current church for over 15 years now, and I’ve always done ministry as sort of a side thing, it’s never been my primary career, I’ve always had two or three things going on at once, going to grad school, being a professor. So I’ve always been sort of a pastor on the side, but in my mind, I see myself as a political scientist first, a college professor first, and a pastor, second. And that actually I think works well in terms of balance in my life, because now I don’t put too much emphasis on one or the other, but both are sort of central parts of my identity, and I think they actually both complement each other and help me in both fields to understand the other side of things.
Brett McKay: And I think the book actually reflects that balance, it’s primarily written from your perspective as a political scientist, it’s very empirical and data-driven, you did all the data analysis yourself, there are several dozen graphs in there you did all yourself. And then just at the very end, you put on your pastor hat and offer some comments from that perspective too, but let’s talk about the data you analyzed ’cause that’s the main thrust of your book. And the big statistic to talk about is that the number of Americans who say they have no religion, that number was 5% in 1972, it jumped to 24% in 2018, but there’s a lot of nuance to that number, a lot going on with that statistic, and to unpack that nuance I think it would be useful to talk about how social scientists measure religiosity in the first place. So start there, how do we know about the state of religion in America? Are there certain surveys that we use that are sort of like the gold standard in measuring religiosity?
Ryan Burge: Yeah, there is one gold standard survey that exists, it’s called the general social survey, called the GSS, you’ll often see is shortened to, it’s been going on since 1972, and it’s been put together by the National Opinion Research Council, which is based out of the University of Chicago. And they get NSF grant from the United States government every year to run their survey, and what’s great about the GSS is it’s been done the same way, using the same format since 1972. So it’s really the only way that we have that exists today that we can track religion in a consistent way, going back to the 1970s, and it uses a question about religious belonging, what tradition do you find yourself and what is your… Actually the question it asks, “What is your present religion, if any,” and it gives you several different options: Protestant, Catholic, Other religion or None, is the first question you get asked. And so what’s nice is if you ask the same question the same way, at least you have comparability year to year and decade to decade. A lot of times surveys change the way they ask questions over time and they can have huge implications for how people answer them, so when I say 5% to 23%, that’s a pretty objective measure of how much the nones have grown…
And by they only went from 5% to 7% by 1990, and they went from 7% to 23% from 1990 to 2018. So almost all the growth in the nones has happened in the last 30 years or so.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about this idea of religiosity, so the survey only asks, which do you identify with, and they’ll give you different options, different religions, Catholic, Evangelical, Other religion or None. But as you highlight in the book, you go deep into this, there’s a lot more to religiosity than that. Someone could say they belong to… They’re Methodist, but they might not really… They don’t go… So from a sociological perspective, how do we determine religiosity beyond just what someone identifies as?
Ryan Burge: Yeah, so we use three separate questions, the one I was just talking about is the belonging question, and also a behavior question, which is, “How often do you attend church?” And the answers go from never to more than once a week. So we use that sometimes as sort of a measure of devotion, we know the people who go more often are more of whatever they go to, and the third one is religious belief. And that’s oftentimes things like, “What is your view of the Bible or what is your view of God? Do you believe God exists? Do you believe that the Satan exists? Do you believe in heaven and hell?” Things like that. Really, if you think about religiosity, it’s the three Bs: Behavior, belief and belonging, but the reality is when we talk about the nones… The one that I always use is belonging, ’cause that’s the one that people seem to respond to the most, but the share of Americans who do not believe, do not behave and do not belong, is only about 6% of the country. Over 90% of Americans still say they have some belief in God even today, despite the fact the nones are at least 25% of Americans.
So what we see typically happens is church attendance is the first thing that drops off, about 40% of Americans, they say never attend church, 25% of Americans, 23, 25% Americans had no religious belonging, but only 10% of Americans said they have no religious belief. And some people have of a mix and match of those two or three of those three, and so it’s very rare for someone to not do any of those three at the same time. So the none, none, nones is only about 6% of Americans today.
Brett McKay: I guess that’s pretty hard for political scientists like to really kinda pin down what does it mean if someone has no religion or if they have a religion, ’cause I mean like if for example, I think 25% of those who say they are evangelical Christians, they don’t attend church. So from your perspective, would you say they’re religious or not, what would… How would you go about that?
Ryan Burge: That’s a great, great, great question. Measuring stuff is super hard. Whenever I teach my grad students, I spent two hours in my grad methods class just saying over and over again, measuring stuff is really, really hard. So for me, there’s this question on the survey that says, do you identify as born again or Evangelical or not? It’s a yes or no question. And my… My whole approach to that question has changed over time. It used to be, I would say that you cannot be an Evangelical unless you say you’re Evangelical, but also say you’re Protestant or Christian, it’s impossible to be an Evangelical Muslim, let’s say. But the most recent data analysis I’ve looked at, and I’ve done a lot of analysis in the last couple of weeks, what you’re seeing more and more is that people are saying yes to the Evangelical question despite the fact they never go to church, or despite the fact they’re not even Christians, there are Evangelical Jews, there are Evangelical Mormons, there are Evangelical Muslims or Evangelical Catholics now. So I’ve taken a new approach to the whole thing, here’s what I say, when people tell you who they are, you believe them. So if you tell me you’re an Evangelical Mormon, I say, Great.
That is fantastic. Let’s figure out why you chose both to identify as an LDS, but also as an Evangelical, and what you find, if you dig into the data enough is people are not as crazy as you think they are, they’re actually picking that Evangelical identity for a very good reason. And that reason now is they see themselves as conservative politically, but they also see themselves as aligning more and more with the Republican party. For instance, Muslims who go to Mosque more than once a week and identify as Republicans, half of them also identify as Evangelical, so what you see, is you see a logic starting to form in the heads of Americans, and they’re seeing the word evangelical as meaning a political identifier and a cultural identifier, just as much as they’re seeing it as a theological identifier. And I know a lot of my pastor friends go, “No, no, no, no, no, no, you got… To be an Evangelical you gotta be a Christian, you got to be Protestant, and you gotta go to church a lot. ” And I’d say, “Yeah, but these people don’t believe in Evangelicalism the same way you do, and they’re not wrong for doing that.” So that’s the problem with measurement is what I think something means is not what the average person thinks something means, I’m much more sliding toward the perspective of when those people say they’re Evangelicals, I have to trust, they know what that means, and they’re picking it for a very good reason, and I think the data back that up now.
Brett McKay: Yeah, maybe we can get to this intersection of politics and religion that’s happened in America in the past 30 years, that’s changed things the way we think of religiosity, but let’s talk about the state of religion in America today in general, with the best surveys, what have the numbers look like for the big religions in the United States? Are there ones that have held steady, which ones have seen the biggest decrease, etcetera?
Ryan Burge: Yeah, you know, religion is… Religious demography is glacial, it’s how I describe it in the book, you don’t typically see big shifts like in a year or two years or even five years, so you’re looking at 10-year trends, sometimes 20-year trends. If you look at things like evangelicalism, people who identify with an Evangelical tradition, so Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, Pentecost, people like that. They were 17% of America, 1972. They jumped to 30% of America in 1993, and now they’re down to about 23% of America. It’s interesting when I tell people that a lot of people applaud the fact they’re declining from 1993, but they forget the fact they’re actually up from 1972, there are more Evangelicals in America today than there were 40 years ago. Catholics are very, very steady over the last 40 years, incredibly steady, never really going above 25% and never going below 20%, just sort of see-sawing up and down, around 22, 23, 24%. Now, the real decline you’re seeing in American religion is a group that I call “Mainline Protestants,” and those are people who are like United Methodists or Episcopalians or United Church of Christ.
These are the kind of churches where they have female pastors, where they are open and affirming to LGBT people, where they’re focused on things like social justice, they don’t pound the pulpit and tell you you’re going to hell, they’re a little bit more moderate on social issues. In 1975, 30% of Americans were mainline Protestants, it was the largest religious tradition in America. Today, that share has dropped from 30% to 10%, and it’s very likely gonna go to 5% over the next decade because mainline Protestants are dying off very quickly ’cause they’re older, so that’s really the big shift in American Christianity is black Protestants have held steady, Evangelical have held steady, Catholics have done just fine. Mainline Protestants have gone from 30% to 10%, while the nones, like we just talked about, have gone from 5% to 24%. So that’s really… What’s happened is a lot of moderate Christians are no longer Christians anymore, they say they’re nones on surveys, and that’s led to the decline of mainline and the huge rise of the nones.
Brett McKay: I think it’s interesting, that idea of mainline protestants has been going down, ’cause I remember when I was a kid in the ’90s, you go to school and some kids are like, Oh, I’m Methodist. I’m a Lutheran, I’m Baptist, I’m Episcopalian. I don’t hear that anymore. It’s like, Well, I just go to this mega church, and that’s it.
Ryan Burge: Yeah. I don’t think we fully understand what that means to the future of America, those institutions used to dominate American in all facets of American life, the Methodists were very strong, the Episcopalians are very strong, and now all you got is a lot of non-denominational protestant Christians. Back in 1972, only 5% of all Christians were non-denominational, and now it’s 25% and rising rapidly. It’s the only tradition in American Christianity that’s grown over the last 10 years. Baptists are down, Methodists are down, Episcopalians are down, Presbyterians are down. The only group that’s grown are non-denominational churches, and they are eating denominational Christianity, and they represent this entirely different way to do faith because they have no accountability, they have no organizational structure, a lot of them started with a guy in his basement, a couple of families and grew to a mega church of a 1000 or 2000 people who don’t have a ton of accountability, a ton of history, a ton of connection. It’s a radical rethinking of American Christianity. And again, we don’t really fully understand what that means for American society at the same time.
Brett McKay: Why do you think people have left mainline Protestantism and maybe joined a large mega-church or non-denominational mega church? What do you think is going on there? Any insights?
Ryan Burge: That’s the question that keeps me up at night, because I’m a mainline Protestant, I’m a pastor in the American Baptist church, and we were an offshoot of the Southern Baptist Church, and we split over the issue of slavery in 1860s, right before the Civil War. So my tradition is declining very rapidly, the church that I’m a part of had 300 members of the 1960s, had 50 when I took over in 2006, and now we had 10 last Sunday. So we are part of this mainline decline. I think it was a lot of things. I think a big part of it was… Evangelicals got really popular the 1990s, and a lot of my parents’ generation, let’s say, became Evangelicals because it was the thing to do, and it leads to this perpetual cycle of the fewer people go, the fewer people go. So it goes down and spirals downward and downward. And now if you look at the main line, they are in serious trouble, for instance, the Episcopal Church, which used to be one of most powerful churches in America, only have about half a million people who come to church every Sunday, half a million people in a nation of 330 million Americans.
They’re gonna go away in the next 20 years. So I think that what happened was those churches got older, they got grayer, and because of that, young families don’t wanna join a church with a bunch of 60 and 70-year-old people. When they have kids, they want their kids to play with other kids. There were no kids there. So I think it sort of fed on itself and perpetuated on itself, and once you get to a certain point, it’s almost impossible to turn a church around because you just don’t have a whole lot to offer when the church down the road has three youth pastors, and a gymnasium, and a beautiful sanctuary with lights and sounds and smells, and your kids wanna go to that ’cause all their friends go to that. So I think all those things together led to the death of the main line, and I really do think American Christianity, and American society, by the way, is worse when you only have one flavor of protestant Christianity left in this country.
Brett McKay: I think we do underestimate the power of sociability when it comes to people’s religious affiliations. I remember, if you can go further back, I know there weren’t surveys done about religiosity in the ’40s and ’50s, but from what I understand after World War II, that’s when the mainline Protestant denomination saw this huge uptick and it sort of like… It was like what you were supposed to do. That’s sort of like you had to join a church, and so people became mainline Protestants, ’cause that’s what everyone else was doing.
Ryan Burge: Absolutely, people came back from the war and said, “Well, I need to put down roots in my community, and you know what the Methodists are a nice, they’re fun, and they don’t yell at me, they wanna do soup kitchens, and cloths closets, and food pantries, and help the community, and I can deal with the theology piece of it, ’cause I believe in Jesus, but I don’t know about Jonah and the whale and Noah and the flood and all those kind of things.” And those churches preached that kind of softer gospel, and a lot of people found that very, very appealing. The other thing about the mainline is they’re very hierarchical, like the United Methodist Church, they pick who your pastor is at your church, you don’t do that at the individual level, so it’s very, very top-down, not bottom-up. But think of the kind of Christianity that’s surviving right now, non-denominational are a radical democratization of religious hierarchy, it’s all bottom-up, there’s no top-down anymore, the top-down churches are dying, and the bottom-up churches are succeeding wildly now.
Because they don’t have that structure, there are no gatekeepers anymore, so anybody can get a pulpit, Get a microphone, get a field somewhere and start preaching, and all of a sudden they have a church in two or three years, you can’t do… As a United Methodist you have to go to college to be a preacher, you have to have a degree and a certification in all of those things. It seems like that whole entire structure has sort of fallen by the wayside, and now it’s… Well, anyone can get a microphone, anyone can lead a church, and it just changes how we think about Christianity and religion in general.
Brett McKay: So we talked about Christianity, Christian denominations, what’s the state of Judaism and Islam? What’s their growth line?
Ryan Burge: Yeah, those traditions are really, really hard to find on surveys, about 1% of Americans are Muslims, which is 3.5 million people, we have 3.5 million Muslims in this country, but you have to do a really large survey to have enough Muslims to really see them in a way that you can do statistical analysis on it. So Mormons are 1%, Muslims are 1%, Buddhist are 1%. Hindus are about one half of 1%, Jews are… Depending on the survey, it’s really hard to survey Jews because a lot of them kind of… They can’t figure out whether they’re religiously Jewish or culturally or genetically Jewish, so you get all that together at the same time, but if you add all those traditions up together, you get about six or 7% of Americans fall in those other religious traditions.
We know that Muslims are the youngest religious tradition in America, the average Muslim adult in America is 33 years old. When the average American adult is about 50 years old overall. So Muslims are young, they’re having lots of children, and so they’re growing pretty significantly in the United States. But what’s interesting about Muslims, especially as they’re very geographically concentrated in certain pockets around the country, for instance, in Dearborn, Michigan, there’s a huge Muslim population, but there are many counties in the United States where there’s not a single Muslim that appears in any census data. So these communities are growing, but they’re growing sort of in these little pockets, especially on the coast, not throughout the Heartland, they’re getting larger, but that’s also… They’re becoming a larger part of American society because of immigration as well, most people who immigrate to this country are not Protestants, there’s a huge growing number of Hispanic Catholics obviously, but there’s also people coming from the West and the East, and they bring their different religions here. So America is becoming less Christian over time. It’s just happening very, very slowly over your lifetime, not over the next five years, let’s say.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s go back to the nones specifically, ’cause that’s the topic of your book, when you first ran your analysis showing the significant increase in nones, were you surprised by that or did you already have a hunch as a political scientist and a minister, that the number of people who don’t consider themselves religious had been increasing the past several decades?
Ryan Burge: Yeah, it’s always showed up in the survey data, but you never know where tweets gonna go, so I start the book with a story about that, that tweet that really kind of made me into what I am today. I just showed this graph here, the GSS had just come out with 2018 data, and the nones for the first time were now larger than Evangelicals or Catholics, and I just tweeted this graph out and I said, “Big news, the nones are 23% now,” which is at least the same size as the Evangelicals and Catholics, and it seems like everyone wanted to hear that at the time, it just took off. I looked down at my phone, all of a sudden it’s 75 re-tweets in the first 10 minutes, and within the next week or two, I’ve been called by basically every news media outlet in America and the world, were interested in American religion, what was changing in American religion. Part of me was thinking, “This has been going on for 30 years now. Why are you all keying on this right now?” But I think we’ve sort of hit this inflection point where it used to be…
To have no religion in America was not the thing you would say. We were a generically Christian country, we have something called American civic religion, which is the idea that In God, We Trust is on the money, and that’s totally cool. And we open Congress with, Oh, it’s a prayer from a pastor, and that’s totally fine, but as the number of nones get larger and larger, it becomes more and more socially acceptable to say you have no religious affiliation, and I think that’s fed on itself, and so I think it was… We got to this point where we all looked at each other and went, “Oh wow, this is a real thing, they’re not 10% of Americans, they’re 25% of Americans now.” And growing rapidly, and that’s changing America in ways that we can never fully understand. And a lot of these reporters wanted to talk with me about the implications of what that means, not just now, but for the future of America, when we’re 30% nones, or 40% nones, or 50% nones, and how that changes… Every situation in American life is going to change because America’s religious composition will look in 30 years like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna say a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. Okay, so the number of nones is increased, about the same as Catholics, or Evangelical Christians. So the question I’m sure people ask you is like why, what’s going on, what is causing people to disaffiliate with their religion? So when they’re asked, are you… What religion you belong to? They’re gonna say, None. What’s the cause? Have you figured it out?
Ryan Burge: I wish I could give you like a bumper sticker reason, and in the book, I try… I lay out a whole chapter. I give eight different reasons, potential reasons, I could probably add eight more reasons on top of that, that I thought about in the last couple of years about why there are so many nones, but I think the first one… I think this is really the overriding one that a lot of people have not really thought about ’cause they haven’t read 1800 social science, which is this idea called secularization, Max Weber, who’s this really famous German sociologist, basically argued that as society becomes more educationally advanced and has higher levels of income, they’re gonna naturally become less religious. And he actually had a term for this, he called it de-magicaton, he said that the world three or four hundred years ago was all magic. It didn’t make any sense at all. Why didn’t it rain? Why was there an earthquake? Why was there a flood? Why did my crops not grow? Everything seemed magical, we didn’t really understand cause and effect, or geography or geology or climatology or anything else, so everything just sort of seemed like it was spiritual. And then science comes in and sort of says, “Well, here’s why it’s raining or not writing, and here’s why your crops die or don’t die… ”
“Or here’s why you died of that disease, it’s called viruses and bacteria, not ’cause of God id trying to smite you or something like that.” So what Weber said was, “The more we learn about the world, the less we need God.” So this is called secularization theory, and he was really, he was proved right by what happened in Western Europe, if you look at Western European countries, places like Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, those countries are almost entirely irreligious now. We’re talking about 10-15% of those folks go to church at least once a week. I mean, very, very few religious people in those countries anymore, and it was sort of inevitable in my mind that what happened in Europe was going to come across the ocean and wash across American shores. We just didn’t know how long it was gonna take. And in our case, it took probably about 40 years for real… The waves really starting to crest across America in the early 1990s, and so we were bound to be secularized, it just took longer and went slower than a lot of people anticipated, and I don’t think we’re done yet secularizing. I don’t think where we’re gonna get to the level of Europe where 80-90% of those people are not religious. But we’re definitely gonna look a lot more like Europe in the next 30 years than we did in the last 30 years.
Brett McKay: And what role do you think politics has played in the decline in religion?
Ryan Burge: It’s hard to mistake the fact that 40% of people who identify as very liberal also identify as religiously unaffiliated. It’s only 10% of people who are very conservative. So 40% of very liberals are nones, only 10% of very conservatives are nones. I think what’s happened is that we have forced people to sort themselves into all kinds of camps, and we say you have to have a congruent identity. So for instance, it’s really hard today to be an Evangelical and a Democrat, when 80% of Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, it’s very, very hard on the other hand, to be a conservative, politically conservative Atheist, because 85% of Atheist voted for Joe Biden in 2020.
So what’s happened is people have felt like they need to align all facets of their personality, their religiosity, their political views, their cultural views, even where they live… They want everything to line up in such a way that it’s all congruent with each other, and so… And there’s actually been some political science work on this is we’re seeing more and more people are picking their religion based on their politics, much more than they’re picking their politics based on religion, which is really mind-blowing. ‘Cause for the last 50 years in social science, we always assume that religion was the first cause, it was the first lens that we look at the world through, and politics were sort of downstream of that, but there’s a lot of evidence in the last five years that says it’s the opposite, that everything, that politics is the way we look at everything in the world, including what kind of church we go to, Evangelicals has benefited from that, ’cause they brought in a lot of conservatives, but mainline Protestants have been hurt by this because they’re not so politically cohesive. There’s a lot of Republicans and Democrats in those churches, so people are sorting themselves out, and the mainline were sort of casualty of all that.
Brett McKay: That is interesting that there’s these findings that people are choosing their religion based on their politics that seems like the tail wagging the dog. You’d think it’s the spiritual would help you decide your earthly, but it seems like the earthly is helping people decide their spiritual.
Ryan Burge: And you know what, I had a pastor tell me one time he goes, “Listen, I get them for 30 minutes every Sunday. If I’m lucky, you know, if they pay attention to me, they go home and watch Fox News or CNN for six hours a day, seven days a week, I can’t compete with that. So where are they getting the Gospel more from? Where are they getting religious ideas more from, probably the TV than me.” And so you know what a lot of pastors are done, interestingly enough, because of this polarization is they stopped talking about politics in the pulpit entirely because they don’t wanna turn off anybody in the congregation. So when you leave that void in people’s lives, they’re gonna fill it in some other way, like “How should I think about abortion or immigration, or gay marriage, or DACA,” or whatever it is. They’re gonna listen to somebody, and pastors sort of gave that away over the last 30 years, and now the people who talk to them are people like Anderson Cooper and Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, and people like that. So they’re getting it from somewhere else. It’s not from the pulpit, it’s from the TV each and every night.
Brett McKay: Alright, so secularization is one theory of the decrease in religious affiliation, politics in America has played a role. You also talk with this idea of social desirability bias, what is social desirability bias and what influence do you think it has had on religion surveys?
Ryan Burge: Yeah, so social desirability bias is really a fancy way of saying that people lie on surveys. We know this, we’ve known this forever, that people are really, really prone to lying about certain things in their life, questions about things like sexuality. Do you masturbate, have you ever cheated on your partner? How many sexual partners have you had? Do you do drugs? What kind of drugs do you do? Have you ever stolen, lied, cheated steal? All those kind of questions. Are you racist? Are you sexist? Those kind of questions, you never get the right answers, you’ll always get the answer that people want you to hear, not the real answer. And we know that when it comes to religion, that social desirability bias is a huge problem because people want to seem more religious than they actually are. I talk about in the book about this county in Ohio, Ashtabula County, Ohio, this little rural county in the middle of the state, and this survey team sent a survey out to about a 1000 people living in that county, asked them how often they went to church, about 37% of respondents said they went to church every Sunday, so they checked.
They went around to every church in the county every weekend, and they counted cars in the parking lot, or they asked the pastor. They called him up and said, “How many people did you have in church last Sunday?” They tabulated all that, and they figured out the share of people in that county who went to church every Sunday was about 20%, not 37%. So half the people who say they go to church every Sunday lie about it on surveys. And so what that means for us though, is as it’s become less and less taboo to be a none in the 21st century, we actually might be seeing the real answer to the religion question, not the socially desirable answer, and so there’s a real possibility, and we’ll never be able to figure this out with any certainty, but there’s a real possibility that we’ve never really been that religious, it’s just people lied on surveys a lot in the 1970s and ’80s to over-inflate their own religiosity, when really they never went to church. But today they’re giving us the real answer or an answer that’s closer to real and honest. So we’re actually seeing the real numbers today, not the over-inflated number of who saw 30 or 40 years ago.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that’s a interesting point that maybe Americans have been less religious for a long time, and now we’re just knowing ’cause people are just being honest with the surveys. And I think I’ve read history books about the history of Christianity in America, where they talk about… Where they actually look at church rolls, and you look at the number of people on a church roll compared to the number of the population, and the number of people in a church roll is like… I think it’s like 20% to 30% of the actual population of a colony or an early state, it’s probably been smaller than… The actual religiosity has been probably in the same range for a really long time.
Ryan Burge: I think generally, we were never as religious as certain people think we were, but I think we’re less religious today than we were 30 or 40 years ago, but I don’t think that number is as big as we think it is, but again, we’ll never be able to figure out this question with any certainty, which is really obviously troublesome for me, but it’s also problematic for social science. ‘Cause we can’t say, “Are we more religious than we were 50 years ago,” with any sort of empirical data, it’s maddening.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about the demographics of nones, what do they look like? Are they more or less educated than average, more or less income, male, female breakdown? Give us a thumbnail sketch of a none.
Ryan Burge: Man, they’re all over, they’re everywhere, and they’re everyone. I think that… If anything comes out of the book, I hope people realize that it’s not… The trope that we have in our heads, it’s always like a white male philosophy professor who makes a bunch of money and has a PhD, that is not the nones anymore. Now, the other thing about in the book that I think is really, really important is I break the nones down into three distinct categories, Atheists, Agnostics, nothing in particular. Atheists are 6% of the population. They have very high levels of education, almost half of them have a four-year college degree, which is insane because only about 30% of Americans have a four-year college degree, so very, very highly educated. They have incomes that are much higher than the national average. About 47% of Atheists are white men, which is obviously a disproportionate amount. 60% of all Atheist are males. And I talk about in the book, if you go on Amazon and look at the best seller list for the Atheist category, almost all of it is white men, so it’s a very white, male-dominated space. Politically, they’re incredibly liberal, they think they’re to the left of the Democratic party now, and they see themselves trending even further to the left of the Democratic party, they are incredibly politically active.
They show up to meetings, they go to rallies, they hold protests, they put bumper stickers on their cars. They put up yard signs, they do all that stuff. They’re actually the most politically active group in America today are Atheists. Agnostics are little… I call them Atheist light, they’re also 6% of America. They do have higher levels of education, but not as high as the Atheist, they have higher incomes, but not as high as Atheist, they’re politically active, not as much as Atheist, and they’re liberal, but not as liberal as Atheist, but they’re sort of in that direction of atheism. But the third group is this group called “Nothing in Particular,” and I think this is the group that sort of goes under studied, under-considered, and under-thought about. About 22% of Americans say identify as nothing in particular, which is about the same size as the Evangelicals.
These people have… They have the lowest education of any religious group in America, they’re… Only 20% of them have a four-year college degree, 60% of them make $50,000 a year or less as a household, which means that most of them live in poverty. They are left out, left behind, lost, they don’t vote, they don’t go to meetings, they don’t participate in the political process at all. I think they’re really the tragic figures of the 21st century in America, because they are not economically prosperous, they’re not culturally advancing, they feel like they’re isolated and unmoored from the rest of society.
And the funny thing is they’re… Most of the nones are nothing in particular, three in five nones are nothing in particular, and yet it seems like all the attention in the media on the nones falls on the Atheists and Agnostics, when really nothing in particulars are so different than they are, and larger than they are at the same time. So I think we need to spend a lot more time thinking about that third group, the nothing in particular group.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that was an interesting point in the book, so we… Going back to the theories of what’s causing disaffiliation, we talked about the secularization theory, as you become more educated, the less likely you’re going to be religious, and that would make sense for someone who’s Atheist or Agnostic, but as you’ve noted, the nothing in particulars, they’re not as… They’re not very educated. So is… What’s going on there? Is secularization playing a role, what’s causing them to disaffiliate?
Ryan Burge: My best inclination with them as they are disassociating themselves with every part of American society. I think if you look at the data, a lot of them tried to go to college but just didn’t make it for whatever reason. I bet it’s probably because of things like finances or logistics or things like that. These are people who are just… I think these are the kind of… In my mind, here’s what I think they are. These are the kind of people who wanted to live the same lives their parents did, and they tried to do the same things their parents did, which you go to high school and get a degree, and then go work at the local factory, except the local factory their parents worked at doesn’t exist anymore. It closed down and got offshored to somewhere in Southeast Asia. So the life they wanted to live they can’t live anymore and the money they wanted to make, they can’t make anymore, and they just don’t feel like there’s anyway for them to move forward.
They feel like every part of society has left them behind, whether it be education, whether it be politics and whether it be the church. They are anti-social, they have no reason to be social because nobody can do anything for them, they are really sort of in despair, in American society, and they’re rapidly growing. And I think their numbers are gonna continue to grow because I think for a lot of people, they don’t wanna reject religion and take on all the negative stereotypes that Atheists have in American society, but they also can’t be religious either because they’re anti-social largely. So they’re sort of caught between the real hardcore nones on one side and the real hardcore Evangelicals on the other side, and go, “I can’t do either of those things, so I’ll just be stuck here in the mushy middle.”
Brett McKay: So these are the people that I guess Robert Putnam was talking about in “Bowling Alone,” these are the people who are bowling alone.
Ryan Burge: Absolutely, they’re bowling… But I think Putnam… If Putnam wrote his book today, he should call it “Tweeting Alone,” or “Facebook-ing Alone” or “Instagram-ing Alone”. The internet has accelerated our ability to stay at home and still be entertained in ways that we don’t even fully grasp. So people are doing fewer social things, even back in Putnam’s day, he blamed it on cable TV. Think about what Netflix and Amazon, and Hulu, all these things have done for us and TikTok and Instagram, now we never have to leave our house, and I think for certain people that’s really sort of cut them off from any potential economic prosperity, relational prosperity, and people used to go out and see other people and hang out and enjoy company and things like that. Now they just stay home and watch Netflix on a Friday night. And I think there’s a lot of reasons to believe that has been a net negative for American society.
Brett McKay: And also another point to make about the nothing in particulars is unlike Atheist who say, Yeah, there’s no divine being out there. Agnostics are like, Well, I don’t care. Maybe, maybe not. The nothing in particulars, they… When you ask them, they might not associate with a religion, but if you ask them, are you… Do you believe in a higher power? They might say yes, and some of these folks even attend church every now and then.
Ryan Burge: That’s right, about 30% of nothing in particular said to go to church at least once a year, so they’re not anti-anti-religion, like your Atheists or Agnostics are. Less than 3% of Atheists or Agnostics go to church at all. So there’s a huge divide. And 40% of nothing particulars say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives.
Brett McKay: We’ve talked about education and income of nones. What about age? Is there a general age or an average age of a none?
Ryan Burge: Yeah, so nones are… The conception that they’re a bunch of young folks is actually not that empirically true. They are younger than the average American, but only by a few years and nothing in particulars are actually… Their median age is very, very similar to the median age of the average American, now we have 18-year-old nones, we’ve got 85-year-old nones, so it really spans the gamut, it does lean towards the younger generation, just because generational replacement change and things like that. What we’re seeing is… If you look at the data on Generation Z, which are people who are born in 1995 or later, the oldest members are now moving into adulthood, so we can survey them, we’re seeing the none, the rate of nones among Generation Z now is way over 40%, I’ve seen 42 or 44% nones amongst Generation Z. So think about this every day in America baby-boomers are dying off, 18% of them are nones, but everyday in America, someone now from Gen Z is moving into adulthood and 44% of them are nones. So we’re seeing is rapid shift in that old people are dying off, who are more religious while young people are entering American life who are much less religious, and that by itself is going to change the composition of American religion without anyone converting or de-converting at all, just generational replacement is gonna do more work than any sort of conversion or de-conversion ever could.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about predictions for the future, so have political scientists made predictions about the number of nones, what’ll be like 10, 20, 40 years from now?
Ryan Burge: So I get asked that question a lot, and prediction is obviously a very, very treacherous place to go into because American society can shift, and if you’re a Christian, you believe in revival and awakening and those kind of things, and America’s seen two of those. We saw two great awakenings in our history, where massive amounts of people, millions and millions of people became Christians overnight, basically, ’cause of this cadre of preachers who are very dynamic. I have to say assuming that won’t happen, and there’s no way to assume it will or it won’t happen. I think what we’re gonna see in America in 50 years is probably 45% or 50% of Americans are going to be non-religious, so half secular, half not. Christianity will probably be 35% or 40% of America, and there’ll probably be 10 or 15% of America who are everybody else, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhist, all making up that other 10 or 15%. I don’t think we’re ever gonna get to the place where Europe is today, where it’s 80% secular, 90% secular. I think we’re stubbornly religious in this country, and we always will have this very strong core of religious belief, and probably 40% of Americans will be Christians or whether it be very concerted Catholics or Christians or Jews or Muslims, whatever it is. They will still exist even in 50 or 60 years.
Brett McKay: Well, going back to this idea that Gen Z, 40% of them are saying they’re nones, they don’t identify with religion. Going back to this idea, also you said earlier that religious demography changes very slowly, and one reason it changed slowly, I think social scientists have noticed that, okay, young people will become less religious in their early years after leaving home, but then they become more religious again, when they settle down and have their own families. The projections you just gave it sounds like that’s not gonna happen?
Ryan Burge: Yeah, there used to be this model called the life cycle model, and it said that when you were a kid, under the age of 18, you were fairly religious ’cause your parents took you to church and you did youth group in church camp and all that kind of good stuff. But when you went into your 20s, you went to college, you partied a little bit, sowed your wild oats and you became less religious. But then when you moved into your late 20s or early 30s, you would find a partner, you would get married, you would have kids, and then you would wanna raise them in the same sort of religious upbringing that you grew up with, so you would go back to church and take your kids back to church. Well, that held for the baby-boomers, they actually did do that. They came back to church when they were in their late 20s, early 30s to their 40s, that is not happening at all amongst younger generations. In the book, I show these graphs where it’s just up and up and up, there is no dip when people are supposed to have kids and come back to church, they don’t come back to church ever.
And so we’re actually seeing this interestingly enough, in every birth cohort, so people born in the ’50s are doing the same thing, ’60, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, we’re all doing the same thing, as they age they’re becoming less religious over time, so there’s really… Pastors have sort of held out hope, “Oh, when the kids come back from college and they get married, they’re gonna come back.” I see zero evidence of that in the data, they’re just getting less and less religious as every year passes.
Brett McKay: So as a minister, you’ve seen the dwindling interest in religion first-hand in your small congregation, as you said it started out at 300, 50 when you took it on, now you had 10 people at church last Sunday. Besides shrinking church congregations, what are the larger social and political implications of the increasing number of nones for a society in which only 60% of people, in some of the projections you gave say they’re religious?
Ryan Burge: Yeah, so I think we have to think about the social safety net in this country, and I think we forget about all the invisible things that churches do to make life less awful, even little things like the Southern Baptist had this disaster relief corps, which is a bunch of guys with chainsaws that come down to places that have tornadoes and hurricanes and cut down trees for you and haul them off, little things like that, things… Like my church, for instance, I packed 210 brown bags this morning to deliver to kids over the weekend in our school district ’cause our poverty rate is 85%, so they have food to eat over the weekends, ’cause a lot of those kids just frankly starve in our community. So little churches do little things like this all the time to make life less awful. So where are we gonna fill those gaps in from?
I am, I would love if the Atheists would come together and create social service organizations that would help on a large scale, I think that would be the most amazing thing ever, but I don’t see a whole lot of evidence of that working right now. So I don’t know who’s gonna fill in the social service gap, but also just from a political science perspective, church used to be this place where you would sit with people who have a different political view than you do, but you still love them and trust them and cared for them, as part of your family, because they’re part of our church family. In the 1970s and ’80s, even in Evangelical churches, the number of Republicans, number of Democrats was almost exactly equal even in the 1980s, so you would sit next to people who had completely different views than you did and voted for completely different candidates, but you still saw them as human beings, you didn’t demonize them like we’re seeing today. And now when you never come in contact with someone who votes differently than you do or thinks differently than you do about political issues, you automatically think the worst of the other side, you sort of other them.
You create this sort of mirror image in your head of everything that’s good about you is bad about them and vice versa, so what that does is create these larger divides in American society between Republicans and Democrats. Churches used to be what we called bridge building institutions they built bridges from your world to their world, the people from the other side of the political aisle. There are not many bridge-building institutions in America anymore, and I think we’re all gonna be worse for it, and polarization is only gonna get worse for it, and we really are gonna feel more and more like we’re living in two separate planets when Democrats talk about something versus Republicans, ’cause we don’t even talk to each other anymore.
Brett McKay: Besides the dwindling social service component that churches offer and maybe the sort of the buffer polarization that churches once offered. Another role that the church has played, at least in American life, is a socially organizing role. You’d go there and you’d make friends, you’d find mates, you could improve yourself, there’s history throughout American Christianity and even Judaism, where you’d have these mutual improvement associations within churches. That was for free. It was all volunteer and is so that Alexis de Tocqueville idea of, we’re doing it on our own, we’re going to pull ourselves up by our boot straps, we don’t need the state or a large corporation to do this for us, if that’s gone, how are people organizing themselves in the same way that churches once organized people?
Ryan Burge: They aren’t. I think that’s the long and the short of it. I think there’s some online organization that goes on, but I think that evidence is overwhelmingly in one direction, which is that online interactions are not as good as in-person interactions, whether it comes to friendship or community building or social trust or social capital. We’re not seeing those being replaced by anything else, and by the way, churches used to be really good about training people about how to run meetings and how to fund-raise and how to organize an event, let’s say. They used to learn those skills in church then use them in the community to fundraise for a candidate or fundraise for something good in the community to help someone who got cancer, let’s say.
So the civic skill building exercise that churches used to teach are sort of falling by the wayside now, and nothing is stepping in to take over. I’ll give you a good example. So there’s this Atheist movement for a while called Sunday Assembly, where it would be a bunch of Atheists coming together on Sunday and basically having their form of church where they would sing like pop songs, and they would hear some sort of inspirational message from a speaker. But most Sunday Assemblies failed, and the reason they failed was ’cause they felt bad asking for money because a lot of atheists are very skeptical of anyone asking them for money, even if it seems quasi or pseudo-religious, so most of them closed down ’cause they couldn’t pay the bills.
So these other organizations are trying to do what church did. But for whatever reason, can’t replicate the social aspect, the political aspect, the cultural aspect, that churches do, and I just don’t see anything in American society that comes close to replicating what happens in church every Sunday across America.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think something I’ve heard you bring up in another podcast is this hypothetical, what will society look like when it’s nones for three generations back. So grandparents were nones, their kids were nones. And those kids were nones, like the kids of those kids were nones?
Ryan Burge: It’s gonna… I think there’s actual gonna be a swing back the other direction, and the reason I say that is because we know that young people always wanna rebel against whatever their parents are up to, and for generations, their parents have been up to Christianity, largely in America, they wanna rebel against that and become a none. But isn’t the most rebellious thing to be religious when your parents aren’t? In some weird way. I do think we’re gonna see a resurgence, I don’t think it’s gonna bring Christianity back to where it was 30 years ago or whatever. I think that’s overshooting the mark, but I do think there’s gonna be the sort of counter-culture thing that happens when you’re a second or third generation none, and you’re gonna look around and go, “You know what, I kinda like the idea of being religious, I kind of like the feeling of being spiritual, I wanna think the world is bigger than me, and I wanna be part of something bigger than myself, and I wanna think there’s something beyond all these things.”
I do think that some people, for whatever reason, are wired towards spiritual things and they’re gonna drift their way back into church, even though their parents never really got them in church in the first place, they’re gonna seek it out on their own, because they’re gonna want that spiritual void being filled somehow. So I do think there’s gonna be sort of a backlash against the nones, I don’t know how large it’s gonna be. I don’t know when it’s gonna happen, but I do think it’s a very real possibility. In next 20 or 30 years, we’re gonna see first generation Christians again.
Brett McKay: Well, this is that… This is kind of related to that Strauss-Howe generational theory there’s… In America there sort of this cycle of generations that happen, there’s a lot of swinging from back and forth, like one generation is rebelling against the other generation of the previous generation, so you’re saying that could happen, maybe?
Ryan Burge: Yeah, we do see that religion waxes and wanes in different places in America… Over the last two or 300 years, we see that we don’t say in the last 50 years as much, we see only one direction, but there’s plenty of reasons to believe that Americans are not just gonna become not spiritual at all in 50 years, and for a lot of them we’re already seeing this, by the way. We’re already seeing people fill up their spiritual void by things like Tarot cards and astrology and palm reading and crystals and healing and all those kind of things. So people are always going to be spiritual, how they express that really depends on what these institutions do in response to the changing religious landscape in America today.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that’s gonna be… I think people will always be religious, it’s… Yeah, I think it’s on an institutional level, will it be like it was in the 1950s or ’60s, and that’s…
Ryan Burge: Yeah, that’s the key though. You used the right word. Institution, I think people will become anti-institutional in America, and I do wonder if that’s going to come to an end though. And we’re gonna start believing in institutions more and more because we realize without them, we get the current political and religious landscape of America, where it’s a bunch of people who got famous online for saying odd things and how bad that is for American democracy. Institutions, I’ve changed my mind on a lot of this stuff. I think institutions are actually good, I think gatekeepers are actually good, we gotta keep the crazy down in this country, ’cause the internet has basically given the crazy people a megaphone, and we’ve seen what that’s done to us in the last 10 years.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s one of the things, the predictions that the Strauss-Howe generational theory makes is that we’re due to a resurgence in institution building, supposedly, we’ll see if it shakes out, as they say about… You know about prophets, you study… Most prophets get killed, so.
Ryan Burge: I do not see myself as a prophet, but I will say, I think that institutions are going to make a comeback because to go back tp the Episcopal church, they have no people, they have one point. They take in $1.5 billion a year and their endowments like around $10 billion, they got money, they just need the people to show up. In a resurgent group of young people wanting to become a Episcopalian I’m sure they would roll out the red carpet for them. So there’s a possibility there. It’s just how do we get there? I have no idea.
Brett McKay: Well, Ryan, this has been an interesting conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Ryan Burge: You can go to… I’m big on Twitter, I post graphs every day at Ryan Burge, R-Y-A-N B-U-R-G-E, ryanburge.net is my website. My first book, “The Nones, Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They’re Going,” is on amazon.com right now, and I have a new book coming out next March, March of 2022. It is called “20 Myths About Religion and Politics in America,” and you can pre-order on Amazon right now.
Brett McKay: Alright, well, Ryan Burge, thanks for the time. It’s been a pleasure.
Ryan Burge: Thank you, man, I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Ryan Burge, he’s the author of the book, “The Nones, Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They’re Going.” It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can check out our show notes at aom.is/nones where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast, make sure to check our website at artofmanliness.com where you’ll find our podcast archives [0:49:27.9] ____ thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of, and if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of The AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium, head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code manliness, at check out for a free month trial. Once you signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with you a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always thank you for the continued support, until next time this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to AOM podcast put what you’ve heard into action.