Nonverts — the attrition of America's churches

Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America
By Stephen Bullivant. Oxford University Press. 2022. 272 pages.

Professor Stephen Bullivant has established himself in recent years as an expert on religious disaffiliation among Catholics.

In Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, which came out in December 2022, the Director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St. Mary’s University widens his focus to look at the broader topic of America’s secularisation.

For years, we have heard stories about the rise of the ‘Nones,’ that large body of Americans - one in four adults, as Bullivant notes early on - who do not claim any religious affiliation.

In this book, Bullivant deals with the issue of those ‘nones’ who previously had a religious affiliation before ‘converting’ to nothing at all - the ‘nonverts’ as he calls them.

“Nonverts now make up 16% of the US population, with cradle nones adding a further 6%, for a combined total of 22%. Hence nonversion accounts for somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of all US nones,” Bullivant writes.

Bullivant describes this overall shift by taking the reader on a tour of the major American religious traditions and introducing dozens of real-life nonverts who make for a diverse and compelling range of case studies.

All of the indications are that America is rapidly becoming more secular. Data from the General Social Survey in 2018 showed that a third of 18-to-29-year-olds said they had no religion. Three years later, that figure had increased to 44 percent.

Lack of enthusiasm for religious participation among the young points to a much more irreligious future, but what is more interesting is the declining rates of religious attachment being recorded across all age groups and religious denominations.

Leaving formal religion

Bullivant’s figures indicate that there are roughly 16 million American nonverts who were raised Catholic, and in a damning indictment of the Church’s effectiveness in religious formation, he notes that “[a]cross all US cradle Catholics born since 1970, a ‘Catholic upbringing’ has produced twice as many nones as it has weekly Mass-going Catholics.”

Mainline Protestant churches have been significantly impacted too, along with Evangelicals, and though Mormons are thought of as a group which has defied the secularist trend, Bullivant’s analysis of the available evidence suggests that a considerable portion of Mormons have also become nonverts.

One key insight from the stories told by the nonvert interviewees is that they share very little in common. This makes it hard to speak of this vast swathe of Americans as a coherent group.

Questions of religious belief are one obvious example of this. Americans nonverts, like Americans nones more generally, often remain believers.

“[O]nly one in three American nones are straightforward atheists or agnostics. And get this: 21% of nones told the GSS, ‘I believe in God and I have no doubt about it,’” Bullivant writes.

Time will tell if this remains the case, but it is doubtful that individual faith can remain strong in the long run when connections to communities based around a shared expression of that faith are severed.

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America long lagged behind other advanced democracies when it came to the stubbornly high rates of churchgoing, and it seems natural that now that this is changing, there will eventually be a corresponding increase in the percentage of Americans who do not believe in God.

The political implications of this are hinted at but not elaborated upon within this short book. Nones are disproportionately likely to be Independents: adding credence to the view that the move away from organised religion is part of a broader decline of participatory social institutions.

Bullivant points to data cited by the statistician Ryan Burge that suggests that Joe Biden received the votes of 71 percent of America’s Nones in 2020. This strongly suggests that the secular America which is emerging will be one where the Republican Party finds it much more difficult to prevail in elections.

Lack of focus

America’s secularisation is probably the most consequential change which the country has been undergoing in recent decades, more important even than demographic changes.

Yet, it has been mostly ignored by many supposedly serious observers. Meanwhile, intellectually lazy explanations have been proposed, most of which centre around the alleged role of conservative Christians in turning people away from religion.

As a conservative-minded academic, Professor Bullivant is well-suited to challenging this thinking, and does so here.

While he agrees with others (including the author of the recently-published book, The Great Dechurching) that the ending of the Cold War eased the transition away from religious affiliation by reducing anti-atheist sentiment nationally, in other areas he breaks with the consensus.

He challenges simplistic claims about the politicisation of Christianity by pointing to the terminal decline being experienced by the mainline Protestant churches: many of which have adopted liberal views on sexual mores without managing to retain old members or to attract new ones.

A more interesting theory of his relates to the role of religious mission in a church’s success or failure.

While the Mormons continue to place evangelisation at the heart of their religion — and still try to ensure that every young Mormon has the ability to serve as a full-time missionary — this is a relatively unusual approach, and Bullivant writes that one early sign of the declining self-belief of mainline churches lies in how they long ago replaced ‘mission trips’ with humanitarian work.

He quotes the view of the well-known historian Rodney Stark, who argued that “[t]he liberal denominations stopped sending missionaries [in the traditional sense] because they lost their faith in the validity of Christianity.”

Lost faith in Christianity will continue to become more common in America, and is it any wonder that this process has unfolded at precisely the same time as many Americans have been losing their faith in their country and its political institutions?

Stephen Bullivant’s engaging writing style and clear thinking make him an essential voice in this area, and any reader wishing to understand what is happening in America should read this book closely.

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James Bradshaw writes on topics including history, culture, film and literature.

Image : Pexels

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