The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated: Why a Decline in American Religion Matters to Everyone

Credit: castillodominici / Thinkstock

The landscape of American religion is changing. In recent decades, immigration and migration have led to greater religious diversity. The largest religious tradition in America is also not immune, as an increasingly global Christianity has redefined the styles and cultures of many local faith communities. New forms of religious institutions are also taking root as Americans are feeling freer to practice their faith in a myriad of ways. There is a growing diversity and vitality within American religion. At the same time, there are also signs of decline. And in recent years, the narrative of decline may have grabbed greater attention.

I am often pulled into debates around what the “rise of the nones” means for religious institutions, giving, and civil society. These “nones,” those religiously unaffiliated Americans identifying themselves as “none of the above” on the Pew Research Center’s polls, now make up 23% of Americans. They make up over 35% of American millennials. This is a tremendous jump over the last decade (from 16.1% in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014). For many faith communities that are experiencing decline in attendance and giving numbers, these trends are obviously disconcerting, but what might they mean more broadly for American society?

A first question might be to ask, who are these “nones”? A little under half of these “nones” are atheists or agnostic, but the other half are simply nothing in particular. In a new study released just last week, Pew digs more deeply into these categories. A large percentage of current “nones” were raised within a faith tradition. In their research, Pew discovered that of those “nones” raised with religion, “about half (49%) indicate that lack of belief led them to move away from religion.” Another 20% express an opposition to organized religion generally. Still another 18% are simply religiously unsure. And 10% of those “nones” initially raised with a religious affiliation are now classified as “inactive.” Often the reason given is simply busyness – too busy to attend or look for a faith community.

The larger question for many philanthropic scholars, however, goes even deeper. What do these changes mean for the future of civil society? Some have equated the “rise of the nones” alongside a parallel decline in religious institutions. Of course, this decline is not only relegated to faith communities. It has also been felt by countless civic institutions, such as Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis chapters, and other community groups. Is the decline in religious affiliation simply following social trends, or is something bigger at play as well? Religious activity in America has long been strongly associated with civil society and philanthropy. Not only has it consistently remained by far the largest sector of philanthropic giving, it also it key motivator for many to engage in a variety of service and community engagement. Religious institutions are also key providers of social services. So the question for nonprofits of all kinds is: can organized religion decline without affecting civil society? Can civil society decline without affecting organized religion?

The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving exists to explore the relationship between faith and giving.  The Lake Institute offers programs and seminars focused on faith based giving such as:

  • Creating Congregational Cultures of Generosity
  • Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising
  • Spiritual Values and Philanthropic Discernment

David P. King is the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving as well as Assistant Professor of Philanthropic Studies within the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. He arrived at IUPUI in 2014 after serving as Assistant Professor of Christian History at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis,TN. He earned his Ph.D. from Emory University with a specific interest in American religious history and its intersections with the growing field of world Christianity. His recent research focuses on the rise of evangelical relief and development NGOs, religious humanitarianism, and religion’s engagement with international affairs. He is passionate about research and teaching but as an ordained minister having served local churches and national faith-based organizations, he is also fueled by facilitating conversations with faith leaders, donors, and fundraisers (of all generations) around the intersections of faith and giving. Contact the lake institute at or on twitter @LakeInstitute.