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Report On 'Nones': In U.S., Ranks Of Those Who Don't Identify With A Religion Are Growing


September 29, 2009

The number of Americans who do not identify with an organized religion has mushroomed in the past two decades, and in another 20 years they could make up one-quarter of the nation's population, according to a new Trinity College study.

Researchers at the Hartford college have named them the Nones: "the irreligious, the unreligious, the anti-religious and the anti-clerical."

The Nones aren't part of an organized movement and they don't adhere to a common set of beliefs. In a report released last week, the Trinity researchers use the term to describe the 34 million Americans who do not partake in the diverse options that are part of the American religious landscape.

"Some believe in God; some do not," says the report, "American Nones: Profile of the No Religion Population."

"Some may participate occasionally in religious rituals," the report says. "Others never will."

Their ranks are growing: In 1990, they made up 8.1 percent of the adult population; by 2008, the figure was 15 percent. Most of the jump came during what the report's authors refer to as the "secular boom" of the 1990s.

Count Matthew Ashner among them.

The 31-year-old Burlington man has a master's degree in neuroscience from the University of Hartford. "That helped to shape the things I believe in," he said.

Growing up, Ashner attended Sunday school at a Congregational church in Goshen. Like many Nones, he now considers himself an agnostic, not an atheist. Although he views the Bible as a collection of "wacky stories" and dismisses the idea of God as an all-knowing "man in the clouds," he accepts the principle that the universe is ruled by a higher force.

"I do believe in something," Ashner added, "but organized religion has no appeal."

Ashner's belief in a higher power puts him in line with fully half of the Nones surveyed. Only 7 percent described themselves as atheists. Most Nones, the report says, are "perhaps best described as skeptics."

The rising secular population can no longer be considered "a fringe group" within a largely religious nation, the report says. Nones can be found throughout Middle America, and northern New England now rivals the West Coast as the most secular region.

In Connnecticut, 16 percent of adults don't align themselves with an organized religion, according to the Trinity report.

Although Nones tend to be younger, they cross the demographic spectrum. "Today there is not a single demographic group of people in the U.S. that does not include Nones," according to the report.

But the research also shows a significant gender gap, said Barry A. Kosmin, a Trinity sociologist and lead author of the report, which is based on data collected for the landmark American Religious Identification Survey 2008. That survey, the third in a series, provided a detailed look at American religious practices, based on a sampling of 54,461 adults throughout the U.S.

"Women are more religious than men," said Kosmin, who worked with demographer and Trinity Professor Ariela Keysar; University of Tampa sociologist Ryan Cragun; and Juhem Navarro-Rivera, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Connecticut. "Now every religion in the U.S., apart from a few immigrant religions, has a female majority."

In fact, 60 percent of the Nones are men, even though women make up a slight majority of the U.S. population as a whole.

Bradley R.E. Wright, a UConn sociologist not affiliated with the study, noted that the gender difference is especially pronounced in American Christianity.

"Girls are more likely to be socialized into religion than boys, perhaps as part of training them to be conventional and as a way of controlling their behavior," Wright said in an e-mail. Also, "Christian churches cater to women, rather than men, by creating a safe, quiet female-oriented environment one that calls for ceremony, control and conformity."

The Trinity report also found that women are more likely than men to reject a secular upbringing. Even when girls grow up without religion, they find their way to organized faith as adults more often than their male counterparts.

That was certainly the path taken by Sharon Christie. The 38-year-old mother from Hamden wasn't raised in a religious household. "We went to church a couple of times a year," she said. "It didn't have any meaning, it was just something we did, like going out to dinner."

As a student at Syracuse University, Christie participated in the college party scene but began to sense an emptiness. During a year abroad in Spain, her roommate introduced her to the idea that religion could bring truth and meaning to life.

"I fell in love with the teachings of the church," said Christie, who is Catholic. "I can't imagine going through life without faith and hope in something greater than this."

Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut and a Catholic, said that perhaps the question isn't why women are more religious, but rather why men are less likely to identify with religion, especially mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. The Trinity report found that 24 percent of the Nones are former Catholics.

Wolfgang has a theory. "Men like a challenge," he said. "They like to be told they have to meet a certain standard." He cited what he views as watered-down, feel-good Sunday sermons that would be right at home on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" as an example of what turns men away.

Whatever the reason, the Trinity report predicts the ranks of the Nones will continue to swell.

"In the future we can expect more American Nones given that 22 percent of the youngest cohort of adults self-identify as Nones and they will become tomorrow's parents," the report says. "If current trends continue and cohorts of non-religious young people replace older religious people, the likely outcome is that in two decades the Nones could account for around one-quarter of the American population."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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