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November 4, 2013

Rethinking the nones

Old-school preachers used to call them "backsliders," those folks who were raised in the pews but then fled.

Sociologists and church-growth professionals eventually pinned more bookish labels on these people, calling them the "unchurched" or describing them as "spiritual, but not religious."

Pollsters at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and similar think tanks are now using a more neutral term to describe a key trend in various religious traditions, talking about a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who are "religiously unaffiliated."

That's certainly an awkward, non-snappy label that's hard to use in headlines. It's so much easier to call them the "Nones."

Anyone who cares about the role of religion in public life had to pay attention to last year's "Nones on the Rise" study by the Pew researchers, especially the jarring fact that 20 percent of U.S. adults -- including 32 percent under the age of 30 -- embrace that "religiously unaffiliated" label. The question some experts are asking now is whether Americans have simply changed how they describe their beliefs, rather than making radical changes at the level of faith and practice.

While there has certainly been a rise in the number of "religiously unaffiliated" people, when researchers "dig down inside the numbers they will find that there hasn't been that much change in the practice of religion in America," said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief at Gallup, in a recent telephone interview.

"What's happening is that people who weren't practicing their faith and have never really practiced a faith are now, for some reason, much more likely to be honest about that fact," he said. "People used to say that didn't go to church, but they would still call themselves 'Baptists,' or 'Catholics' or whatever. ...

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