America’s 20% of Religious ‘Nones’ Are Just People Waiting for Someone to Share the Gospel With Them

An important trend in American religion has been the rise of the religious nones. A religious none is someone who has no religious affiliation. They are given this name because when researchers survey them as to which religious faith they affiliate with, they check the box “none.”

Current estimates identify about 20% of Americans as religious nones, with the remaining 80% having some religious affiliation.

But this may be the wrong way to think about religious affiliation. This binary portrait—some or none—arises from cross-sectional surveys. These are surveys that are administered only one time. They give a snapshot of people’s religious affiliation, but they cannot measure how individuals’ affiliation changes over time.

As a result, cross-sectional surveys overlook the possibility that some people fluctuate in and out of religious affiliation. That is, they sometimes say that they have a religious affiliation and sometimes say that they do not. Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam identified this possibility and termed it being “liminal,” from the Latin word limin which means threshold.

Religious liminals fluctuate between religious affiliation and no affiliation. I’m a liminal myself. Not with religion, though, but with professional basketball fandom. On some days, I say that I don’t really have a favorite team. On other days, however, I say that I’m a Celtics fan. Growing up, my dad was an avid Celtics fan, and some of it rubbed off on me. Similarly, religious liminals sometimes identify with religion and sometimes do not.

Just how many Americans are religious liminals? Michael Hout just published a paper analyzing this question with longitudinal data from the General Social Survey (GSS). These data measure respondents’ religious affiliation at three points in time, each two years apart. Most of the GSS respondents reported some religious affiliation at all three points in time. Some reported no affiliation at all three times. But many gave different answers at different times.

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