March 24, 2015—This past year, Barna Group has spent a considerable amount of time studying the unchurched—those who have not attended church within the past six months.
Much of that research is collected in the new Barna project Churchless, edited by David Kinnaman and George Barna. One of the most remarkable findings is that unchurched people are not always unbelievers—in fact, most aren’t. The majority are non-practicing Christians: They claim Christianity as their faith, but they haven’t been to church in a long time.
But what about atheists and agnostics? Are their numbers on the rise? Are more and more of the unchurched becoming unbelievers, too?
Who Are the Atheists?
For reporting purposes at Barna, we often combine atheists and agnostics into one group, which we call skeptics. Skeptics either do not believe God exists (atheists) or are not sure God exists, but are open to the possibility (agnostics). Skeptics represent one-quarter of all unchurched adults (25%). Nearly one-third of skeptics have never attended a Christian church service in their lives (31%). That’s nearly double the proportion of “virgin unchurched” who are not skeptics (17%).
The profile of a typical skeptic is different today from a decade or two ago. Today’s skeptics, like their counterparts from two decades ago, are defined by their denial of or doubts about God’s existence. But that is about the only thing they have in common with the unchurched atheist or agnostic of yesteryear. Below are five demographic shifts among skeptics in the past two decades.
Five Demographic Shifts among Skeptics
They are younger. Skeptics today are, on average, younger than in the past. Twenty years ago, 18 percent of skeptics were under 30 years old. Today that proportion has nearly doubled to 34 percent—nearly one-quarter of the total U.S. population (23%, compared to 17% in 1991). By the same token, the proportion of skeptics who are 65 or older has been cut in half, down to just 7 percent of the segment.
They are more educated. Today’s skeptics tend to be better educated than in the past. Two decades ago, one-third of skeptics were college graduates, but today half of the group has a college degree.
More of them are women. Perhaps the biggest transition of all is the entry of millions of women into the skeptic ranks. In 1993 only 16 percent of atheists and agnostics were women. By 2013 that figure had nearly tripled to 43 percent. This enormous increase is not because the number of skeptic men has declined. In fact, men’s numbers have steadily increased over the last two decades—but not nearly as rapidly as among women.
They are more racially diverse. Religious skepticism has become more racially and ethnically inclusive. While whites represented 80 percent of all skeptics 20 years ago, that figure had dropped to 74 percent by 2013. This is largely a reflection of the increasing Hispanic and Asian adults among the skeptic cohort. Asian Americans, the least-Christian ethnic demographic in the United States, especially tend to embrace skepticism. While a growing number of skeptics are Hispanic, they still remain, along with Blacks, less likely than other ethnic groups to accept the idea of a world without God. White Americans, who constitute two-thirds of the country’s total population, are well above average in their embrace of atheism and agnosticism; they comprise three-quarters of the skeptic segment.
They are more dispersed regionally. In decades past, the Northeast and West were seen as isolated hotbeds of atheism and agnosticism. They still remain the areas where skeptics are more likely to live, but the skeptic population is now broadly dispersed across all regions.
In many ways, skeptics resemble the rest of America more than they once did. And their numbers are growing more quickly than anyone expected 20 years ago.
Three Components of Disbelief
Just as believers arrive at their belief in God by amassing a variety of information and experiences, skeptics piece together different inputs to draw their conclusions. According to our research, however, it seems the three primary components that lead to disbelief in God’s existence are 1) rejection of the Bible, 2) a lack of trust in the local church and 3) cultural reinforcement of a secular worldview.
Skeptics dismiss the idea that the Bible is holy or supernatural in any way. Two-thirds contend that it is simply a book of well-known stories and advice, written by humans and containing the same degree of authority and wisdom as any other self-help book. The remaining one-third are divided between those who believe the Bible is a historical document that contains the unique but not God-inspired accounts of events that happened in the past, and those who do not know what to make of the Bible but have decided it deserves no special treatment or consideration.
Given their antipathy or indifference toward the Bible, it is remarkable that six out of 10 skeptics own at least one copy. Most have read from it in the past, and a handful (almost exclusively agnostics) still read it at least once a month. The fact is, most skeptics have some firsthand experience with the Bible, and most had some regular exposure to it during their youth.
Churches have done little to convince skeptics to reevaluate. In fact, because more than two-thirds of skeptics have attended Christian churches in the past—most for an extended period of time—their dismissal of God, the Bible and churches is not theoretical in nature. Most skeptics think of Christian churches as:
- Groups of people who share a common physical space and have some common religious views, but are not personally connected to each other in meaningful or life-changing ways
- Organizations that add little, if any, value to their communities; their greatest value stems from the limited times they serve the needy in the community
- Organizations that stand for the wrong things—wars, preventing gay marriage and a woman’s freedom to control her body, sexual and physical violence perpetrated on people by religious authority figures, mixing religious beliefs with political policy and action
- Led by people who have not earned their positions of influence by proving their love of humankind, and are thus not deserving of trust
Many of these ideas are initiated, promoted and reinforced by celebrity personalities and media exposure. There has arisen a new stratum of anti-religion celebrity apologists that includes Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Peter Singer, Woody Allen, Phillip Roth, Julia Sweeney and the late Christopher Hitchens. It’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum to identify which came first: the atheist celebrity or an uptick in the number of atheists. Whatever the case, atheism has shifted in the past 50 years from cultural anathema to something the “cooler” kids are doing.
Understanding Today’s “Post-Christian” Trends
While what’s happening among self-identified atheists and agnostics is an important measure of belief trends, which corresponds with the much-examined “rise of the ‘nones,’”it is also important to look at actual faith practices and attitudes. This is why, at Barna Group, we have developed a “post-Christian” metric that helps us look at multi-dimensional factors to describe the rich and variegated experience of spirituality and faith.
This metric is based on 15 different measures of identity, belief and behavior. To qualify as post-Christian, individuals meet 60 percent or more of the factors (nine or more out of 15 criteria). Highly post-Christian individuals meet 80 percent or more of the factors (12 or more of 15 criteria).
These factors include a variety of practices (prayer, donating to a church, volunteering at a church, reading the Bible, etc.) and beliefs (belief in God, prioritizing faith, beliefs about the Bible, commitment to Jesus, etc.). You can see all 15 factors in this infographic.
Based on Barna’s aggregate metric, nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population qualifies as post-Christian (38%). This includes one in 10 Americans who are highly post-Christian—lacking engagement in 80 percent or more of the measures of belief, practice and commitment. Another one-quarter is moderately post-Christian (28%), refraining from at least 60 percent of the factors.
Analyzing the nation’s post-Christian profile gives an important viewpoint on the population’s spiritual, moral and social future. While self-described atheism and agnosticism may be on the rise in America, the post-Christian metric reminds observers that most Americans remain connected in some way with Christianity.
What the Research Means
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, says, “The data show that some cities—and younger generations—are more gospel-resistant than others. It is increasingly common among Millennials to dismiss religion, God, churches, authority and tradition. For years, some observers have claimed colleges and universities are a breeding ground for anti-God sentiment. The data does lend support to the notion that college campuses are comfortable places for young people to abandon God and assume control of their own lives.
“Yet in spite of clear trends and obvious needs, our research suggests that most of the efforts of Christian ministries fail to reach much beyond the core of ‘Christianized’ America. It’s much easier to work with this already-sympathetic audience than to focus on the so-called ‘nones.’ And it’s no mystery why: Figuring out how to effectively engage skeptics is difficult. One of the unexpected results we uncovered is the limited influence of personal relationships on skeptics. They are considerably less relational and less engaged in social activities than the average American. Christians for whom ‘ministry is about relationships’ may be disappointed when they find that many skeptics are not as enamored of relational bonds as are those who are already a part of church life.
“But in giving his followers the Great Commission, Jesus didn’t mention anything about doing what is easy. New levels of courage and clarity will be required to connect beyond the Christianized majority.”