Who are the people who choose the ‘no religion’ or ‘none of the above’ categories on a Census or other survey? As discussed in my post last week, for Northern Ireland’s 2021 Census we cannot say that with confidence, because all the data has not yet been released. But we can probably assume that they are more likely to be from Protestant backgrounds, to live in a Protestant majority area, and to be young (under 35). If Northern Ireland’s trends align with other parts of the world, ‘nones’ are also more likely to be male than female.
We also can gain some support for such assertions from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey. The 2019-2021 results show consistently higher percentages of people of ‘no religion’ in the younger age brackets, though it is worth noting that the move to almost entirely online data collection in 2020 and 2021 seems to have skewed the ‘no religion’ results. You can see this most dramatically among people over age 55, who suddenly seem to have become much more likely to choose ‘no religion’. My guess is that those of ‘no religion’ in those older age categories were just more likely than those who identify with a religion to complete an online survey.
No Religion by Age, NI Life & Times 2019-2021
The Life and Times also lends some support to the male-female divide, though the difference in 2019 was small: 21 percent of men and 20 percent of women chose ‘no religion’. This difference was larger in 2020 and 2021 (33 percent of men and 25 percent of women in both years).
In popular discourse, the ‘nones’ are often conflated with atheists. Indeed, an Irish Times report on the 2021 Census results ran with the headline: ‘Northern Ireland’s atheists: We’re a sizeable section of the population’ (24 September). Of course, that headline is misleading because the Census does not ask about belief in God. That means we cannot assume that those who indicated they have ‘no religion’ are atheists – although the article went on to profile the views of self-identified atheists.
In contrast, numerous cross-national studies on the ‘nones’ reveal that the category often includes agnostics, who are unsure about the existence of god; people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’; and those who believe in various higher powers – just to name a few of the options beyond atheism.
There have been no large-scale quantitative or qualitative studies of ‘nones’ in Northern Ireland and just one in the Republic of Ireland, which you can learn more about in Hugh Turpin’s 2022 book, Unholy Catholic Ireland. Turpin found that in the Republic, ‘no religion’ is often framed as a moral position or identity, constructed in opposition to a Catholic Church that is portrayed as abusive, corrupt, and even beyond redemption.
In the absence of studies of ‘nones’ in Northern Ireland, research in the United States can shed some light on the growth and varieties of ‘no religion’. The United States has long been considered something of an outlier among Western nations, retaining higher levels of belief and practice than most European countries. However, that has been changing over the last 25 years.
According to Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) data, in 1994, 5 percent of Americans identified as ‘nones’; in 2019, that figure was 34 percent. Among Generation Z (those born in the late 1990s or early 2000s), 47 percent identify as none.
In contrast, a 2019 Pew survey found 26 percent identified as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular – a lower percentage of ‘nones’ that may be due to the collection method (telephone surveys rather than online). The 2018 General Social Survey found 23 percent were ‘no religion’, meaning that for the first time this category equalled that of Catholics (23 percent) and just surpassed evangelicals (22.5 percent). Even using these lower figures, ‘nones’ have grown 266% since 1991. Political scientists like Ryan Burge now estimate that ‘no religion’ will surpass all other religious groups in the US within the next five years.
Explanations for the rapid rise in the ‘nones’ in the US are varied and complex. Most recognize long-term trends related to family socialization: as the number of people with ‘no religion’ grows, their children are unlikely to receive religious socialization in the home, further accelerating the growth of non-religion.
But almost all researchers and commentators attribute at least part of the rise of ‘no religion’ to the lurch to the political right among large numbers of white evangelicals and white Catholics. Young people, in particular, are rejecting this mixture of religion and politics. Interestingly, Linda Woodhead and Andrew Brown’s study of ‘how the Church of England lost the English people’ also attributed much of its decline to conservative positions on social issues.
American researchers also have spent considerable time documenting varieties of ‘no religion’. While recognizing that ‘The typical image of a “none” is that of a young, white, affluent, well-educated person who self-identifies as agnostic or atheist’ (Stets 2021, p. 5-6), they also have noted that the category may include the ‘spiritual but not religious’, ‘non-affiliated theist(s) who believe but do not belong’, and lapsed Catholics and lapsed Protestants, among others. Women are almost as likely as men to belong to one of these categories now.
Nancy Ammerman (2021, p. 49-50) also found that among those at the bottom of what she calls the ‘status hierarchy’, those who identified as having ‘no religion’ were ‘more pessimistic, less trusting, and less empowered’, as well as less healthy. In other words, for those in lower social classes, religious affiliation and engagement provides a sense of community, support, and social and civic capital that offers some protection against the perils of their marginalized positions. Ammerman is concerned about the consequences of the rise of ‘no religion’ for the less well-off, and the knock-on effects this has for social flourishing and democracy. This social class dimension is often overlooked.
Given the higher rates of ‘no religion’ among young people, studies of American youth can offer further insights. The most significant is The National Study of Youth and Religion, which collected data from the same people in the years 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2013. This study has provided several memorable formulations, including Christian Smith’s summary of American young people’s understanding of religion as ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’, which he considers a weak and watered-down substitute for more robust religious engagement (Smith and Denton 2005, p. 118-171):
First, a God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on Earth. Second, God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. Third, the central good in life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Fourth, God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. Fifth, good people go to heaven when they die.
In a later publication from the study, Melinda Lundquist Denton and Richard Flory wrote of a ‘back-pocket God’, describing the religion of emerging adults as ‘like an app on the ubiquitous smartphones in our back pockets: readily accessible, easy to control, and useful – but only for limited purposes.’
Finally, studies of American youth re-affirm the importance of family socialization as a major factor in whether or not young people remain in the faith or disaffiliate. The retention of faith is much more likely when both parents attend religious services and talk about religion with their children in the home.
Both ‘moral therapeutic deism’ and the concept of a ‘back pocket God’ can be found among those who identify as ‘nones’ – as well as among young people who identify as religious. Although we lack empirical data to confirm or deny similar trends among people in Northern Ireland, these concepts could be a starting point for future studies across the island.
Gladys is a Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast and a member of the Royal Irish Academy.
She is also a runner who has represented Ireland and Northern Ireland. She blogs on religion and politics at gladysganiel.com