The Religious “NONES”

the NONESThe Religious “NONES
Analyzing American Jews Who Describe Themselves as Without Religion

By Steven Windmueller, PH.D.

A growing number of individuals are declaring themselves as religious “Nones.” These are individuals who self-identify as atheists or agnostics or who indicate that they are disconnected from any formal affiliation with a religious community. The typical “None” in this society is male, young, white. In the 1990’s this group could be identified within the single digits. By 2007 some 16% of Americans described themselves as “Nones;” eight years later, that figure has increased to 21%, as an additional 7.5 million Americans have joined these ranks. Today, 33 million Americans have no formal religious affiliation. During this same period, the number of Christians in America has dropped from 78% of the population to 71%. Some have described this phenomenon as symbolic of the rise of post-Christianity in America, with its de-emphasis on denominationalism and religious affiliation.

Today, there are nearly as many Americans who claim no religion as there are Catholics (24 percent). If this growth continues, in a few years the largest “religion” in this nation may well be individuals who possess no religion at all.

Various studies confirm that over a third of Americans (34 percent) never attend a worship service (other than weddings and other ceremonies). Data about the religious “Nones” is particularly instructive. 33% of adults under the age of 30 in this nation describe themselves as “Nones.” During the last 15 years, the percentage of adults in this category has grown from 15% to 20%. “Nones” in general hold similar views across region, gender, and income. Of particular interest, 68% indicate that they believe in God, and 33% describe themselves “spiritual.” In addition, 21% report that they pray everyday.

Overall, the unaffiliated are more concentrated among young adults than other age cohorts – 35% of Millennials (those born 1981-1996) are identified as “Nones.” The median age of unaffiliated adults is now 36, down from 38 in 2007 and significantly younger than the overall median age of the U.S. adult population, which is currently 46.

When questioned about their views on organized religion, this cohort generally offers specific criticisms:

  • Religious organizations seen as based on money and power.
  • Some indicate that these organizations are too involved in politics.
  • Others note that religious institutions are too focused on rules.
  • The greed and immorality of some clergy.
  • Perceptions of some religious types as being uncaring and hypocritical.

Focusing on the Jewish Nones:

Over all today one in five American Jews can be classified as “Nones.” In 2001 the National Jewish Population Study identified 93% American Jews as “religious” with only 7% defining themselves as Jews without religion. In the Pew Research Study (2013) 78% of Jews defined themselves as “religious,” with 22% identifying themselves as “without a religion,” including 6% as atheist, 4% agnostic and 12% whose religion was described as “nothing in particular.” The Pew Study also noted that 32% born after 1980 declared themselves as “Nones,” while 68% of American Jews retained a religious identity.
Two-thirds of those Jews without religion reported that they are not raising their children Jewish, so this secular trend has serious consequences in connection with the issue of continuity. This is in contrast to the “Jews with religion,” of whom 93 percent indicated they are raising their children in a Jewish context.

Several other factors would seem to be important. For example, “Jews by religion” are on average nine years older (52) than “Jews of no religion” whose median age is 43. Nearly two-thirds of the Jewish religious “Nones” reside either in the Northeast or on the West Coast. The overwhelming majorities of both “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion” indicated that they are proud to be Jewish (97% and 83%, respectively).

Roots of the Jewish “Nones:”

Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most Jews seem to recognize this as 62% indicated that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% reported that it is mainly a matter of religion. In addition, two-thirds of America’s Jews contend that it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish. Of particular interest the religious “Nones” hold similar political attitudes and maintain a parallel level of support for Israel to their fellow religionists.

Among American Jews 18-29 years, the following data extracted from the Pew Study seems particularly relevant:

  • 88% seldom or never go to services
  • 47% hold the belief that if you believe in Jesus, you can still be considered Jewish
  • 51% report having had a Christmas tree

Policy Implications:

While there are already numerous initiatives designed to respond to both reaching and serving this segment of the Jewish community, a five-point strategy ought to be considered:

  1. Partnering with key American Jewish institutions and foundations in expanding our research about the “Nones” in order to understand their social practices, core interests and values, and their patterns of participation and engagement.
  2. Evaluating how other religious and spiritual communities are directing their resources to reach out and respond to this growing constituency.
  3. Studying the growth to date of alternative “religious” encounters as demonstrated by Jewish “drop-in” centers, “street rabbis”, and counter-cultural offerings available on line and in various community settings.
  4. Determining what skill-sets our future professionals will require in order to best engage and serve this constituency.
  5. Establishing Jewish communal policies and practices that are specially directed to responding to the growing presence and specific needs of this cohort of American Jewry.

The Religious “Nones” will fundamentally alter the fabric and structure of Jewish life in the United States; how we respond and embrace this generation of Jews remains an essential priority in sustaining our future.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. See for his collection of writings on related topics.