Why the Nones are Rising

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. 

43 comments for “Why the Nones are Rising

  1. Steve Smith
    August 30, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    An interesting post. From a traditional Christian/LDS standpoint, these trends seem discouraging. One question, I think, is whether over time, the ascendent blend of individualism, consumerism, and pious nonjudgmentalism (which of course will often judge and harshly condemn those who are viewed as judgmental) will come to seem just too existentially empty, so that people will start searching for something more substantial.

  2. Brad L
    August 30, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    “Within the US though, I think our retention is still quite good, varying between 65%-70%”

    This seems high. If you take the official LDS church figure for 2008 of 5,974,041 and the 2008 ARIS estimate of 3,158,000 you get just under 53% who self-identify as LDS. Of course, self-identifiers aren’t necessarily active, so I still think that the retention rate would be lower than that in the US.

  3. Clark Goble
    August 30, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    Back when I was doing my own blog I did several posts on retention that might be worth checking out.

    Different surveys and studies give different figures. I’m pretty eager to show what the forthcoming new ARIS study will show about all this. That should be out in just a few years. The Pew study had us at 70% and then with the 2014 data that dropped to 64%. That’s with asking people what church they were raised in while young and where they are now. I admittedly have some trust issues with Pew for various reasons I’ll not repeat. But even 64% is pretty high. I think only “traditional black churches” do better. I suspect some of the variation between 64%-70% is due to sampling errors. (The total number of Mormons sampled was only 500) But even if there is a real drop it’s a small one.

    I’m extremely skeptical LDS retention has ever been higher than 70% although I know some suggest it was before the 90’s. I’m extremely skeptical of such studies though for various reasons. (Those relying on the gss are particularly problematic)

    For Pew we more or less match Evangelicals but again for a faith that demands a great deal versus one that really doesn’t that’s pretty remarkable. There’s also a great deal of variety amongst the broad evangelical movement. So one can actually be switching between pretty different environments compared to Mormonism.

    Non-Christian groups had higher rates but again these are populations even smaller than Mormons so sampling errors may be present. Also they are also typically religions associated with ethnic minorities where religion has many functions beyond the primarily religious. That is one might be signaling ones ethnic identity more than ones religious beliefs. There are also obvious reasons of community that ethnic minorities might wish to stay in the main place their community comes together.

    Regarding activity and self-identity I’d posted on that last year too. Remember that ARIS is measuring something different than the Church means by activity. ARIS is about self-identity for those over 18. I did some relatively conservative estimates to work back to deal with children. I get an estimate that 65% of those on the records self-identify as Mormon. While there’s been more work of late to get people off the records who don’t want to be involved with the church, that still seems like a surprisingly high number.

    Interestingly when you look at growth from 1990 – 2008 the official Church numbers increase by 30% whereas self-identification increase by 15%. Again while that may seem low to some to me that’s surprisingly high. It both means that the Church is pretty good about not overly inflating numbers with especially short persistence converts (people baptized who only come to church for a few months at most) but also in just maintaining conversions.

    I’m certainly not saying we’re doing as well as we should be. But I think some of the figures from the early to mid 20th century where there was 4% growth each year almost certainly overstated actual self-identification. The figures of the past two decades seem much more reliable and honestly not bad at all.

  4. August 30, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    I think a big part of this has to do with the rise of social media. (I would be very interested to see if extra-curricular activities have gone down as well.) The younger generation are seeking solidarity through the internet which leads to 1) a larger intolerance for groups that require things of people, and 2) a larger polarization as people are able to self-select those that they interact with (within the social graces that face-to-face interactions entail).

  5. PassTheChips
    August 30, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    As a membership clerk, the church defines activity as attending sacrament meeting at least once per quarter, which is only measured during the last month of each quarter. Our activity rate (in Arizona) hovers in the high 40s. In Japan, it was in the teens. In New York and Northern California, it was in the mid-30s.

    In conversations with the stake membership clerk, he told me that the global church activity rate (as defined above) is in the low 30s.

    I’m not sure you should be equating identity with activity. I don’t see any way that we are in the low to mid-60s, even in North America.

  6. Clark Goble
    August 30, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    Jeff, there’s a strong correlation between social engagement in general and the Nones. Pew also notes that the rise of the Nones is “just one manifestation of much broader social disengagement.” Only 28% of the unaffiliated say it’s important to belong to a community that shares their belief as compared to 48% of the population at large. It’s interesting that of those most active religiously they are also most likely to be involved in volunteer or community groups including sports, arts and hobbies. How much of that is due to the internet isn’t clear to me. It may well be that people are disengaging from community including religion because they feel engaged virtually.

    PassTheChips, according to Pew (and this is one of those places I find their results a bit questionable) of those self-identifying as Mormon 79% pay tithing, 65% have an active temple recommend, and 77% say they attend meetings at least once a week. (And given sick kids that’s better than I do)

  7. PassTheChips
    August 30, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    Clark, the problem is coming to an activity/retention rate when the denominator is self-identifying Mormons instead of members (i.e., baptism). If we are going to have a conversation about activity/retention rates, it needs to be in the context of baptized members, not self-identifying members.

  8. Brad L
    August 30, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    PassTheChips, you beat me to it. That has been my problem with that Pew Poll that I often see thrown around. My suspicion is that the more inactive a baptized person is from LDS church activities, the less likely they are to self-identify as Mormon. Contrast this with Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants who will still more often self-identify as part of their respective religious communities even if they are largely disengaged socially and behaviorally. I too have heard through the grapevine that the activity rate in the US is 30-40%.

  9. August 30, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    The other standard explanation (via cultural evolutionists such as Ara Norenzayan) is that trust in rule of law has grown robust enough to replace the adaptive role of religion as a societal coherer. While the rule of law has been going strong for some time, gene-culture folk suggest it takes some time for cultural side of things to deeply sink in. In this case that might involve getting all the little signallers right-enough for rule of law to compete (at the adaptive level) with moderate religion.

    The crux in this view is explaining why the nordic countries were the first down this path, followed by Europe then Canada with the States lagging. My general feeling is that the US focus on rugged individualism counteracts the groupishness found in these other countries.

    The interesting thing with this approach is just as we have fanatical religionists, we should start to see more and more fanatical “rule-of-lawers” (due to shifting means). I suspect we see this with radical cosmopolitanists who assume their rule-of-laws are robust enough for most any level of diversity. The other form of radicalness is ultra-nationalism in the form of pharasitical rule adherence.

  10. Clark Goble
    August 30, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    Right. I suppose ultimately the issue is what we mean by being Mormon. There’s an argument to be made for many measures. Part of the issue is that some people who attend semi-regularly may not consider themselves to be Mormon. (Say a non-member husband who attends occasionally with his family) Some that rarely come may self-identify still as Mormon. (I had a friend who wasn’t keeping the commandments and maybe attended once a year but still thought of himself as Mormon.) An excommunicated member who needs to be baptized may identify as Mormon. (I don’t know how those cases are considered in terms of the records I confess)

    I’m sure it varies regionally, but I know here in Provo there are several people in our ward that don’t consider themselves Mormon but that the Bishopric and Elders Quorum still worry about.

    Activity is kind of a weird thing since people who leave and come back call themselves inactive even though when away from Church they may not consider themselves Mormon at all. While it’s dated, back in the 90’s there was one study that suggested around 40% of active members were inactive for at least a one year stretch. (As I recall the sample size was a bit problematic too) Even if not necessarily applicable today it still gives a good indication that the processes are more complex than they appear.

  11. Mars
    August 30, 2016 at 11:18 pm

    A few thoughts:
    1. While the percentage of “nones” is rising, I recall reading some data on religious faith being intensified in those Millennials that are religious.
    2. Nones aren’t fertile. It doesn’t take many decades for that to have a huge effect on demographics.
    3. Europe in particular is undergoing a very strong conservative resurgence, not as strongly (but not entirely weak) among the Millennial cohort – but again, those are the ones that breed.
    4. LDS youth become disaffected less when there aren’t as many nones around – not just in their social circles, but in consumed media, societal expectations, &etc. like you said
    5. Society can change away from its current trends as quickly as it changed to them. It’s easy to assume current trends will continue, when they never have.

    I’m not too concerned about us shrinking in relation to the population in general. Natural selection is on our side.

  12. Brad L
    August 31, 2016 at 12:28 am

    1. Link?
    2. Fertility rates are higher in more religious countries, yes. However, religiosity doesn’t always mean fertility. Poland, Brazil, and Iran are very religious but with low fertility rates.
    3. Right-wing resurgence? Yes. Religious resurgence? Outside Europe’s growing Muslim population, I’m not seeing it.
    4. Good luck isolating LDS millennials from exposure to None philosophies.
    5. Current trends may not necessarily continue, but it is highly doubtful that trends will go back to what they were in decades previous.

  13. Mars
    August 31, 2016 at 7:26 am

    1. http://www.pewforum.org/2010/02/17/religion-among-the-millennials/
    “Among Millennials who are affiliated with a religion, however, the intensity of their religious affiliation is as strong today as among previous generations when they were young.”
    Not quite what I recalled, sorry, but it shows more that people who would have half-heartedly claimed religious affiliation are no longer doing so than that the general level of faith is decreasing.

    2. In more religious POPULATIONS, e.g. American Amish and LDS.
    “Calculations of the total fertility rate (TFR), based upon births between 1997 and 2002, found that women who said religion is very important would average 2.3 children in their lifetime; those who were somewhat religious, 2.1; and those who were not religious, 1.8.”
    “According to Pew’s data, the average Mormon can expect to make 3.4 babies in his or her lifetime. Jews, Catholics and most flavors of Protestantism have fertility rates ranging from 2 to 2.5. At the low end of the baby-making spectrum you’ve got atheists, with 1.6 kids, and agnostics, who average only 1.3.”

    3. The two go hand-in-hand.

    4. That won’t happen. I was talking about the next generation, and the one after that. And I wouldn’t say it’s the none “philosophies” that are driving it, maybe philosophy if it’s just apatheism, but mostly just not being weird for not going to church.

    5. Of course not. They’ll turn into something we didn’t think of but will seems perfectly obvious, and we’ll wonder how we missed it. It is the future, after all.

    More from the data (link in 1.):
    “But GSS data show that Millennials’ level of belief in God resembles that seen among Gen Xers when they were roughly the same age. Just over half of Millennials in the 2008 GSS survey (53%) say they have no doubt that God exists, a figure that is very similar to that among Gen Xers in the late 1990s (55%).”
    Nones aren’t atheists.
    “Levels of certainty of belief in God have increased somewhat among Gen Xers and Baby Boomers in recent decades.”
    People get more religious when they get older – that’s not news, is it?
    And most importantly:
    “(Data on this item stretch back only to the late 1980s, making it impossible to compare Millennials with Boomers when Boomers were at a similar point in their life cycle.)”
    “Data from the General Social Surveys (GSS), which have been conducted regularly since 1972”
    This hasn’t been studied for an entire human lifetime. We’re extrapolating from incomplete data. Maybe a lot of Boomers were nones that grew up. Any missionary will tell you about all the people who started caring about religion when they got a little older and had a few kids. And the proportion of the population whose parents planted the seed of religion is actually, point 2., poised to increase.

  14. Northern Virginia
    August 31, 2016 at 9:19 am

    “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.”

    This exact issue has been on my mind as our ward has tried to find more people to teach. So many stories about missionary work I heard growing up dealt with teaching people who were searching for something missing in their lives (my mom’s conversion story was along these lines). Perhaps I’m generalizing, but I personally have had no luck in finding people who simply want to learn more.

    Rather, I feel like I’m trying to sell people on taking up golf. It’s expensive, time consuming, and controlled by white people.

  15. Clark Goble
    August 31, 2016 at 9:40 am

    Virginia (14) Yup. Although from what I’ve heard finding people who want to listen has gotten much harder since the 80’s across the board. I’m reminded of the various attempts in the Book of Mormon. In some places you find the humble who are looking and then the people who are well off who don’t even give a chance. That’s why in many ways it’s becoming the job of members but we’re falling down on the job.

    Mars (11) The issue of peer groups and retention is an interesting one. I just don’t know the statistics there. I’d love, for instance, to know how retention rates in Utah compare to out in the “mission field.” My guess is that while the Church might have some internal numbers there really aren’t good numbers for that question.

    The point about religion among the religious remaining relatively constant is important. That’s why I came to my theory that much (but not all) of this shift is primarily a nominal shift. That is a shift in name only. The people are about the same as they were in the 70’s just that then they’d have identified with a group even if in practice they weren’t terribly religious. As I mentioned in my post on the Nones only about half of those who seldom or never attend religious meetings are identifying with a religion. In the past that number would have been much, much higher. (It’s dropped 10 points in 10 years)

    Regarding Europe I’ll admit I’ve not studied that much, but my understanding of the religious resurgence is that it’s driven almost entirely by immigrants. When I get a free moment I’ll try and look it up to see if that’s the case. I seem to recall reading an Economist story on that last year.

    Regarding philosophy I’m skeptical that’s behind the cultural shift. I don’t see that mentioned much in the analysis of the rise of the Nones either. I mentioned my theories on the matter but again in that post on the Nones I mentioned the main theories and that’s not one of them. I think religious excesses (or perceived excesses) are the more dominant cause. The Catholic abuse scandals being a prominent one but also perceptions on the LGBT issues as well. Interestingly despite the rise of the Nones the number who say religion is important is fairly unchanged over 25 years as is the number who pray. Again it’s the less religious who are coming to just not believe in God or religion. (Recognizing once more this is an aggregate number which is being primarily driven by the young)

    While Nones aren’t atheists the percent who are is increasing.

  16. Northern Virginia
    August 31, 2016 at 10:02 am

    I should also mention that, like the Gospel, I love golf. I’m just not very good at either.

  17. Clark Goble
    August 31, 2016 at 10:05 am

    I checked a bit on Europe. Of course one big issue is that Europe’s native population is declining, which allows immigrants to make up a larger part. Pew has up some data on world growth although it’s not Europe specific. While we think of Europe as very secular many people still self-identify as religious there. Here’s what Pew states.

    Europe is the only region where the total population is projected to decline. Europe’s Christian population is expected to shrink by about 100 million people in the coming decades, dropping from 553 million to 454 million. While Christians will remain the largest religious group in Europe, they are projected to drop from three-quarters of the population to less than two-thirds. By 2050, nearly a quarter of Europeans (23%) are expected to have no religious affiliation, and Muslims will make up about 10% of the region’s population, up from 5.9% in 2010. Over the same period, the number of Hindus in Europe is expected to roughly double, from a little under 1.4 million (0.2% of Europe’s population) to nearly 2.7 million (o.4%), mainly as a result of immigration. Buddhists appear headed for similarly rapid growth in Europe – a projected rise from 1.4 million to 2.5 million.

    In the UK part of Europe things are different with the irreligious increasing much faster despite immigration. There are some good stats on the UK. As in Europe generally Islam is the fast increasing religion driven primarily by immigration but also fecundity. Still only 11% of Britons attend religious ceremonies at least monthly. That’s staggeringly low, even acknowledging the different Christian traditions there. (Although to be fair while Americans are much higher, they are still only at 27% according to Pew) The size of the Nones in the UK is 47% with non-Christians making up 8%. In 1983 the size of the Nones was 32%.

  18. Clark Goble
    August 31, 2016 at 10:12 am

    One thing I should have mentioned in those European statistics is that while we think of the US as religious and Europe as secular the numbers aren’t as far apart as one might expect. It tends to be the place of religion socially rather than identification where we start to see the differences. Of course the UK has much more secularism as do the classic wealthier western European nations. The rest of Europe tends to balance out the figures overall. One might have expected the rest of Europe to follow Germany, France and Britain in the move to secularism. However the rapid demographic changes of the past 5 years or so with rising Islamic immigration may change the trends as some turn to religion for signaling of identity. It’ll be interesting to see the European statistics a decade from now.

  19. Brad L
    August 31, 2016 at 10:37 am


    2. Yes, in the US, the religious tend to reproduce more. However, religiosity does not always equal higher fertility. A host of different socioeconomic and cultural factors explain fertility rates around the world, not religiosity alone.
    3. Not entirely. While many European right-wing parties appeal to religious groups, their recent rise in popularity is not explained by some mass return to religion, but as a reaction to the increasing number of foreign migrants pouring into Europe. Traditional organized religion appears to still be in decline throughout Europe.

  20. Mars
    August 31, 2016 at 11:22 am

    I never meant to imply that religiosity was the only factor affecting fertility. Mormons having 3.4 to agnostics’ 1.3 felt pertinent to the conversation, though.

    I wasn’t implying a mass return to religion, either, just that conservative movements and traditional religion have, in the past, gone together. I admit that’s a shakier point, less based on collected facts than my intuition that the pendulum swings both ways.

    Clark, when I talked about the philosophy of the nones I meant just what you’re saying, the idea that they don’t need to show any religion outwardly. Characters in popular works of fiction are very rarely religious, it’s not normal to be religious, and religious characters tend to be stereotyped. That probably has a lot more to do with it than Catholic abuse scandals that wind up in Oscar bait or LGBT issues – I mean, it’s not like no churches have made overtures to LGBT people. Those that have, though, face dwindling attendance, which I see as cementing the point. Most people don’t get their driving philosophy from blogs, they get it from the people they’re around and the media they take in.

    As for European statistics I prefer to track the Muslim diaspora as a separate population. Though a vocal few of them assimilate to European customs while retaining fertility and religious belief, they seem to tend to self-ghettoization and insularity. I predict a strong return to religious custom in Europe if only as a reaction by rebellious youth to their non-religious parents, and to modernity in general. Of course, I predict another major European war “soon,” if only because it’s an easy bet, so take that as you will.

    Virginia, I’m not sure converts unwilling to join based on members’ heritage are the kind of converts that would be retained anyway.

  21. Clark Goble
    August 31, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Mars, I fully agree, especially the point that from a demographic point of view those who embrace social liberalism simply tend to cease to be religious. The fast drop in mainline protestantism is an example of this. They are simply not getting many new converts, despite media attention on LGBT issues, and their demographic is very old and rapidly dying.

    Regarding Europe I’m skeptical. But again I need to make a distinction between what I’d call religiosity and identification. I think for many in Europe Christianity was a kind of marker of identity but not religiosity. I think you saw that a decade ago when Turkey was seeking to enter the EU — well before the current tide of Muslim immigration. However it’s just too early to see what the effect in Europe is. My sense is that it is undermining the idea of a greater Europe with people turning back more towards more local nationalism. Whether that persists as countries better adjust to the immigration remains unclear. I suspect the rate of violence over the next decade will be a big determination as well. It’s not at all clear how European governments will adjust relative to the new situations. I can actually see Europe becoming more like Canada instead of turning to more traditional identity. But it remains to be seen how they react.

  22. Northern Virginia
    August 31, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Mars, thanks for your explanation. I think what I, tongue in cheek, was trying to express was my dismay regarding the the gulf I notice in my ward between the people of color who have made up literally all of the baptisms we have seen in our ward in the last two years and the vast bulk of the active ward membership. Like many, many other U.S. wards, our is overwhelmingly white, U.S. born, and middle class, and we tend to have very, very little in common with our investigators and new converts. We baptize these people and yet they never become a part of the ward family.

    I understand and fully agree that race and class shouldn’t be a problem and yet it still is. I’ve attempted to raise the issue in the ward council, and the response was nods of agreement all around and then moving on to other business.

  23. Mars
    August 31, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    Oh, sorry, I was trying to be tongue-in-cheek too. I forgot you can’t see my face. Anyway, I recall several wards in my (relatively recent) mission that had the same problem. Traditionally our society deals with it by building a fancy church and a dingy church, and that was the temptation in some of them – either old aristocrats that had no room for converts or they were poor and weird and proud of it and fresh-out-of-BYU families with Church experience didn’t stick around long.

    I see the mechanical process of conversion, secular salvation you might say, as one where the poor and marginalized are socialized into the LDS mainstream by generations. A lot of the deep-rooted folk have parents or grandparents that were poor converts, but with a body of competent people that know how to keep savings accounts around have managed to send their kids to a BYU to get, and I am totally in favor of this process, programmed, and sent to the mission field to help others through this process. Unghettofier, Von Neumann church, something like that.

    And I encountered several wards, one entire stake in fact, where this process worked very smoothly. Some might mourn the loss of vibrancy, but at least the “converted” have for the most part happy families where people don’t go to prison.

  24. KLC
    August 31, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    “So many stories about missionary work I heard growing up dealt with teaching people who were searching for something missing in their lives (my mom’s conversion story was along these lines).”

    Yes. For the 50-60 years after WWII the church grew from people searching for something better within the religious context of their families and society. But that context has changed. People aren’t searching as much any more, they are happy and satisfied with their secular lives and don’t see religion as adding anything to them.

    As I’ve worked in and observed missionary work in the church, especially in the last few years of this evolving cultural shift, I feel like we are still touting a new and improved yellow pages, “It’s more authoratative, it’s more accurate, it’s better than all of the old style phonebooks you’ve used in the past!” in the age of Google and smartphones.

  25. Clark Goble
    August 31, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    KLC, I think that’s a big issue. Although we should note it’s relative. The Church still is growing. Something else to keep in mind is that the Church demands a lot. Chastity, tithing, service, weekly meetings, etc. I think we forget just how demanding our faith is. For a generation or two caught up with passive feeding of their desires via media that’s quite a shift. Put an other way we’re saying you’ll be happy by doing a lot whereas there’s an attitude that sees everything in what it does for them. i.e. how fun is it. Service isn’t always fun.

    When the alternative is fun and less demands then what we offer will always be a hard sell even if in the long term it’s more rewarding.

  26. Martin James
    August 31, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    Lots of interesting comments. To Clark’s point, I think smaller family size is a huge issue for a lot of reasons. At the macro level, as fertility rates fall, the retention rate is critical to stay above replacement. I think the US church is just barely at replacement for the newest cohorts unless retention improves a lot. At the family level, there is another factor going on in terms of social support even at the same retention. In other words, 3 to 5 active kids out of six is very different from 1 or 2 active kids out of 3 in terms of family support for church participation. Families are forever, is tougher to pull off with more defections. The distribution of retention in families would seem to matter also. The self-selection may keep retention high for the remaining but they get further from the median attitude of non-attenders. There is a lot to be determined in terms of how a more secular society treats the pockets of strongly religious. Politically, the strongly religious may not be able to form political coalitions because of those differences. For examples, in the USA, latin american catholics, muslims, hindus may not strongly bind to evangelicals, amish, orthodox jews and mormons. There is a lot to happen yet.

  27. Martin James
    August 31, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    When you bring up something like war and demographics, I think you need to consider elite versus non-elite fertility in the equation also. The single biggest factor worldwide in fertility are income and female education levels. Basically, after the demographic transition elite levels of education mean below replacement fertility. Yes, over generations this should mean the high fertility have more social power but that is far from a foregone conclusion. The existing technology is such that the current elites have substantial power over the lives of those that reproduce in in greater numbers. After all, the rich get richer and the poor get kids.

  28. Mars
    August 31, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    While there are quite a few nones that are perfectly fulfilled by their current lifestyles, it does not take much to shake that. Job loss, buying a house, death in the family, birth in the family, things that they didn’t think would make them feel the way they do. Those are the ones the Lord sifts out for us. To go along with the metaphor, your smartphone is great until the battery’s dead and the house is flooded. Of course, the Church doesn’t just provide in emergencies, it deepens the fulfillment found in everything a typical none already enjoys.

    Many people I’ve worked with were longing for something to give order to their lives, even – or especially – if it demanded extra of them. This culture still has a bias against products that are too cheap.

  29. Martin James
    August 31, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    Yes, there are some but the data that really put religion into context for me is the american time use study. Across the whole population across all days of the week, the average american spend 20 minutes a day on all forms of organizational, civic and religious activity (about 9 for religion and 9 for volunteering.) The comparable numbers are 45 minutes per day shopping, 110 minutes on household tasks and 167 minutes on watching TV. What people say fulfills them and what people actually do tell very different stories.
    It is a very complicated picture socially in the world right now. The future is futuristic.

  30. KLC
    August 31, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Sure, there are always searchers looking for something. But in the aggregate, things are changing and our core message doesn’t resonate like it once did. That says nothing about the message and everything about the ears that hear it.

    I had lots of success in South America on my mission 40 years ago because mothers and fathers were hugely concerned about getting their children baptized correctly. Our message of authority, proxy baptism, etc, resonated with them. As I’ve said a few times on LDS blogs (probably too many times) I can’t imagine anyone I work with now losing sleep at night over who has the authority to baptize their children. It’s just not on their radar. We have had more than 100 years of success because our message addressed the existential concerns of people in society. I’m not suggesting we should change our message, I am suggesting that society in general is moving away from it.

  31. Mars
    August 31, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    Yeah, it’s a lot harder to teach eternal families when they see it as the default. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a tough nut to crack.

    Still, I think – and it might seem counterintuitive – that we will draw more to us by adopting harsher stances. There’s just not a lot of room for strength in the public sphere anymore. Do What Thou Wilt has become most of the law, and we’re finding out why most human societies have had very strict (relative to today) moral codes. I keep thinking of Brad Pitt’s monologue in Fight Club about a generation of men raised by women, never having a chance to feel proud of themselves. This church gives them that chance. Our patriarchy may turn out to our advantage after all.

    Martin, I don’t doubt that most people spend more time on Netflix than volunteering, but when you ask them about their lives, what puts the glow in their eyes? Fifteen minutes in a soup kitchen outweighs a season of streamed TV every time. First-world nations often have extreme time surpluses, but just because we’re prodigal with them does not mean that is where we put our gods.

  32. Martin James
    August 31, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    MTD seems very consistent with a soup kitchen glow and I hear lots of complaints from older mormon males about the harshness of the MTD requirements on being nice.

  33. Callahan
    August 31, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    For me personally the message of the benefits of service that the church offers don’t resonate with me. I don’t find any particular fulfillment serving at soup kitchens. Nor with helping people move, yard work, picking up trash, or any other of the standard service activities that the church encourages.

    I’ve felt the same way about the majority of my callings. They’ve all been mildly boring or unpleasant and none has ever given me that fulfillment or glow that everyone talks about here.

    But I recently got a calling as a French Gospel Principle teacher. I enjoy that but it’s probably more selfish because I just really enjoy speaking in French with others.

    However, I can’t extrapolate my experience onto a broader trend, in fact from my anecdotal conversations with other active millennials I suspect I’m a small minority. Probably because like-minded people have already become Nones. (I guess that was an extrapolation right there… call it an untested hypothesis)

  34. Mars
    August 31, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    Martin, you’re right. I think we ought to distinguish between apatheistic “true nones,” MTD, and what I would call the secular faithful (social justice types). All three would probably mark “none,” but the soup kitchen glow is something we’re competing against. Netflix just makes a vacuum we can fill.

    The secular faithful are the ones that are concerned about LGBT policies, and I would argue that we’re not going to draw them in no matter what they do. They – and I don’t have any sources on this – seem to change churches without actually attending them. I call them faithful because they tend to treat social causes with the same kind of vigor and dogmatism that you would expect from a religious adherent. Who says you can’t be religious but not spiritual? Anyway they are a large and complex movement that is a fascinating topic of study I haven’t done.

    MTDs are a little closer to true nones on a spectrum. They find fulfillment in life, they believe in God and sunsets, they typically have close friends. They can come to the Church in times of crisis, but often just go to whoever finds them first – and often go right back to MTD when the crisis has passed, confident that their new Mormon friends will be able to help them if something happens again.

    True nones are the most important in my opinion. I’d say this is the largest of the three groups I just made up (you could probably split it more I guess), and the group with the greatest chance of members being receptive to the Gospel. This is the “none” of the lower classes, the people who never had any religious contacts at all, the people who don’t have any friends – not saying these traits don’t apply to the other groups, they’re just more common here. This group is a total toss-up. Quite often they have no foundation and are very easily socialized into a functional ward. These are the people who would crave the Church’s challenge and discipline – secular faithful have their work cut out for them, MTD would have joined a church if they wanted that.

    I’m not too concerned about fertility here – probably highest in MTD, but they typically let their child choose what religion they want, which in my experience is mostly true none.

  35. BigSky
    August 31, 2016 at 11:12 pm

    Clark, thanks for sharing such interesting thoughts and data references.

    I compiled the number of full-time missionaries, converts and baptisms of record by year from 1970-2014 in a spreadsheet using the church’s annual statistical report delivered in general conference. The trends are alarming.

    Average convert baptisms per full-time missionary have been in a steady decline and moved from ~8 to ~3 over that period, with some variation. Convert baptisms do not seem to have moved much over the past decade and are down considerably from the early 90’s. Growth from children of record baptisms has experienced only modest gains over the past decade. While the church is experiencing growth, incremental growth YOY from both converts and children of record baptisms appears to be trending flat or even in a modest negative decline. There certainly doesn’t seem to be the compounded growth rate some sociologists predicted a decade or two ago. It is difficult to fit a line to the data and extrapolate outside the dataset looking ahead, but unless there is a change I fear the church could experience negative growth a few years from today.

    The big question(s) is, of course, what are the key drivers?

    1) Nuclear Mormon families in North America are having fewer children AND 1 in 3 (approaching 1 in 2) fall away resulting in their children not being baptized?
    2) Slowing convert baptisms in developed economies?
    3) The church’s offering–how it improves the lives of its members–is slipping in relevancy?
    4) The 50-year-old model of young men and women in white shirts, ties and dresses with name tags preaching a message of eternal families does not resonate with many market segments (outside of perhaps developing economies)?
    5) The social costs of identifying as Mormon are becoming too high for young members whose generation values authenticity above all else as well as valuing greater consciousness towards issues relating to social justice–many of the church’s policies seem misaligned in this regard?

    Church growth, activity rates, self-identification is critically important and I wish I heard more from the pulpit about this other than more missionaries and more commitment on the part of members to use pass along cards. I hope I am not coming off as being jaded, but realistic.

  36. Clark Goble
    August 31, 2016 at 11:40 pm

    BigSky, I had a post a few months ago on the per missionary convert rate. I think most of the changes except for the recent bump are fairly easy to explain. I personally am pretty worried about the shift to the age of 18 for missionaries. We’ll see over the next year or two if my fears are warranted.

    While I understand some of the positive reasons for the change I really think it has some big negatives as well. Of course what counts is what God wants in all this. Both he and the brethren are much better at balancing those costs and benefits than I am.

    Rodney Stark’s comments on Mormon growth back in the 90’s were always silly to my eyes. You just don’t get exponential growth past a certain point. The way some Mormons embraced them in a kind of triumphant “I told you” so was extremely unfortunate at best. So comparing our growth since the 90’s to unrealistic expectations doesn’t bother me much.

    I’ve not written on foreign growth as it’s so much harder to get good figures there although there are a few people who’ve written on them.

    It is worth repeating what I said in that post on converts per missionaries. While conversion is important, that’s not necessarily the most significant aspect functionally for missionary service.

  37. Clark Goble
    September 1, 2016 at 12:04 am

    BTW – for those interested Stark’s views then are online. As I said I think they were somewhat abused by some people pushing an unrealistic triumphalist perspective.

    BigSky, a few things I didn’t mention earlier. First on retention rate of children of record as I’ve said I’m far from convinced the rate has ever been higher than 70% and I suspect has been between 65%-70% most of the post war era. (Although I can’t prove that easily) I’m very skeptical it’ll drop significantly, although getting near 60% wouldn’t be out of the question. That’s one reason why I’m very curious to see the next ARIS study as I find their statistics a little more trustworthy than Pew’s for various reasons. (They usually differ somewhat as well) Because different studies have different flaws and sometimes different measurements it’s very important to not mix them uncritically. I had a warning on using retention figures back at my old blog earlier this year.

    Again though I may well be wrong and we may see retention drop below 60%. I’d be quite surprised if that were the case though.

    It is true that the birth rate of Mormons is dropping, although it is still the highest in the country I believe. Again since especially the recession of 2008 birth rates dropped across the country including in Utah and among Mormons. My understanding is they are slowly creeping back up slightly though. At a national level the rate had dropped earlier in the 70’s and then recovered in the late 80’s. So I’m loath to draw too long term a trend for this given economic stresses. (The low point was 1975 with 1.74 births per woman and we’ve dropped to 1.88 in 2012)

    Issues regarding how we conduct missionary work are definitely worth discussing. I tend to be quite sympathetic to a major rethink although I do like how they church has recently embraced new technology. (Although they need to carry around a portable bluetooth speaker as it’s really hard to hear their iPads) I don’t think there are any obvious better approaches although that may be a lack of imagination on my part. I think that, as when I was on a mission, the best missionary work is done by regular member bringing their friends to the missionaries. But by and large most people don’t like doing that.

    While I don’t have good evidence for my solutions so I don’t push them too hard, I’d probably raise the missionary age back up to 19 and then significantly increase the number of Stake Missionaries as callings. I also think we have the problem of primarily proselytizing dissatisfied Christians. This means we don’t do as well in Asia as say Evangelicals. I think we need a real rethink in how we present our message. It may well be we should be targeting Nones and building upon common ground there simply requires a different common ground.

    Regarding social justice again it’s hard to know how to take it. There have been extremely rapid social changes the past 10 years. Probably nothing like it has happened in the post war era other than the late 60’s. I think that transition is still going on. Until we reach an other point of social stability I’m loath to say much. I remember when I was young how Reagan conservatism was a big thing. So these social changes don’t tend to persist as long as some think.

  38. BigSky
    September 1, 2016 at 1:29 am

    Thanks Clark for the reply and for being generous with some of my lazy thinking: It is always easier to conjecture what is wrong with the current state of things than proposal viable solutions within the realistic limitations of our church institution.

    I am interesting in reading your thoughts on the missionary conversation rate and will go back and look at your earlier post. I understand and agree there are other reasons the church may want more young adults to engage in full-time service by lowering the age of service. I too question it’s impact on conversion rates but must also confess I’m not qualified to assess the trade-offs at play. It seems obvious part of the thinking is to hedge against losses associated with young men taking a gap year between high school graduation and missionary service. And capturing the value of more young women serving by lowering their age of service to 19 is brilliant I think. But I am sure it will take time to tell if both decisions produce positive utility overall.

    Your Reagan reference warmed my heart and I get what you are saying. I come from the generation of Alex Keaton. I will go out on a limb and suggest even if the rapidity of the current cultural shift softens or slows, the delta that is left will create problems depending on if and how quickly the church moves to, at a minimum, align with the slope of the current cultural change in this regard. My guess is this will happen in time, probably in step with Q15 turnover. The question is how long will that take and what will be the costs in the meantime. I don’t see a reverse in direction societally with millennials relative to LGBT issues, as one example. But I’m really freewheeling at this point and need to bring myself back to some level of disciplined analysis.

    Your post has rekindled my interest in and motivation to dive back into the national survey data and consider points you make. As always, thanks for putting in the time to spark good discussion.

  39. Frank McIntyre
    September 3, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    Apologies to all. we are transferring servers and lost a few comments in the process. we’ll do our best to get them back ASAP.

  40. Clark Goble
    September 4, 2016 at 10:19 pm

    I don’t have edit permissions at the blog, but I’m just adding the comments manually. My apologies if they look weird. I’ll try and mark in bold who actually wrote them. Forgive me for any mistakes and don’t hesitate to correct them. My sense is the order is slightly off and we may still be missing a comment or two. But hopefully this helps.

    Clark If (as many assume) the reason for the drop to 18 is primarily to avoid people falling away when they go to college I”m skeptical this will change that much. It may actually make things worse since many people just aren”t ready at 18. By pushing it for 18 you have more people with bad missions who might fall away when they get home. (And that year back is stressful and a period when many surprisingly do fall away)

    This is a place where it”s hard to have public statistics. I suspect the Church has some activity numbers internally although they”d likely just be estimates. Like I said, if that was the aim, I”m skeptical this will make a difference.

    I think LGBT issues are a done deal. Gen-X through Millennials overwhelmingly accept LGBT normalization even among religious believers. To my eyes that was the case back in the late 90”s when the Church started making those a big deal. I thought the social moment was such that the next 20 years turned out about as I expected. Right now we”re going through a period where there is solidification of these social changes and then expansions in other areas like transgender. It”s not at all clear how religions will adopt to the new normal. Right now they realize they blew it in the 90”s despite the signs. They”re trying to carve out exemptions in the public sphere but again I think that”s a lost cause despite trying to portray it as religious freedom. Too much of the public simply sees LGBT the way they saw skin color with the adoption of the new views happening far more rapidly than racial view shifts.

    Once that policy is absorbed socially though it”s not at all clear what happens next. I could easily see the left becoming a victim of their own success much like the right found after the shift rightward in the 80”s/90”s stabilized. We”ve since seen a big shift leftward primarily due to GOP being unable to really explicate themselves from living in the past. I suspect that with religions there”s a similar danger of fighting battles that are already lost rather than adjusting to the new reality.

    Socially I”ll be honest it”s not at all clear what the next 10 years hold. The Trump/alt-right might be a last gasp of a certain mindset or it may illustrate a new movement coming out of the recession. I suspect the former simply because I think demographic changes will dominant. My guess is that the left is about where the right was in the late 90”s, with the associated problems. But we”ll see. Demographics aren”t as determinative as some think.

    Clark Chris, I missed your comments way back in (9). I think you raise a good point. Of course government/civilization evolved socially with religion in a fairly intertwined way. So I”m not convinced they ever were as separate as some portray, even in medieval Europe through the early modern era. However it does seem clear that many functions of religion socially have been taken over by the state or business.

    One example I like to raise is how quasi-religious groups like the Masons within the US actually grew substantially in the late 19th century and early 20th century due to the social need for insurance and a social net. As private life and medical insurance developed in the post-war era and the state started providing a social net those organizations largely dried up. Effectively the religious/mystic trappings were secondary to their primary social role. I think you”re completely correct that for many people the primary social roles of religion were fairly unrelated to religiosity.
    Of course it”s easy to see amongst the educated left how “social justice activism” has adopted many features of religion. Back in the 20th century many noted how socialism and communism ended up adopting the structures of religion as well. Even religious ritual often pops up among the secular in odd ways. Finally while western Europe is no longer religious, many quasi-religious practices such as alternative medicine, “spiritualism” and the like are still extremely popular.

    Your point about nordic countries being the leading indicator in all this is a good one. Although I think in some ways the US is just fundamentally different not just because of individualism (both in terms of religion and government) but in how it perceives itself. That said it”s interesting that the shifts we”re seeing in the US started in Canada about a decade earlier. So it may well be that Canada is a sign of what the US is becoming. My sense is that the big shift in the United States is really urbanization which shifts what freedoms people care about as well as their structural needs. The rift politically between the urban and the suburban/rural is of course well known. But I don”t think people have paid as much attention to it in terms of religion nor the rise of the Nones.

  41. Clark Goble
    September 4, 2016 at 10:22 pm

    (More rescued comments – name in bold is who is writing)

    Mars ‘I”m not too sure about LGBT issues being a “done deal” or the “new normal,” precisely because, as you said, it happened so much faster than race issues. It feels less like an organic shift in opinion and more like an imposition. I imagine a lot of Millennials that are pro-LGBT in public are less so in private. And race issues aren”t even done yet, the current tack of rhetoric among the younger anti-racist set could easily push us back to the 50s on that.

    One side-effect of the missionary age change is a much smoother courtship culture. I left my mission to a school full of 21-year-old return missionaries and 18-year-old girls just out of high school. Return sister missionaries were 25 with masters” degrees. 21-year-old women had typically married return missionaries already. Enormous maturity gap. Now there”s still a gap but not nearly as much of one – not sure if it”s intended, but it”s certainly welcome.

    MTodd Most who know me would say I”m TBM. But I”m definitely on the fence right now as to whether I”ll stay or go. If I go, I”ll likely become a none. For me it”s a combination of factors: the November policy (and the Church”s awful handling of it) exposed a side of the Church leadership that really bothers me; related, some of the hard nosed comments of general Church leaders (like the Church doesn”t apologize) irks me; leader worship; polygamy, I have a hard time with older men coercing teenage brides; sacrament meetings that don”t mention the Savior; sacrament meetings that are exceedingly dull; other members blaming me when I mention that I”m bored (“You”re obviously not preparing yourself spiritually.”) But now I”m just ranting.

    JI MTodd, It”s a choice, isn”t it? Like the choice of some in John 6:60 and 66 versus the choice of others in 6:68-69. When you do make your choice, make it for the right reason.

    I think that”s why the Nones are rising, at least n part — speaking generally, they are seeing church as a social club, with a what”s-in-it-for-me perspective

    MTodd I think my point is, if I choose to leave, it won”t be because I”m only loosely committed. For me it”s a plethora of reasons (none of which is a piñata)

    Clark MTodd, I can but say I hope you don”t go. As someone once said the Church is an infirmary run by the infirmed. I think we need to see through the eyes Jesus sees us with. Imagine how a bunch of racist ignorant bigoted 1st century Palestinians must have seemed to Christ. Knowing what he knew, it must have been even worse than if we had to live in Roman occupied Palestine. Yet somehow he loved them and did great things with them despite their ignorance and flaws. If Christ can do that, I can surely handle quite enlightened and liberally educated yet still flawed 21st century people I encounter.

    Regarding my point about people leaving, again these are aggregate numbers. There are lots of reasons people leave. These analysis of the Nones are more being made by non-Mormon (and typically secular) polling agencies, social scientists and psychologists. However the categories certainly don”t fit everyone but describe major trends within the subgroups

  42. whizzbang
    September 5, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    I know more inactive members of the Church than active. I don’t know any who attend another Church. Two have told me that the Church ruined it for God and other Churches, they seem to not accept what other Churches say about God and themselves for these two at least to find believable. In saying this though some inactives tell me that it never leaves you, they have problems with the Church so much so they don’t attend but it somehow something about it never leaves them. I live in Canada. I see a disconnect with what the top leaders say and what the lay members believe, I don’t know many Canadian members who are opposed to Gay Marriage, we aren’t seeing the societal devastation that others say is supposed to happen.

  43. Clark Goble
    September 6, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    (There’s one more set of lost comments I’d added that didn’t go through for some reason – perhaps because they were too long. I’ll try and re-add those tonight. My apologies.)

    Whizzbang, while Pew and ARIS don’t capture well committed converts who leave the church they do give a good analysis of those who were born in the church and leave. Surprisingly only half of those who leave become Nones. At least surprising to me! Especially considering that there will be a disproportionate number who leave in their 20’s. That would mean one would expect the much larger move towards the Nones we see increasing in recent generations.

    That said, I tend to agree with you. Fideism, while popular in some ways with certain Mormon intellectuals, seems to really be rejected as a valid justification for belief in Mormonism. We tend to be strong evidentialists. However to leave means to undercut significantly how one judges religious experiences as evidences. What get undermined would, for many people, undermine any basis for Christianity at all. There’s also the historical issues. While there’s undeniably controversial historical things in Mormon history, all of those things are also present in traditional Christianity merely further in the past. If you reject the Book of Mormon because of perceiving there are conflicts with history, the New Testament and Old Testament are not much better. Maybe there are actual Jews unlike (according to this view) actual Nephites but most of the history of the Jews in the Old Testament is rejected as is a great deal of the New Testament.

    Of course the reason I think people still remain Christians is because the reasons they leave are actually pretty loosely tied to the intellectual grounds of religions and are more tied to social reasons. i.e. how you interact with the church socially.

    Still given the growth of the Nones among Millennials I’d expect the number of Mormons who leave to become Nones to increase with the next studies of ARIS or Pew.

    Regarding gay marriage, I won’t get into that issue too much as I know it remains controversial. I’d just say I’m not sure one has to accept the validity of short term “devastation” to think the Lord wants the brethren to pursue to the course they have. As I said I think that within the US the last 20 years was pretty predictable socially on this issue. It was also pretty predictable that social conservatives wouldn’t plan for the long term. I’m not sure it means rearguard actions for lost causes were incorrect. After all there are lots of things one should fight for that are a loosing cause politically or socially.

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