On Sunday mornings, pastor Ryan P. Burge is glad if 10–20 people come for weekly worship at his Baptist church, which decades ago was the largest congregation in Mt. Vernon, Ill. On Monday mornings, Burge investigates where everybody went. He’s an assistant professor in political science at Eastern Illinois University, specializing in religion demography. His primary focus is on the millions of U.S. adults who have drifted—or run—away from their congregations and left name-brand Western religions altogether. They’re “nones”—people who tell survey researchers they have “no religious identity.”

Burge’s book, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going (Fortress, out now), cites research listing atheists and agnostics each at 6% of the U.S. population, while 20% identify as “nothing in particular.” Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed identified with a specific religion.

Small wonder, then, that “there’s a lot of interest, and hand-wringing and fretting over the nones, and it’s not only from pastors,” says Fortress editor Beth Gade. “Students of U.S. culture need to understand what is happening in religion.”

PW talked with Burge about nones on the rise, and why he chose to end his book of grim statistics with, “Don’t give up!”

The number of nones started soaring in the 1990s. Your book explores numerous triggers for this, but you spotlight three as the biggest forces for change: secularization, politics, and the internet. Why these three?

Secularization in the culture is not new. But science, rationality, and economic prosperity drive it, and there’s not much that can be done about it. I believe in realistic hope and, like globalization and technology, these are forces beyond pastors’ reach.

The nones’ numbers rocketed up in the 1990s, and look what was going on then in society and politics. Evangelicals were at their peak—29% of the population. The religious right was soaring. The Contract With America gave Congress Newt Gingrich’s conservative stamp. The pro-life movement took off. The Republican Party began to become more conservative year after year. A lot of Christians, particularly mainliners, looked at all this and said to themselves, “I don’t believe all that. I don’t want to defend myself against those views. I don’t really go to church much anyway. It’s just easier to slide over into the none category.”

The internet gave people for the first time the ability to find like-minded people anywhere. By making it a little bit easier to tell personal truths, it gave people permission to be who they already are. With every survey that identified nones, more people saw permission to step out and say they were nones, too. There’s a snowball effect.

Your book draws statistics from several surveys conducted in 2018 that listed nones at anywhere from 23% to 31% of Americans. What might the 2020 surveys show us?

We’ll start seeing these numbers in a few months, and I am already talking about revising and expanding the book. I predict a big jump for the nones overall—30% to 35% depending on the survey. In part, this is because these are internet-based surveys that eliminate the fear of social disapproval when people are interviewed on the phone or in person. Saying you are a none now has more social acceptability, and saying you believe “nothing in particular” is more acceptable than saying you are an atheist.

Once a none, always a none?

Not necessarily. There’s a lot of sloshing around the religion landscape. The “nothing in particular” group is the most malleable. It’s like the transfer station between theism on one side and atheism on the other. Over a four-year period that I studied, 60% of this group stayed put, about 13% became atheists or agnostics, 9% joined a non-Christian faith group, and 16.4% identified as Christians.

In the book you call those folks—just 16% of the 20% of “nothing in particular” folks—“the largest mission field in the United States today.” Can pastors preach them back in the doors?

No. Pastors don’t have time to waste on long shots. I like a quote from [Christianity Today editor-at-large] Philip Yancey: “No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument.”

Wait a minute. What happened to hope? What can pastors do?

Get back to gospel truth: we are made in the image of God. I hope what people realize is that churches are social service organizations with a religion component. People often belong to churches for nonspiritual reasons, to serve others. That’s why I end the book with Paul in Galatians: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” Don’t give up!