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Imagining No Heaven

The Rise of the Nones and the Decline of Religion


“Imagine there’s no heaven…and at once the sky’s the limit.”—Salmon Rushdie, “Imagine No Heaven,” The Guardian, 19991

WHAT IS YOUR RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION? IF YOU DON’T have one that makes you a member of the fastest growing religious cohort in America today, the Nones, or those who check the box for “none” on surveys of religious affiliation. A 2009 study by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), for example, found that between 1990 and 2008 the number of nonreligious persons in the U.S. grew by 19,838,000.2 A 2013 Harris poll on 2,250 adults found that 23 percent of all Americans and 34 percent of Millennials (those born after 1980) have forsaken religion altogether.3 Predictably, rates of belief in God, the soul, and the afterlife, along with other beliefs, are also trending downward for U.S. adults since 2005, presented in Table 1.

Reaching back even further to 2003, the Harris pollsters found an 12 percent decline in those who said they were “absolutely certain that there is a God,” from 66 percent to 54 percent, and an increase from 9 percent to 16 percent among people who said they do not believe in God (atheists), and from 12 percent to 16 percent who said they were uncertain as to God’s existence (agnostics). The raw numbers based on these percentages are staggering. With the U.S. adult population (age 18 and older) in 2013 at 240 million, 23 percent religiously unaffiliated translates into 55.2 million. Now, not all of these Nones are atheists or agnostics (many are deists, pantheists, and spiritualists of various stripes who embrace many New Age beliefs), but by the Harris poll data the 16 percent for each of these cohorts amounts to 38.4 million atheists and 38.4 million agnostics for a combined cohort of 76.8 million people. Whatever the percent overlap between the religiously unaffiliated and the combined atheists/agnostics, it still represents a powerful voting block that politicians can no longer afford to ignore.4

To those of us who are atheists, agnostics, or “spiritual but not religious,” and who prefer to keep the Constitution and the Bible in separate drawers, in 2015 the Pew Research Center released a massive representative survey of 35,000 adult Americans, confirming the 2013 Harris Poll data that the fastest growing religious group in America continues to be the Nones. According to the Pew researchers, these 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S. are “more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants,” not to mention Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus, and “second in size only to evangelical Protestants” at 25.8 percent.5

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About Skeptic

THE RISE OF THE NONES Imagining No Heaven — The Rise of the Nones and the Decline of Religion; Never Doubting God — Surveys on Belief in God’s Existence; Persistence of Belief in a Purposeful Universe; Honor, Dignity, Victim — A review of The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars; The SkepDoc — Premature Ejaculation in the News: How Headlines Influence Our Thinking; Is the Earth Flat? Flat Earthers Are Back — How do You Best Make the Argument for a Round Earth?; Conspiracy Theorists and the Harm They Do; Bruce Perkins and Another Terrible Tragedy of the Recovered Memory Movement; Deterrence and Its Discontents: Now That Nuclear War Seems to Be Getting More Likely Again, It’s Time to Turn a Skeptical Eye on Deterrence; Reality Need Not Diminish Our Concept of Our Place in the Cosmos; Junior Skeptic — Perpetual Motion; and more…