Americans Aren’t Just Becoming Less Religious—They’re Abandoning Religion

March 16, 2023 | Mark Movsesian
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Over the past three decades, the proportion of Americans who say that they have no religion at all has risen steeply, from about 5 percent to about 25 percent. Numerous social scientists, journalists, and clergymen have commented on the growing numbers of these “nones” (as demographers have dubbed them), but Stephen Bullivant adds something new in his book Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America. Mark Movsesian writes in his review:

What makes his book original and worthwhile, in addition to the engaging writing and interesting case studies, is [Bullivant’s] focus on an important factor that scholars sometimes overlook. The vast majority of nones, about two-thirds or three-quarters, weren’t born that way. They made a conscious choice to disaffiliate from the faith traditions in which they were raised. They converted, in other words, from having a religion to not having one: they are, in his phrase, “nonverts.” Focusing on nonverts specifically, rather than nones generally, is a useful way to understand the changes that are roiling American culture.

Bullivant rejects the conventional view that nonverts tend to come from the ranks of people whose religious affiliation was indifferent to begin with—those who were Christians in name only. Many nones “were once genuinely believing and practicing—even ‘painfully devout,’” he writes. It isn’t simply weak Christians who are drifting away, but true believers. As a consequence, he believes, the crisis facing American Christianity is real and worse than many would like to admit.

Bullivant is quick to point out that American Christianity, even conservative Christianity, is by no means dead. American Christianity still has many millions of followers and great spiritual resources. Indeed, traditional religions in general have shown some surprising resilience lately. As Bullivant points out, the culture wars have done wonders for ecumenism, encouraging conservative followers of many faith traditions—Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and so on—to make a common cause. Still, Bullivant’s basic point, that “America is demonstrably becoming less religious than it was,” seems correct. Nonverts give a good sense of exactly what is going on.

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