One of the most interesting demographic shifts of the last era is the rise of the Nones. These are people who don’t self-identify with any particular religion at all. I’ve written about them several times in the past. My own view is that the rise of the Nones has primarily been a shift among people with loose commitment to religion. In the past they’d have named a religious tradition they were a part of. Now they say “none.” To my eyes the primary shift has been less a shift in their behavior than a shift in how they name themselves. But of course that’s not the whole story.
While that’s probably what’s going on it doesn’t explain everything. Demographically the primary part of the population driving the rise of the Nones has been millennials. Fully 36% self-identify as part of the Nones. Older groups, like my Gen-X generation, have become slightly less religious but the primary driver of the social shift are these generational changes. It used to be that once people got married and became more integrated into the community in a traditional way that shifted. That’s no longer true. The reasons aren’t entirely clear. Partially people started marrying later and later, if at all. Further many of those who do marry don’t make the shift that they would have in prior decades. The other driver is almost certainly a different cultural climate towards religion that is leading to broader social shifts.
While the data is not new, Pew does have up a new analysis of their 2014 data on the Nones. What’s interesting is that half of those raised in a religious home left over a lack of belief. Fully 20% explicitly say they dislike organized religion.
The main reasons constantly brought up for why people are leaving religion are tie to social politics, especially the divide between conservatives and liberals. Those who are liberal but part of conservative faiths somewhat understandably don’t feel as big a part of it. However views on broader sexual norms also are leading to a shift. Personally I think the biggest shift is the loss of expectation about religion. For decades if not centuries there was a social expectation that one should be religious. Even those who weren’t religious often thought the masses should be religious. That changed in the postwar era. This lead to the rise of secularism in Europe but was much slower to affect the United States and Canada. Arguably it really wasn’t until the 1980’s in Canada and the 1990’s in the United States that the shift really started happening. I think that especially the last decade there’s been a significant social change so that people don’t see religion as a social expectation. It’s no longer a social norm. That includes for those who are religious!
Now it is important to be careful. The data is aggregate data. In practice there’s churn in these categories. People who were religious may join the ranks of the none and then shift back to naming themselves as part of a religion. Likewise the category includes a lot of diversity from those who perceive themselves as religious but not tied to any movement to those who are hard core atheists. Fully 18% of those in the Nones consider themselves primarily religiously unsure or undecided. And 10% consider themselves inactive believers. That’s a surprisingly larger number in my view.
How will all of this affect the growth of the Church? Well for one thing this is primarily an analysis of the United States. Europe has overwhelmingly already become a secular society. The Church just isn’t growing there and it’s hard to see what would make it grow. Asia is a strong place for Christian growth, but the Church has been underperforming there for various reasons. The main places of strength continue to be Latin America and Africa. One has to imagine that, as has been predicted for some time, the Church will become far more Latin and eventually far more African.
Within the US though, I think our retention is still quite good, varying between 65%-70% depending upon what you look at. While missionary growth has slowed somewhat it’s not at all clear we won’t maintain our relative position in the population. (Roughly 1.4%-1.6% depending again upon what studies you look at) That means the absolute number of American Mormons will continue to grow. However Mormon converts have largely come from unsatisfied other Christians – often loosely bound to their own faith. It is quite possible that with the shift to the Nones in the group that the most fertile ground for finding people we can teach will dry up. If so, then our relative numbers will slowly drop over the coming decades.