For the first time in decades, the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans is slowing and potentially reversing course, as religion experts continue to confront misconceptions about what it means to be a “none” in the United States.

A new Pew Research Center study aids this effort by offering an in-depth look at what nones, or people who don’t affiliate with a faith group, actually believe about a range of topics, from God to prayer to people of faith.

The report highlights the many positive links that exist between religiously unaffiliated Americans and organized religion, as well as the obstacles that stand in the way of those working to bring them to church.

Who are the ‘nones’?

Religion scholars have been studying and debating the nones since the 1960s, but the label — and the people it refers to — is a persistent source of confusion.

For one thing, the term nones sounds like nuns, the Catholic women who dedicate their lives to serving God and their church. For another, the label implies, at least to some Americans, that nones have no attachment to religion.

In reality, the nones are a complex group with varied ideas about God, spirituality and religious institutions. They’re linked together not by a shared set of beliefs, but by what they say when asked about their religious affiliation.

“Religious ‘nones’ are people who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ when asked about their religious affiliation in our surveys,” Pew’s report explains.

Among the 28% of U.S. adults who fall into the broad category of nones, 17% identify as atheists, 20% as agnostics and 63% as “nothing in particular,” Pew found.

Once you know that only 17% of nones identify as atheists, it’s easier to understand the overall group’s feelings about God.

Fully 7 in 10 nones say they believe in God or a higher power and 63% believe there’s something spiritual beyond the natural world, according to the survey.

Still, it’s fair to say that most nones have a low level of religious commitment. Few pray regularly and even fewer attend religious services at least once per month.

Here are other key takeaways from the new report:

  • Nearly 70% of American nones are under age 50, and the group’s average age is lower than the average age of religiously affiliated Americans.
  • The group is comprised of nearly equal numbers of men and women.
  • The racial breakdown of the population of nones in the U.S. is broadly similar to the racial breakdown of religiously affiliated Americans.
  • Nones are just as likely as religiously affiliated adults to be college graduates, but they’re much more likely to identify as Democrats.

Pew’s report is predominately based on a survey conducted from July 31-Aug. 6, 2023, among 11,201 U.S. adults, including 3,317 nones. The margin of error for that survey is plus or minus 1.4 percentage points.

What explains the rise of the nones?

Although the nones have been part of American religious life for decades, there is more urgency around understanding them now than there was in the past.

That’s because some religious organizations are in danger of closing due to a lack of engagement. Major denominations are already having to merge congregations or have one pastor serve multiple small churches at the same time, said Ryan Burge, author of “The Nones” and co-author of “The Great Dechurching.”

“In the very near future, we’ll likely see a massive downsizing of institutional religion,” he said.

Against this alarming backdrop, Burge and others are working to understand if it’s possible to bring the nones back to church. While Pew’s new report offers some reasons for hope, it also shows that many nones feel uncomfortable in religious spaces.

“Forty-seven percent of nones say their dislike of religious organizations is an extremely or very important reason they are nonreligious. And 30% cite bad experiences with religious people. Altogether, 55% of ‘nones’ mention religious organizations or religious people (or both) as key reasons for being nonreligious,” researchers wrote.

The most common reason given for religious disaffiliation was questioning “a lot of religious teachings,” they added. Sixty percent of nones gave this response.

“Most religious ‘nones’ take a ... neutral view of religion, expressing a mix of positive and negative opinions about its impact on people’s lives and on society as a whole,” Pew reported.

What will the future hold?

Although much of the debate around nones centers on whether they’ll become religiously affiliated in the future, a growing group of community leaders is worried about their civic participation more broadly.

The fear is that when people drop out of organized religion, they also drop out of other social groups.

“Traditionally, people who are involved with U.S. religious congregations have tended to be involved with all sorts of other organizations and activities — from PTAs and community groups to voting in elections,” Pew reported.

As in the case of religious participation, the new report holds good news and bad news about nones’ relationship to community-centered activities like volunteering and voting.

It’s true that more religiously affiliated Americans than nones voted in the 2022 midterm elections or volunteered in the past year, but Pew found the gap to be more modest than people often assume.

“By several measures, atheists and agnostics are about as civically and politically engaged as U.S. adults who identify with a religion. It’s often just the ‘nothing in particular’ group that stands out for having relatively low levels of civic behavior,” researchers wrote.

Some religion experts are hopeful that major political events like the 2024 presidential election, as well as growing awareness of the mental health issues that can come with social disconnection, will drive the nones to seek out stronger community ties.

Nancy Ammerman, professor emerita of sociology of religion at Boston University, noted to the Deseret News that she would be pleasantly surprised to see religiously unaffiliated adults find their way into groups focused on making a “civil and moral impact.”

“The real surprise would be if existing liberal congregations became one of those destinations,” she said.

Burge said he’s gone as far as telling religious nones to start attending church just for the social benefits.

“I say, ‘Go to church! I don’t care what you believe,’” he said. “Religion can do a lot of good for people socially.”