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More Americans report losing interest in organized religion

In 1972, only 5% of Americans identified as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. Today, that figure is closer to 30%.
More Americans report losing interest in organized religion
Posted at 11:41 AM, Oct 16, 2023

Ask Americans what their religion is and 1 in 3 will say "none," according to a recent AP-NORC poll.

"The most important story without a shadow of a doubt is the unbelievable rise in the share of Americans who are non-religious," says Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University.

And those numbers have been growing for years now.

"In 1972 only 5% of Americans identified as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular," Burge added. "Today, it's 30% of Americans identify as 'nones.' And amongst the youngest adult Americans, it's probably over 45% of Americans identifying as non-religious."

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But all of the so-called "nones" are not the same.

"We have three types of nones," Burge said. "Atheists, who are the ones who say God does not exist. Agnostics are people who say that we can't know if God exists or not. And then a third group is called 'nothing in particular. ' And this group is actually the fastest growing religious group in America today."

Students in Burge's political science classes at Eastern Illinois University call him professor. But at the First Baptist Church in nearby Mount Vernon, Illinois, he's known as pastor.

"When I see the line graph pointing downwards, it's not just a line graph," he said. "It's what I've seen every single Sunday of my life the last 16 years as we went from 52, 42, 32, 22, 10. This is not just some academic exercise for me. This is my life."

The author of a book called "The Nones," Burge says identifying as "nothing in particular" doesn't mean those respondents believe in nothing at all.

"'Nothing in particulars' are definitely less religious than Catholics, or Protestants, or Jews, but they're a whole lot more religious than atheists or agnostics are," he said.

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The AP-NORC poll showed that the majority in this group believe in God, and about half say they believe in angels, the power of prayer and heaven. In Rocheport, Missouri, Mike Dulak identifies as "nothing in particular" when it comes to religious affiliation.

"I'm not involved in any kind of religious group whatsoever," he said. "I'm involved in being a decent human being to the people I meet."

A mandolin maker for 30 years, Dulak says he finds his sense of spirituality in his woodworking, playing music and sitting in nature. It's an approach he developed as a child. 

"In Southern California I was headed to the beach with my guitar, and my father would say, 'What are you doing with that guitar?'" Dulak said. "'Well, I'm going to go meet some friends after mass.' But I skipped mass and just went straight to the beach, played my guitar on the beach, and watched the waves. It felt more spiritual than any time I set foot in a church." 

In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Freethought Community is not a church. It's a place for those who want to promote values from what it calls an evidence-based perspective. But Freethought does bring people together much like a traditional place of worship might. 

Back in Mount Vernon, Illinois, churches like the one at which professor Burge is a pastor can sense which way the wind is blowing, and it's not in the right direction for growth. 

"Those trend lines are continuing and in such a way that it's a very good possibility in 30 or 40 years there will be more non-religious Americans than there will be Christians in the United States for the first time in American history," Burge said.

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