New research out of Harvard identifies why church leaders should pay more attention to religious “nones.”
The research sheds light on a phenomenon known as religious switching. Religious switching identifies movements between categories including “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “Atheist,” “Agnostic” and “Nones.”
That last category has been an area of concern for the church as recent polling shows an increasing number of people leaving the church to claim no religious affiliation.
The Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), includes a panel survey where the same people are asked questions over an extended period of time—for 2010, 2012 and 2014.
Looking as broadly as possible, the entire dataset shows how much change in American religious identity occurred between 2010 and 2014. The data revealed that nearly 1 in 5 Americans changed their faith identity over that four-year span.
But here is what’s really surprising the experts: A large number of “nones” changed categories. About 4 in 10 people from the “nothing in particular” group made a switch. Half of the defectors moved away from traditional faith to atheism and agnosticism (20 percent), while almost as many moved in the other direction and returned to the church (17.3 percent).
Of the 2010 nones, 13.3 percent became Protestant, and 4 percent became Catholic.
Religious nones are the second-largest religious tradition in the United States. According to the CCES, 55 million American adults claim their faith to be nothing in particular.
To extrapolate from the data, about 12 million Americans who fall into this category will drift to atheism and agnosticism, while another 12 million or so will become Protestant or Catholic. Dr. Ryan Burge, who did an analysis of the CCES, calls that a tremendous amount of volatility and also represents a great opportunity for churches.
Dr. Burge has academic and pastoral interests in the data on religious switching. He teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston and is also the pastor of First Baptist Church of Mt. Vernon, Illinois. In addition he regularly writes about religion and politics at Religion in Public.
Burge said the level of defection is significant. He told ChurchLeaders.com, “For atheists it’s about 18 percent, and for agnostics and “nothing in particular” it’s over 40 percent. There is a term that is being thrown around in the literature: “liminal nones” meaning that they stand halfway in and halfway out of religion.”
Burge says the term “nones” has become a catch-all for three groups; atheists, agnostics and nothing in particulars (NIP).
“If I were to draw a diagram of what religion looks like I would put Catholic/Protestantism on one end of the line, then “nothing in particular” would be in the middle. Next would be agnostics, and then at the far other end of the line would be atheists. The reason that I say this is the movement is clear: About 20 percent of NIP’s affiliate with Christianity at some point in the future. On the other hand, when an agnostic shifts they are three times as likely to become an atheist as a NIP. And only about 4.5 percent of agnostics claim a Christian faith four years later. That means that they are further away from Christianity than NIP. Atheists are just die hards. Only 1.6 percent became Protestant/Catholic. They aren’t budging.”
That would be an academic description of the groups categorized as NIP. Dr. Joe McKeever gives another definition from a pastor’s perspective. McKeever is a retired pastor and now a popular blogger on church issues.
He called “nones” a collection of people, including many who have been hurt, run over or offended by the church, or they know someone who was.
The question left for church leaders is how to reach this diverse group whose fluidity is surprising many, including McKeever and Burge.
Burge says to be strategic:
“If I were going to teach a seminar on where churches should target their resources, I think the answer is clear, find those people who are just ambivalent about religion and say that they are “nothing in particular.” Spending any time trying to persuade an agnostic or an atheist is really not a good usage of time. Consider the fact that 95 percent of agnostics stay outside Christianity and so do 98.5 percent of atheists.”
And then he suggests you break that group down even further.
“There’s an attendance scale that goes: weekly+, weekly, monthly, yearly, seldom, never. A none that is always going to be a none averages very close to “never” on the attendance scale. A none that eventually claims a Christian affiliation is closer to “seldom” and when they do start claiming a Christian affiliation their attendance increases somewhat (about 10 percent or halfway between seldom and yearly). Find the person who comes to church once in a blue moon. They are not antagonistic to the faith. When they do attend church, I would imagine it’s critical that they find the experience worthwhile.”
And when they get there, McKeever says don’t water down what you do or your message.
He recalls a study of a booming church in West Virginia. The research was meant to find out what was causing the growth. The researchers kept getting the same answer: The new attendees wanted a church where the people “knew what it stood for.” McKeever told ChurchLeaders.com, “If you have the truth, you need to say it because people are lost and hungry. After they’ve tried out some of these other things they will show up again.”
That viewpoint appears to be backed up by this latest research on the fluidity of nones.