© 2019 by Joel Thiessen. All rights reserved.

The Rise of the 'Nones'

December 3, 2014

The Rise of the 'Nones'

 

24% of Canadian adults say that they have ‘no religion’ today, compared to 4% in 1971. 32% of Canadian teens say that they have ‘no religion,’ compared to 12% in 1984. Similar trends are emerging throughout the modern Western world, and I think it is safe to expect these trends to continue for the foreseeable future. Why? What helps to account for this steady rise of ‘nones’ at this point in history?

 

Two weeks ago I presented on religious nones in Canada at an international conference with the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. My presentation was based on face-to-face interviews with religious nones that are part of my forthcoming book where I compare religious nones with Christmas and Easter attenders and weekly church attenders. Then earlier this week I watched a new media piece dedicated to religious nones in Canada (click here to watch). This episode was a helpful conversation starter, though also revealed the dearth of knowledge about religious nones in Canada (to no fault of the producers of the episode, but because little empirical research exists in this domain).

 

Below are some brief reflections to shed light on this topic – based on the first empirical project in Canada, to my knowledge, to examine religious nones in detail via qualitative methods. Four lead explanations help to explain the rise of religious nones:

 

(1) There is less social stigma attached to identifying as a religious none than in the past, particularly in Canada versus in the United States. The social climate allows for increased social acceptance toward religious nones, where individuals are more confident to ‘come out’ (a common phrase used in the literature and in my study) and openly declare their ‘no religion’ identification. One might go as far as to suggest that the greater social stigma in Canada now remains for those who are actively religious. These realities reflect an increasingly secular Canadian society in the second decade of the 21st century.

 

(2) The dominant presence of the Christian Right in the United States and religious fundamentalism and extremism more generally around the world contributes to people turning away or staying clear from religion (Canadians increasingly exposed to this reality via American and international media and social media, on the television and internet). The fusion between religion and politics south of the border, which Canadians are strongly opposed to, leaves a disdain for religion. The Christian Right, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and extremists – terms commonly used synonymously in the general public – are perceived as groups that stand in opposition to others, inflict harm on those who do not view the world in the same way, oppress marginalized populations, and are ‘backwards’ and traditional on all sorts of progressive ideals commonly held in many modern, liberal democracies. Identifying as a religious none is one way to distance one’s self from the baggage noted above.

 

(3) Another contributor to the rise of religious nones is apostasy away from one’s childhood religion and converting toward the religious none category. Recently I blogged on eight of the leading reasons for apostasy (click here). What is important to know is that ‘religious none’ is not a default category for many. It is a conscious choice and identity that people convert towards and happily embrace, similar to people who convert toward a religious identity.

 

(4) Religious nones are on the rise due to less religious socialization occurring within the home. As religious belief and practice continues to decline in Canada, fewer parents actively socialize their children with any religious belief and practice. ‘Religious none’ parents do not necessarily proactively socialize their children with a ‘no religion’ worldview, but the ‘hands off’ approach to faith that is common among most results in children who say that they have no religion and do not necessarily adopt many or any religious beliefs or practices. Just as children who are raised in actively religious homes are more likely to remain religious as adults, those who are not raised with any religious background are unlikely to turn to religion later in life. There are exceptions of course, but study after study around the world affirms this fact.

 

This brief window into religious nones in Canada is a teaser. Much more could be said. Religious nones are a heterogeneous group – some believe in God (fewer than half of religious nones are atheists), in miracles, in the afterlife, or they pray or even believe that religion is important. Religious nones ardently believe that they are more open minded and free than actively religious individuals. They believe that they have meaning and purpose in life, quite apart from religion. They believe that morality is entirely possible without religion in the world. Above all, they oppose those who wish to impose their religious attitudes and behaviours on to others – and religious nones do not seek to impose their ‘no religion’ views on to others.

 

Have additional thoughts or reflections on this topic? Send me an email at jathiessen@ambrose.edu and stay in touch via my website at www.joelthiessen.ca.

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JOEL THIESSEN, PhD
sociologist