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It’s Not Just Young White Liberals Who Are Leaving Religion

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Only 47 percent of American adults said they were members of a church, mosque or synagogue, according to recently released polling that was conducted by Gallup throughout last year. It marked the first time that a majority of Americans said they were not members of a church, mosque or synagogue since Gallup first started asking Americans about their religious membership in the 1930s. Indeed, Gallup’s finding was a kind of watershed moment in the long-chronicled shift of Americans away from organized religion.the resulting suspension of in-person church services across the country heightened or accelerated the number of Americans disengaging from congregations. But these trends are longstanding and the decline from 2018 (50 percent) was fairly small. So we think that the drop to 47 percent is unlikely to be explained simply by COVID-19.


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What’s driving this shift? In part, it’s about people who still identify with a religious tradition opting not to be a member of a particular congregation. Only 60 percent of Americans who consider themselves religious are part of a congregation, compared to 70 percent a decade ago, according to Gallup. But the bigger factor, Gallup said, is the surge of religiously unaffiliated Americans — people who are agnostics, atheists or simply say they are not affiliated with a religious tradition. The rise of this group — sometimes referred to as “nones” because they answer “none” when asked about their faith (and, you know, it’s a play on words) — isn’t new. But the Gallup survey is part of a growing body of new research on this bloc (that includes a recent book by one of us, Ryan’s “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going”).

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Let’s look at some of the new insights about the nones: 

The nones are growing, but it’s hard to know exactly how many there are. 

By nearly all measures, the nones now represent at least a fifth of all American adults, rivaling Catholics and evangelical Christians as the nation’s largest cohort in terms of religious faith (or lack thereof). They are the fastest-growing religious/nonreligious cohort — the nones went from 12 percent of American adults in 1998 to 16 percent in 2008, to 24 percent in 2018, according to data from the General Social Survey. Gallup puts this group at about 21 percent. Pew Research Center says 26 percent. The Cooperative Election Study suggests their ranks are even larger, at about 32 percent

Why the confusion about the exact number? First, there’s no universal method by which researchers ask people about their religious beliefs. For example, the GSS only offers one response option for the nones (“no religion”), while the CCES offers three (atheist, agnostic, “nothing in particular”). Secondly, Americans are still sorting out exactly how disengaged they are from religion, so even small changes in the way these questions are asked can affect the results

The nones aren’t just young, highly educated, liberal white people. 

Compared to the U.S. population overall, nonreligious Americans are younger and more Democratic-leaning. But the number of Americans who aren’t religious has surged in part because people in lots of demographic groups are disengaging from religion — many nones don’t fit that young, liberal stereotype. The average age of a none is 43 (so plenty are older than that). About one-third of nones (32 percent) are people of color. More than a quarter of nones voted for Trump in 2020. And about 70 percent don’t have a four-year college degree.

The decline over the last decade in the share of Black (-11 percentage points) and Hispanic adults (-10 points) who are Christians is very similar to the decline among white adults (-12 points), according to Pew. The number of college graduates leaving the faith (-13 points) is similar to those without degrees (-11 points). The decline in organized religion is indeed much bigger among Democrats (-17 points) than Republicans (-7 points) and among Millennials (-16 points) compared to Baby Boomers (-6 points), but the trend is very broad. 

The growing diversity of nones explains a lot of dynamics we see in America today. For example, unlike the civil rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s, Black Lives Matter didn’t emerge from Black Christian churches and is not principally led by Black pastors. Part of the story there is that some activists involved in BLM view Black churches as too conservative, particularly in terms of not being inclusive enough of women and LGBTQ people. But another part of the story is simply that the Black Lives Matter movement was largely started by Black people under age 50. Many Black Americans under 50, like their non-Black counterparts, are disengaged from religion. About a third of Black Millennials are religiously unaffiliated, compared to 11 percent of Black Baby Boomers, according to Pew.

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Nones have three distinct cohorts.

The nones can generally be broken down into three groups: agnostics, atheists and a third bloc that is much larger than the first two and doesn’t ascribe to a label — the “nothing in particular” bloc. According to CCES data from 2020, about 6 percent of American adults are atheists and 5 percent are agnostics, while 21 percent of Americans describe their religious beliefs as “nothing in particular.” Agnostics and atheists in particular tend to be disproportionately male, white, college-educated and Democratic-leaning. Atheists in particular have fairly negative views about churches and religious organizations

In contrast, the “nothing in particular” bloc is more diverse — more people of color, more women, more Republicans, fewer people with college degrees. They tend not to have strongly negative views about churches and religious organizations. Also, people in this “nothing in particular” group, unlike the overwhelming majority of atheists and agnostics, sometimes join (or rejoin) religious denominations. About a quarter of those who were nothing in particular joined religious denominations from 2010 to 2014, while only about 13 percent became atheist or agnostic, according to an analysis of CCES data. (Most of them remained nothing in particular.) 

And again, these numbers help explain some things happening in American culture and politics. The BLM movement has coordinated with Black churches and Black religious people — and that collaboration is likely eased by the fact that Black nones are rarely atheists or agnostics and therefore don’t have the negative feelings about churches and religious organizations that people in those groups often do. (About 12 percent of non-religious Black people are atheists or agnostics, compared to about 39 percent of religiously unaffiliated white people.) 

Religiously unaffiliated Republicans usually aren’t agnostics or atheists either — probably making it easier for them to remain in a party with a powerful evangelical wing. Only about 20 percent of Democrats are atheists or agnostics — which means they are fairly comfortable with an openly religious politician like President Biden as their party’s leader. 

People are leaving mainline Protestant churches and Catholicism in particular.

There are about as many evangelicals (22 percent of American adults), Jewish Americans (2 percent), Black Protestants (6 percent) and members of smaller religions in the U.S. like Islam and Hinduism (6 percent) as there were a decade ago, according to GSS data. It’s really two groups in particular that are declining: mainline Protestants (think Episcopalians or Methodists) and Catholics.

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Part of that decline is about young people — elderly members of these denominations who die are not being replaced by a younger cohort. But older people are now increasingly shifting from Christian to unaffiliated too — particularly older people who lean left politically. As a result, mainline Christianity is not only declining but becoming more conservative. Between 2008 and 2018, three of the largest mainline traditions (the United Methodists, the Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ) all became more Republican

Nones aren’t just leaving religion because of the Christian right.

People who leave Christianity often cite the politics of the Christian right turning them off. But some of the evidence here suggests that probably isn’t the only explanation. There is a general disengagement of Americans from organized religion — people who are religious no longer identifying as members of congregations. Republicans are becoming less religious, but they seem just fine voting for candidates who court the Christian right. And the people leaving Christianity aren’t usually members of conservative evangelical congregations in the first place. 

So what else is going on? Well, nations with fairly high per capita GDPs (such as Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom) tend to have fairly low levels of religiosity. The U.S. has long been an outlier: a high-income, highly religious nation. But America may have always been destined to grow less religious. 

Other polling bites 

  • 64 percent of American adults said they approve of how President Biden is handling the government response to the coronavirus pandemic, compared to 29 percent who disapproved, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted April 8-12 and released this week. (Per FiveThirtyEight’s average of all polls asking about Biden’s handling of COVID-19: 63 percent approve and 31 percent disapprove.) Biden had lower marks on other issues, such as the economy (50 percent approve, 42 percent disapprove), gun policy (39-49), climate change (48-35) and the situation at the border (29-55).
  • About 47 percent of adults said that stress or worry about the coronavirus has negatively affected their mental health, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted March 15-22. That number was highest in July 2020 (about 53 percent) and has ticked down since then. In the most recent Kaiser survey, the demographic groups that were most likely to say the virus outbreak had negatively affected their mental health were people ages 18-29 (61 percent), mothers (58 percent) and women in general (55 percent).
  • About 30 percent of adults said they are better off financially than at the start of the pandemic, according to an AP-NORC survey conducted from Feb. 12 to March 3 and released this week; 15 percent said they are worse off and 55 percent said their financial situation hadn’t changed that much.
  • 48 percent of Americans said they supported canceling up to $50,000 in student loan debt for individual borrowers, according to a new Daily Kos/Civiqs poll conducted April 9-12. Forty-four percent opposed this idea.
  • The same Daily Kos/Civiqs poll found that raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy to fund an infrastructure bill — as Biden is proposing — is fairly popular (54 percent approve, 40 percent disapprove).
  • Opinions were more mixed on getting rid of the filibuster, as some Democrats are proposing. The Daily Kos/Civiqs survey found 39 percent support getting rid of the filibuster, 14 percent want it reformed but not eliminated, 38 percent want to keep the filibuster and 10 percent are unsure.
  • According to a new poll from Vox and Data for Progress, conducted April 2-5, most adults support ideas involving police reforms. Eighty-four percent support requiring that officers wear cameras, 71 percent favor banning chokeholds and 59 percent support banning no-knock warrants. At the same time, 63 percent of Americans said “most police officers can be trusted,” compared to 31 percent who chose the other response, “you can’t be too careful in dealing with police officers.” And 77 percent said regular police patrols of their neighborhood would make them feel more safe, compared to 14 percent who said less safe.

Biden approval 

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker2, 52.8 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 40.8 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of +12 points). At this time last week, 53.2 percent of Americans approved of Biden, while 39.9 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of 13.3 points). One month ago, 53.8 percent of Americans approved of Biden, compared to 40.2 percent who disapproved.

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  1. It’s possible that COVID-19 and the resulting suspension of in-person church services across the country heightened or accelerated the number of Americans disengaging from congregations. But these trends are longstanding and the decline from 2018 (50 percent) was fairly small. So we think that the drop to 47 percent is unlikely to be explained simply by COVID-19.

  2. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

Ryan P. Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and the author of “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.” He’s also a pastor in the American Baptist Church.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.