America’s nonreligious are young and liberal — but that’s not the whole story

More and more U.S. adults claim no religious identity. A new study offers insight into what they think about organized religion, politics and God.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) More and more Americans claim no religious identity. A new report from the Pew Research Center looks at who falls into this growing group — and why.

America’s “nones” — atheists, agnostics and those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” — are younger and more liberal than the country’s religiously affiliated, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

Based on responses from more than 3,300 individuals, the report, released Wednesday, offers one of the most in-depth portraits to date of a fast-growing group that claims more than a quarter of all U.S. adults.

“Surveys have consistently shown that many Americans view religion’s declining influence in society as a bad thing,” the report’s authors write, noting that, as a whole, “nones” tend to volunteer and vote less.

But drill down on specific subgroups and a complicated picture emerges regarding who “nones” are, their behaviors and what they believe, the study shows. This is especially true when comparing atheists and agnostics with “nothing in particular” respondents.

Take civic engagement, for example.

The latest data — based on online surveys of 658 atheists, 678 agnostics, and 1,981 respondents who marked their religion as “nothing in particular” — found that lower rates of community involvement was mostly concentrated among the “nothing” group. Atheists and agnostics, the study indicates, participate in civic life at rates mirroring or, in some cases, even exceeding the religiously affiliated.

Who are the ‘nones’?

Of the “nones” surveyed, 69% were under 50. By comparison, the report notes that an estimated 45% of U.S. adults who identify as religious are under 50.

Across subgroups, the age spread found within the new report was fairly even, with atheists and “nothing” respondents most likely to fall between ages 30 and 49, and agnostics between ages 18 and 29.

In terms of education, the respondents were again split between the more educated atheists and agnostics, and the “nothing in particular” crowd, who tended to have lower levels of educational attainment than the average religious U.S. adult.

As for race, the breakdown of U.S. “nones” was “broadly similar” to that of religious Americans.

But, again, the story changed when dividing out the atheist and agnostic respondents from the “nothing in particular” participants. Atheists and agnostics were overwhelmingly white —77% and 69%, respectively — compared to 57% of those from the “nothing” subgroup.

A similar trend applied to gender. While “nones” overall were “roughly split” between men and women, atheists and agnostics were “far more” likely to be men. Of the “nothing in particular” respondents, 44% were men.

What ‘nones’ believe — and why

Most “nones” believe in God or some higher power but reject the concepts of heaven and hell, according to the study. Strict nonbelievers — those who don’t believe in God or a higher power, the human soul or any kind of life after death — made up about 20% of respondents.

Many participants selected multiple reasons for why they are nonreligious. The most common response was questioning “a lot of religious teachings,” followed by a dislike of religious organizations as a whole.

In third place was simply not seeing a need for religion, followed by a disbelief in God or a higher power and having had a bad experience with “religious people.” More than 10% said they just didn’t have time for religion.

Nearly half the participants said they think of themselves as spiritual, or that spirituality was important in their lives.

While most of the respondents said they believed religion does some harm, many also thought it does some good. In short, the study’s authors write, the “nones” are “not uniformly anti-religious.”

Political affiliation

Overall, American “nones” are much more likely than religious Americans to identify as liberal versus conservative. But here again, atheists, 65% of whom were liberal, and agnostics, 56% of whom were also liberal, were more aligned in their thinking than the 31% of their “nothing in particular” peers who consider themselves liberal. Those in the final group were more likely to identify as moderate.

This division translated into party affiliation, with 78% of atheists and 71% of agnostics identifying as Democrats, while roughly half of “nothing in particular” participants associated themselves with the party.

As a white, college-educated male born in 1989, Nate Blouin fits squarely within the mold laid out in the study of a “none” — except when it comes to civic engagement.

In 2022, Blouin, a Democrat, snagged a seat in the Utah Senate, where he now represents a district that covers a chunk of Salt Lake City and extends south into Murray.

The state senator, who said he falls into the “nothing in particular” camp, wasn’t surprised to hear that “nones” are, on the whole, less politically and civically engaged.

Blouin was raised in New Hampshire, where he sometimes attended a Unitarian Universalist congregation with his parents.

Many of his religious colleagues at the Capitol, he said, developed the skills needed to succeed as a politician at church, and not just any church. Blouin specifically named Utah’s predominant fatih, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which a majority of his fellow lawmakers are members, as a place where individuals can hone their speaking and community-building prowess.

Meanwhile, the country’s “deep ties between political and religious groups,” he said, serve to reinforce one another, “for better or worse.”

Blouin believes the relationship between religious affiliation — or its absence — and civic engagement goes deeper than simply helping people decide their political team. Rather, he thinks it impacts how they try and shape government and policymaking.

Religious people, in his experience, are often more likely to try and influence politics through “direct action” (read: running for office), while “nones” often seek to influence from the outside through activism.

His message to his fellow “nones”: “Develop those [political] skills and try to find ways to get involved.”