Get Thee to the None Zone

A new study shows how many people are following the Northwest's lead of turning into religious skeptics and non-joiners.
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A church on Lopez Island, Wash.

A new study shows how many people are following the Northwest's lead of turning into religious skeptics and non-joiners.

The Pacific Northwest has been dubbed "The None Zone" for its high percentage of people with no religious affiliation (25 percent, three times the national average). Cascadia has been on the leading edge of a national trend. Will it continue?

Yes and no, according to a new national study (pdf) of the None phenomenon produced by researchers at Hartford's Trinity College, based on a religious identification survey from last year. Yes, the number of Nones is growing and the study estimates that by 2030, 25 percent of the U.S. population could be Nones. But also no, because the latest numbers indicated the New England is now the biggest None Zone in the country and that the Rocky Mountain West is now tied with the Northwest for the percentage of Nones who live there.

The study reveals other tidbits that fill in the None picture. One is that the growth in Noneness, which gained speed in the 1990s, has slowed down in the '00s. The 1990s constituted a "secular boom" in the U.S., attributed in part of the rise of extreme politics in the religious right and also possibly due to disenchantment with the priest scandals in the Catholic church. Evidence of that fallout: fully 24 percent of Nones are ex-Catholics, and they comprise 35 percent of new Nones.

The report found no evidence that Nones were more inclined toward New Age beliefs (like astrology or spiritualism) than the U.S. population in general. Nones do believe in evolution in far great percentages than the general population: 33 percent of Nones accept evolution, while only 17 percent of Americans do(!). Other tidbits: Nones are strong among young people, amounting to some 22 percent of Americans aged 18-29; more Nones are men; and women are less likely to switch religious affiliations.

As I wrote earlier this year, there is a strong thread of Nones in the Asian community. I looked at the numbers in Vancouver, BC and Canada, but it also seems to be true in the U.S.: 29 percent of Asians are Nones, the largest of any ethnic group. There are higher percentage of Nones with Irish and Jewish ancestry as well.

In terms of the political implications, a larger percentage of Nones are independents (21 percent) rather than Democrats (16 percent) or Republicans (8 percent). Interestingly, in 1990, Democrat and Republican None percentages were equal at 6 percent.

Curiously, Noneness is no win for atheism. Only 7 percent of the Nones surveyed identify as atheist, 27 percent believe in a higher power but no personal God (Deist), and 27 percent believe in a personal God (Theist). If anything, Nones seem to be skeptical, independent, and spiritual, but averse to organized religions or theologies.

The study concludes that Nones are not only here to stay, but represent an important shift:

Today there is not a single demographic group of people in the U.S. that does not include Nones. Nones exist among the married, widowed, divorced, and never-married. Nones exist among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Nones exist among the least educated and the most educated. Nones exist among the poor and the rich. Nones exist among every racial and ethnic group. Nones exist in every geographic region in the U.S., making up anywhere from 1 in 20 to 1 in 5 adults.

In many ways, Nones are the invisible minority in the U.S. today — invisible because their social characteristics are very similar to the majority. Intriguingly, what this suggests is that the transition from a largely religious population to a more secular population may be so subtle that it can occur under the radar as happened during the 1990s. In the future we can expect more American Nones given that 22 percent of the youngest cohort of adults self-identify as Nones and they will become tomorrow'ꀙs parents. If current trends continue and cohorts of non-religious young people replace older religious people, the likely outcome is that in two decades the Nones could account for around one-quarter of the American population.

In other words, the U.S. could look a lot like the Pacific Northwest does today. We were here first.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.