Dislike of organized religion, maltreatment cited by many ‘Nones,’ Pew finds

More than half of religiously unaffiliated Americans, identified as ‘Nones,” say they don’t like organized religion or have been mistreated by religious people, Pew Research said Jan. 24.

Specifically, 55 percent of Nones cited one of the two factors in explaining their reason for being nonreligious. Nearly half of respondents, 47 percent, said their dislike of religious organizations is an extremely or very important reason they’re nonreligious, while 30 percent said the same about bad experiences with religious people.

Maltreatment by religious people was cited more often among women Nones, at 32 percent, than among men, at 27 percent.

Skepticism of religious teachings and a disbelief in God were the most common reasons cited by Nones in explaining themselves, with 60 percent questioning a lot of religious teachings and 32 percent not believing in God or a higher power. Altogether, 67 percent cited one or both factors.

Others, 44 percent, say they’re nonreligious because they either don’t have time for religion (41 percent) and/or don’t need it (12 percent).

Nones comprise more than a quarter of American adults, 28 percent, with 20 percent of them describing themselves as agnostic, 17 percent saying they are atheists, and 63 percent saying they are “nothing in particular” religiously.

While Nones’ 28 percent share of the population marks a continual decrease since 2021, and is equal to findings in 2020 and 2019, Pew’s researchers said that doesn’t necessarily mean Nones are decreasing among the population.

“These kinds of trends are best assessed over the long haul, based on many survey readings. After all, every estimate from a probability survey comes with a margin of error,” researchers wrote. “Furthermore, it’s always possible that any single survey could be an outlier – that is, any one survey can defy the odds and produce an estimate that differs from the ‘true’ value by more than the margin of error.”

Pew culled its findings from the 3,317 religious Nones among the 11,201 respondents in a study among Pew’s American Trends Panel conducted in the summer of 2023. That sampling included 658 atheists, 678 agnostics and 1,981 “nothing in particular” adults.

Researchers detailed various characteristics of Nones, including their civic engagement, spirituality, attitudes toward religion, and views of science and morality.

Most Nones, 70 percent, believe in God or a higher power, followed by 67 percent who believe humans have a soul or spirit, and 63 percent believing there is something beyond the natural world we can’t see. Strong majorities (61 percent) don’t believe in heaven, nor hell, 69 percent.

Nones are not automatically hostile to religion, Pew found, with 41 percent saying religion is just as good as it is harmful to society. More, 44 percent, said religion is more harmful than good.

About a fifth of Nones, 19 percent, consistently cited negative views of religion in all five categories Pew addressed, saying religion does more harm than good in society, encourages superstition and causes division. This segment also rejects notions that religion encourages people to treat others well, and helps society by giving people meaning and purpose in their lives.

Among other top findings:

  • 39 percent of Nones voted in 2022 midterm elections, compared to 51 percent of the religiously affiliated; but voting was nearly as high among atheists, at 50 percent, as among the religiously affiliated.
  • 10 percent of Nones say a belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values. Nearly all agnostics, 98 percent, and atheists, 97 percent, said a person can be moral and have good values without believing in God.
  • 44 percent of Nones believe there is a scientific explanation for everything, with the highest adherence among atheists at 78 percent.

In addition to its 2023 American Trends Panel, Pew also relied on earlier ATP studies and its National Public Opinion Reference Surveys in drawing its conclusions. Pew’s report is available here.

— Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.