PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS BERGIN/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX
You don’t usually think of churches as going out of business, but it happens. In March, driven by parishioner deaths and lack of interest, the U.K. Mennonites held their last collective service.
It might seem easy to predict that plain-dressing Anabaptists—who follow a faith related to the Amish—would become irrelevant in the age of smartphones, but this is part of a larger trend. Around the world, when asked about their feelings on religion, more and more people are responding with a meh.
The religiously unaffiliated, called "nones," are growing significantly. They’re the second largest religious group in North America and most of Europe. In the United States, nones make up almost a quarter of the population. In the past decade, U.S. nones have overtaken Catholics, mainline protestants, and all followers of non-Christian faiths.
A lack of religious affiliation has profound effects on how people think about death, how they teach their kids, and even how they vote. (Watch The Story of God With Morgan Freeman for more about how different religions understand God and creation.)
There have long been predictions that religion would fade from relevancy as the world modernizes, but all the recent surveys are finding that it’s happening startlingly fast. France will have a majority secular population soon. So will the Netherlands and New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Australia will soon lose Christian majorities. Religion is rapidly becoming less important than it’s ever been, even to people who live in countries where faith has affected everything from rulers to borders to architecture.
But nones aren’t inheriting the Earth just yet. In many parts of the world—sub-Saharan Africa in particular—religion is growing so fast that nones’ share of the global population will actually shrink in 25 years as the world turns into what one researcher has described as “the secularizing West and the rapidly growing rest.” (The other highly secular part of the world is China, where the Cultural Revolution tamped down religion for decades, while in some former Communist countries, religion is on the increase.)
And even in the secularizing West, the rash of “religious freedom bills”—which essentially decriminalize discrimination—are the latest front in a faith-tinged culture war in the United States that shows no signs of abetting anytime soon.
Within the ranks of the unaffiliated, divisions run deep. Some are avowed atheists. Others are agnostic. And many more simply don’t care to state a preference. Organized around skepticism toward organizations and united by a common belief that they do not believe, nones as a group are just as internally complex as many religions. And as with religions, these internal contradictions could keep new followers away.
Millennials to God: No Thanks
If the world is at a religious precipice, then we’ve been moving slowly toward it for decades. Fifty years ago, Time asked in a famous headline, “Is God Dead?” The magazine wondered whether religion was relevant to modern life in the post-atomic age when communism was spreading and science was explaining more about our natural world than ever before.
We’re still asking the same question. But the response isn’t limited to yes or no. A chunk of the population born after the article was printed may respond to the provocative question with, “God who?” In Europe and North America, the unaffiliated tend to be several years younger than the population average. And 11 percent of Americans born after 1970 were raised in secular homes.
Scientific advancement isn’t just making people question God, it’s also connecting those who question. It’s easy to find atheist and agnostic discussion groups online, even if you come from a religious family or community. And anyone who wants the companionship that might otherwise come from church can attend a secular Sunday Assembly or one of a plethora of Meetups for humanists, atheists, agnostics, or skeptics.
The groups behind the web forums and meetings do more than give skeptics witty rejoinders for religious relatives who pressure them to go to church—they let budding agnostics know they aren’t alone.
But it’s not easy to unite people around not believing in something. “Organizing atheists is like herding cats,” says Stephanie Guttormson, the operations director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, which is merging with the Center for Inquiry. “But lots of cats have found their way into the 'meowry.'”
Guttormson says the goal of her group is to organize itself out of existence. They want to normalize atheism to a point where it’s so common that atheists no longer need a group to tell them it’s okay not to believe, or to defend their morals in the face of religious lawmakers.
But it’s not there yet.
Atheism’s Diversity Problem
The Center for Inquiry in Washington, D.C., hosts a regular happy hour called Drinking Skeptically. On a Wednesday in late March, about a dozen people showed up to faithlessly imbibe, and all but one were white.
“Most of the groups I’ve seen have been predominantly white, but I’m not sure what to attribute that to,” says Kevin Douglas, the lone African-American drinker, shrugging at the demographics. He came from a religious family in New York and struggled internally with his skepticism until shortly after college. The only time he mentions having difficulty with others accepting his atheism was when he worked in Dallas, Texas, and race, he says, had little to do with it.
But more typically, “there is pressure from our [African-American] community,” says Mandisa Thomas, the founder and president of the Atlanta-based Black Nonbelievers, Inc. This pressure stems from the place religion—Christianity in particular—holds in African-American history.
In the abolition movement churches “became a support system for blacks. It became almost the end-all be-all for the black community for a number of years,” Thomas says, adding that the Civil Rights movement was dominated—she says “hijacked”—by religious leaders.
“If you either reject or identify as a nonbeliever, you’re seen as betraying your race,” she says.
Thomas is an outlier among nonbelievers for another reason. She’s a woman.
The secularizing West is full of white men. The general U.S. population is 46 percent male and 66 percent white, but about 68 percent of atheists are men, and 78 percent are white. Atheist Alliance International has called the gender imbalance in its ranks “a significant and urgent issue.”
The Privilege of Not Believing
There are a few theories about why people become atheists in large numbers. Some demographers attribute it to financial security, which would explain why European countries with a stronger social safety net are more secular than the United States, where poverty is more common and a medical emergency can bankrupt even the insured.
Atheism is also tied to education, measured by academic achievement (atheists in many places tend to have college degrees) or general knowledge of the panoply of beliefs around the world (hence theories that Internet access spurs atheism).
There’s some evidence that official state religions drive people away from faith entirely, which could help explain why the U.S. is more religious than most Western nations that technically have a state religion, even if it is rarely observed. The U.S. is also home to a number of homegrown churches—Scientology, Mormonism—that might scoop up those who are disenchanted with older faiths.
The social factors that promote atheism—financial security and education—have long been harder to attain for women and people of color in the United States.
Around the world, the Pew Research Center finds that women tend to be more likely to affiliate with a religion and more likely to pray and find religion important in their lives. That changes when women have more opportunities. “Women who are in the labor force are more like men in religiosity. Women out of the labor force tend to be more religious,” says Conrad Hackett with Pew. “Part of that might be because they’re part of a religious group that enforces the power of women being at home."
In a Washington Post op-ed about the racial divides among atheists, Black Skeptics Group founder Sikivu Hutchinson points out that “the number of black and Latino youth with access to quality science and math education is still abysmally low.” That means they have fewer economic opportunities and less exposure to a worldview that does not require the presence of God.
Religion has a place for women, people of color, and the poor. By its nature, secularism is open to all, but it’s not always as welcoming.
Some of the humanist movement’s most visible figures aren’t known for their respect toward women. Prominent atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have awful reputations for misogyny, as does the late Christopher Hitchens. Bill Maher, the comedian and outspoken atheist, is no (nonexistent) angel, either.
The leaders of Atheist Alliance International, Dawkins Foundation, and Center for Inquiry who I talked to were all well aware of the demographic shortcomings, and they’re working on it: All of the leaders I spoke to were women.
Even people who are white, male, and educated may fear the stigma of being labeled a nonbeliever. A white dentist at the CFI’s Drinking Skeptically event didn’t want to go on the record out of a fear that patients wouldn’t want an atheist working on their teeth.
“We have this stigma that we’re combative, that we’re arrogant, that we just want to provoke religious people,” Thomas with Black Nonbelievers, Inc. says. She’s working on changing that, and increasing the visibility of nonbelievers of color, too.
Thompson believes the demographics of nones don’t accurately reflect the number and diversity of nonbelievers; it just shows who is comfortable enough to say they don’t believe out loud. “There are many more people of color, there are many more women who identify as atheists,” she says. “There are many people who attend church who are still atheists.”
Expanding the Ranks
What’s sometimes called the New Atheism picked up in the mid-2000s. These were years of war, when Islam was painted as a threat and Christianity infused U.S. policy, abroad and domestically, most visibly in faith-based ballot initiatives against same-sex marriage.
In the U.S., many state legislators are still using a narrow interpretation of Christian morals to deny services to gay people and appropriate restrooms to people who are transgender.
But the national backlash to religious legislation has become faster and fiercer than ever before. Europeans seem set on addressing Islamophobia and the forces that could create tension with the “rapidly growing rest.”
And compared to past campaign seasons, religion is taking a backseat in this year’s U.S. presidential election. Donald Trump is not outwardly religious (and his attraction of evangelical voters has raised questions about the longevity and the motives of the religious right). Hillary Clinton has said “advertising about faith doesn’t come naturally to me.” And Bernie Sanders is “not actively involved” in a religion. Their reticence about religion reflects the second largest religious group in the country they hope to run. Aside from Ted Cruz, the leading candidates just aren’t up for talking about religion. The number of Americans who seek divine intervention in the voting booth seems to be shrinking.
For all the work secular groups do to promote acceptance of nonbelievers, perhaps nothing will be as effective as apathy plus time. As the secular millennials grow up and have children of their own, the only Sunday morning tradition they may pass down is one everyone in the world can agree on: brunch.