The Apocalypse for Religion – at Peter Rollins’ Wake Festival

Today I had the privilege of participating in Wake, an annual boutique festival in Belfast, which is curated by Peter Rollins. It’s always a treat to catch up on Pete’s latest work, and to meet the people who come from afar to experience Belfast and explore ideas together.

While the residential festival is full, there are fringe events in the evenings that locals can attend.

The theme of this year’s festival is Apocalypse, so I chose to talk about what many believers feel is an apocalypse (the end!) for religion: the people across the world who are increasingly identifying themselves as ‘No Religion’ or ‘Nones.’ Prior to my talk, I asked participants to complete a short survey, which informed my presentation. Thirty-three people completed the survey, from eight different countries.

The text of most of my presentation is below.

The Apocalypse for Religion: Understanding People who identify as ‘No Religion’

What does it mean when people say they are of ‘no religion?’ Or when they tick the ‘None’ option on the religion question on a national Census? This is a puzzle that is currently occupying faith leaders (many of whom are concerned about the so-called ‘decline’ of religion in the West …) and sociologists of religion, who seek to understand such things!

The numbers of people willing to identify as ‘None’ or ‘No Religion’ on the Census or on other surveys has been increasing throughout the West. Some of the most dramatic increases in recent years seem to be in the UK, USA and Australia.

While the 2011 UK Census had about 25% of people identifying as no religion, more recent YouGov polls have put the figure at 46%. To me, the higher figure rings true as we know only about 5% of the UK population attend church regularly (2015).

One of the most interesting developments in the last decade has been the rapid increase in Nones in the United States – long considered a much more religious country than the nations of Europe. According to the Pew Research Centre in the US, Nones now make up about 22% of the US population (2016), up from just 16% in 2007.  That’s a growth of 19 million people in seven years who are now describing themselves as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. The rise of the Nones also seems to be a generational phenomenon – 70% are Millennials or Generation X. And while 89% of the general US population believe in God, 61% of Nones do (down from 70% of Nones who believed in God in 2007). Further, 88% of Nones say they are not looking for a religion. Apart from the failure of religious socialisation indicated in the data (i.e. people unable to pass their religion to their children), both Catholics and mainline Protestants are losing some people in adulthood. The top reason they leave?: They just gradually drifted away.

In Australia, 30% of people identified as No Religion in the 2016 Census, up from 22% in 2011. In 2016, ‘No Religion’ was presented as the first option on the Religion question on the Census. Previously, ‘No Religion’ had been the last option, presented after ‘Other.’ A campaign by atheist organisations convinced the Australian Bureau of Statistics to move it to the top. It is well-known that the order in which options are presented can influence choice; i.e.  when political candidates are listed in alphabetical order, one whose name begins with A has a better chance of being elected than one whose name begins with Z!

The Nordic countries present interesting cases, too. They often score very high on church affiliation, but when you scratch the surface, many people don’t believe in God – which begs the question of why they are still affiliated with a church. [There are good historical reasons for this, including the legacy of state churches, continued church taxes, and in some places, automatic church membership at birth (Sweden until 1996) which are beyond the scope of this paper …]

I have created a table of the percentage of people in various countries who identify as No Religion or None, based on the survey responses. I wanted everyone’s country of residence to be represented. There were no respondents from Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, but I have included these figures as well to give you some sort of sense of where this island fits in as well.

People of No Religion …

Country % No Religion Source
USA 22.8% 2014, Pew Survey (the USA does not ask a religion question on its Census)
UK (England, Scotland, Wales) 46% 2015, YouGov Survey by Linda Woodhead (the UK does ask a religion question, last Census 2011, about 25%)
Australia 30% 2016 Census
Canada 25% 2013 National Household Survey (the Census does not ask about religion)
Norway 17% 2017 Statistics Norway; BUT in 2016, 39% of people told Ipsos Norway they don’t believe in God at all!
Sweden 27% 2015 ISSP Survey
Northern Ireland 17% 2011 Census
Republic of Ireland 12% 2016 Census
Denmark 20% 2015 Eurobarometer Poll
Germany 33% 2011 Census. BUT large differences between East and West Germany; percentages for region vary from 13% to 77%

I also want to give you some sort of sense of ‘no religion’ across the world. A story from the Telegraph in January 2018 used the results of three WIN/Gallup International polls, taken in 2008, 2009 and 2015. Each asked respondents whether or not they felt religious; for each country they included the most recent figures available. These are the top 20 ‘least religious’ countries. Of course, this is a different question to whether people identify as ‘no religion’ or None, but I think it provides some relevant perspective.

The 20 least religious countries

  1. China – 7% feel religious
  2. Japan – 13%
  3. Estonia – 16%
  4. Sweden – 19%
  5. Norway – 21%
  6. Czech Republic – 23%
  7. Hong Kong – 26%
  8. Netherlands – 26%
  9. Israel – 30%
  10. United Kingdom – 30%
  11. New Zealand – 33%
  12. Australia – 34%
  13. Azerbaijan – 34%
  14. Belarus – 34%
  15. Cuba – 34%
  16. Germany – 34%
  17. Vietnam – 34%
  18. Spain – 37%
  19. Switzerland – 38%
  20. Albania – 39% (three other countries – Austria, Hungary and Luxembourg – also returned a result of 39%)

So, after that introduction, some of the questions I will be asking this afternoon are:

  • Do people who identify as ‘No Religion’ believe in a God or supernatural force?
  • What sort of frameworks do people of ‘No Religion’ use to live their lives?
  • Is there a relationship between ‘Nones’, ‘Dones’ and the Emerging Church?
  • How are institutional churches responding to people of ‘No Religion’?
  • How should institutional churches respond to people of ‘No Religion’?
  • Does the increase in people who identify as ‘No Religion’ mean the apocalypse for religion as we have known it?

I also will recommend two books, which I will refer to today:

You will notice that some of those questions are the same as I asked you on the survey. Thanks to all who completed it. I don’t have all the answers, so I need to steal some of yours!

[Click on the link below to see the Powerpoint I used in the talk; slides 7-10 summarise some of the demographic data of the respondents that was captured on the survey.]


Now, to some of the questions to which sociologists of religion are beginning to provide some answers …

Do people who identify as ‘No Religion’ believe in a God or supernatural force?

In the survey, most of you chose the answer that sociologists have found in their research – Yes, most people who identify as ‘no religion’ do believe in a God or supernatural force. One thing I found really interesting – or puzzling – from your data is that of the 7 of you who said you had identified as ‘no religion’ on a Census or survey, 5 of you said you didn’t know if people of ‘no religion’ believed in God or a supernatural force. What does that mean? Are you agnostic, or you just don’t want to speculate about what other people think? Feel free to share later, if you are so inclined!

Of course, survey data cannot really tell us much more than that. It can’t tell us much about that God, or whether their belief in God makes any difference in the so-called ‘real world.’ The percentage of those who continue to believe in God is different in different countries, of course. We have already seen that 61% of Nones in the US believe in God. I also shared that 39% of people in Norway say they don’t believe in God, even though only 17% identify as ‘no religion.’ Other research in Nordic countries has found that when people who say they believe in God are asked to elaborate, they really don’t have much more to say. In the UK, 65% of Nones are atheistic or agnostic, meaning only 35% of Nones believe in God or a supernatural force in some way (however, this is based on 2008 data from the BSA, see

There is the famous line from The Brothers Karamazov, ‘But what will become of men then … without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?’ [This is often shortened to, Without God, everything is permissible …] This reflects a deep-seated anxiety on the part of believers that if people don’t believe in God, we are on a slippery slope towards the destruction of civilisation.

This leads on to the next question:

What sort of frameworks do people of ‘No Religion’ use to live their lives?

Again, believers are often anxious that without religion, there is no ‘morality.’ But Drescher’s book demonstrates that Nones live their lives according to moral frameworks that, at least in the US, do not differ so significantly from the Christian population. Drescher’s research was based in large part on qualitative data, which allowed her to ask more in-depth questions than you get on surveys. It included six focus groups, an online narrative survey, and 86 in-depth interviews across the United States.

These were her top 25 ‘Spiritually Meaningful Practices for the Unaffiliated’ (Ranked according to Spiritual Practices Survey Results), p. 255

  1. Enjoying time with family
  2. Enjoying time with friends
  3. Enjoying time with pets or other animals
  4. Preparing and/or sharing food/meals
  5. Praying
  6. Enjoying nature
  7. Listening to/playing music
  8. Enjoying/creating art
  9. Physical activity/sports (cycling, running)
  10. Yoga
  11. Meditation
  12. Hiking
  13. Personal travel
  14. Journaling/writing
  15. Participating in a community group (non-religious)
  16. Dance
  17. Volunteering (non-religious)
  18. Caring for the sick or dying
  19. Service activities within a religious group
  20. Political activities
  21. Dreamwork/interpretation of dreams
  22. Fishing/hunting
  23. Reading/studying scripture
  24. Attending worship
  25. Attending a non-worship activity, event or meeting at church, synagogue, or other religious group

She pithily summarised the top four frameworks as Family, Friends, Fido and Food. In other words, deep horizontal relationships with other humans (and creatures), often cemented through the sharing of meals. Sound familiar?

Drescher also found that Nones in the US often drew on Christian stories or the example of Jesus to explain their frameworks for living. While earlier research by Nancy Ammerman on mainline Christians in the US described a significant portion of them as ‘Golden Rule Christians’ (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), Drescher found that Nones were more likely to be ‘Good Samaritans’ – striving to do more for others than you would expect others to do for you.

Drescher also asserts that many Nones live by a ‘cosmopolitan ethics of care’. What does she mean by that? She draws on Kwame Anthony Appiah to explain (quoted on p. 213):

There are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the moral formal ties of citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.

Drescher later writes (p. 217):

But the realities of globalization and digital communication (both positive and negative) mean that few people, even in the most remote places, are likely to get through life without regular encounters with many very different others with very different beliefs and practices. For all people, the challenge of moral life in a diverse, complex, and widely networked world cannot be addressed on the basis of individual, independent perspectives on virtuous action that are applied to another. … This reorientation in perspective opens the circle of concern for individuals and communities to a wider horizon of need and more complex expressions of compassion. Its moral function is ultimately connective rather than reciprocal, cosmopolitan rather than communitarian.

Which makes me ask – are people of ‘no religion’ better Christians than many Christians?

Is there a relationship between ‘Nones’, ‘Dones’ and the Emerging Church?

In their research, Packard and Hope identified a different type of ‘None’ – the ‘Dones.’ Packard and Hope found that people who are Done are exactly the people that Pete affectionately called ‘idiots’ in his opening talk yesterday – the really enthusiastic people who did everything to make their church work. But they eventually just became so disillusioned with Christianity that they left their churches altogether. Many still believe there is a God, even believe in Jesus in some way, and they seek to create their own community. But they are Done with church.

In some ways, people that identify with the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) are similar to Dones; perhaps many Emerging Christians are Dones or Nones. As some of you may know, I co-authored a book on Emerging Christianity in 2014 (The Deconstructed Church, with Gerardo Marti). It features Pete, ikon and Rob Bell – and is now available in paperback. So I was interested in how many people who are here at WAKE, and willing to complete my survey, identify with the ECM. 39% of you said you identified with the ECM. Of the seven of you who said you identified yourself as ‘no religion’ on a Census or a survey, four of you identified with the ECM.

I think there is some sort of relationship between Nones, Dones and the ECM – though I am not quite sure how all the threads fit together yet. In The Deconstructed Church, Gerardo and I wrote that ‘the ECM is one of the most important reframings of religion within Western Christianity in the last two decades’ (p. 5). We described Emerging Christianity as a religious orientation rather than a religious identity, arguing that it is a flexible orientation that fits well within networked, post-modern, post-secular (and whatever other kinds of ‘post’ you are having … ) societies. We also realised that Emerging Christians really care about their faith – just like Packard and Hope’s Dones – so if people like that are identifying as ‘no religion’ in Censuses and surveys, that is at least as much a part of the story as increases in atheism or agnosticism.

How are institutional churches responding to people of ‘No Religion’?

There is no quick and easy answer to this one. There are a number of options for institutional churches, and the responses vary across country to country and regions within those countries:

  • Turning in on themselves to protect their institutions
  • Becoming more conservative or fundamentalist
  • Becoming ‘seeker’ churches
  • Megachurches that try to be all things to all people
  • Ignoring them
  • Trying to convert, re-convert or ‘capture’ them (a term Drescher uses)
  • Working with them in various ways
  • Changing and adapting their institutions to allow for more meaningful explorations of faith, the meaning of life, etc.

What did you all have to say to this question? [These are verbatim quotes from the survey responses, which I think show a good range of perspectives …]

Depends too much on the institutional church to reply easily. Generally with much misunderstanding of the issues at hand. At least from the limited knowledge I now have of such institutions

They are trying to get them to come back to church by providing slick, post modern, relevant programs in their church

Through either secular-based wisdom or through the fear of hell. Or both.


You couldn’t pay me to walk into any church.

They imagine them to mean no morals

Our church does not seem to make it a barrier to entry, although it certainly is preaching a specific confessional faith.

Pretty out of touch and have no idea how to engage without some sort of conversion agenda.

I would say, mostly there seems to be fear around that concept.

They’re too busy fighting about issues that don’t matter to focus on issues outside their church

This seems like a broad question…. some respond well (acceptingly) and others are intolerant of anyone’s spiritual path but their own. I don’t think this question is fair.

Institutional churches I know collaborate with nones all of the time in the wider community. In the community of faith I serve, there are many spouses and children of no religion who come to activities and worship services out of family obligation. As for direct outreach, that would feel disrespectful to me. The church I serve is not into proselytizing.

Here in Sweden more and more people are leaving the church and deciding to not pay the church taxes. Without knowing what they are doing about it I would think that they are worried for the fate of the church, but they don’t seem to be doing much about it.

Don’t know where to ‘put them’ – certainly not that open to talking about it. There are some churches that are making their spaces more available such as HOST at St Mary’s at Aldermary in London which is a cafe, exhibition space and do Yoga and meditation – its open for anyone to come and eat lunch in. That’s great but they are few and far between sadly.

As a member of the clergy, I can say that we are struggling to articulate theology in ways that point to a more nuanced way of practicing religion. The super-natural manipulative God is dead, but awe, Mystery and questions continue to stir.

I feel most institutional churches exclude people who don’t conform to their view of the world and of faith. They don’t even know they are doing it.

How should institutional churches respond to people of ‘No Religion’?

Sociologists of religion don’t usually ask should questions like this (although I do sometimes!). Be that as it may, I am going to turn immediately to your responses to this question:

Let them believe what they want to believe & leave them alone

Not sure

With deep curiosity and willingness to listen

With a genuine interest in their position

The same way they respond to anyone who identifies as a person.

I think they should create a space for those who want to go to church, but I don’t see any other ways the two groups would ever possibly connect.

Embrace their questions and actually listen to how they see the world, how they interact with it if they don’t worry about eternal destiny

By building new churches for them and giving them money. [Is someone having me on?]

Educate themselves and the “no religion” folks on the true meaning of agnostic, on religion-less church, on the opportunities offered by a deconstructed tradition, on the art of faith.

Should they at all?

In caring, practical ways of meeting needs as well as curating spaces where safe conversation can take place. Offering space to people in the public to gather without religion, exhibit their art, play their songs, perform their poetry, pursue their interests.

In part through inclusion in church fringe events/activities. And in part I’m not sure we should respond. Seekers will find their way.

I don’t know if they can. At least not without a shift in thinking. But then once shifted, would they even continue to be an institutional church anymore? Round and round we go…

It’s really hard for me to generalize about “institutional churches” because each community is different. The institutional church I serve welcomes people of no religion all of the time: at AA meetings, in our emergency shelter, and when we host a variety of other support groups and community meetings. The medium-sized Presbyterian church I serve is more interested in exploring questions than having all the answers. I have plenty of church members who don’t believe in a personified God.

Listen to Peter Rollins and Rob Bell and change their story. 🙂

By actually listening to them. Allow them to tell their stories on their own terms without pushing them away with overly “God-focused” language.

Embrace the fact that faith or spirituality doesn’t necessarily fall within the structure of a religion – that an expression can be within peoples lives and communities. Also that structures of religion can often cause more problems than those problems that are in peoples lives already adding to another layer of conflict and confusion rather than spending time helping people or discovering spirituality further, become embroiled in politics of ‘running a church’ or whatever…

It’s a bit like asking ‘how should a equestrian shop sell a riding hat to people who don’t own a horse?’. If people have actively declared ‘no religion’ chances are they have a world view that does not perceive a need for god or a religious community

Do your replies to the previous two questions shed any light on my final question? … 

Does the increase in people who identify as ‘No Religion’ mean the apocalypse for religion as we have known it?

My answer, very simply, is yes. Twentieth century religion – which in the West included a  spike in affiliation and practice after the Second World War and a sharp decline starting in the 1960s – is no longer fit for purpose. No long ago, I heard a minister say that he thought the Presbyterian Church wouldn’t be around in 40 years’ time – and he wasn’t too concerned about that. I guess he reckoned God could get on just fine without Presbyterians – if he had to! I don’t know if I would go that far, but I think that institutional churches must change to not just reflect – but also to shape – the times and societies in which they are situated. There is nothing new in this. It has happened throughout history. But it hasn’t always been pretty, or contributed to the common good.

So for the future, it’s over to us.


5 thoughts on “The Apocalypse for Religion – at Peter Rollins’ Wake Festival”

  1. Do the surveys refer only to Christianity?

    In the context of Christianity, followers of Jesus were meant to be free from the fetters of religion, “… free from the (religious) Law”.

    Christianity, which wasn’t invented by Jesus, has kept those afflicted by it in fetters for the past two thousand years. Perhaps people now have the knowledge and courage to break free.

  2. Hi Dennis, All Censuses and surveys give people choices other than Christianity or No Religion; most will have options for different Christian denominations as well as other major world faiths – Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.

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