Deirdre Sugiuchi was five when her dad became a born-again Christian. She grew up bouncing between Mississippi churches: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian Church in America. (“The hardcore version,” she says.) They attended twice a day on Sundays, each Wednesday, plus any revival. She went to school at segregation academies, and had to fight with her father to be allowed to wear pants.
Sugiuchi attended a Focus on the Family-associated church camp where she was taught how to write letters to influence members of Congress. She describes her father’s version of discipline, corporal punishment during which he’d quote scripture — spare the rod, spoil the child. Despite a beating that was bad enough she couldn’t go to school for a new days, no one intervened. “I was told there was something wrong with me. But I was being brutalized and nobody was saying anything about it,” she says.
Despite being sent to an abusive Christian reform school due to her “rebellion,” she still considered herself a Christian into her early twenties and tried to attend church. Sugiuchi, who is now 47, says she realized church just didn’t do anything for her anymore. “It wasn’t any one thing; it was this gradual falling away. And then over this past decade it’s been such a toxic thing,” she adds.
Sugiuchi sees followers using their Christianity to justify being anti-gay, anti-Black, and anti-woman. George W. Bush’s rhetoric around the war on terror made her hyperaware of how Christian nationalism has been used to promote a racist ideology. “I feel like until this past year, people haven’t understood the problem we face with people who call themselves Christians,” she says.
She doesn’t use terms like “atheist” or “agnostic” to describe her belief system. She says she no longer believes in an anthropomorphic God, and recognizes that religion has been used throughout history as a tool of the state to justify oppressing people. I asked if she had grown up in a more moderate, mainline church environment if she might have held onto her faith. She’s not sure, but imagines she would have left the church regardless. She’s close to people raised in loving Christian environments who have also walked away from their faith.
In tight-knit faith communities, there is intense social pressure to conform and a social cost associated with rejecting faith. The threat of losing one’s family can be enough to keep a person in church membership in name only to avoid the fallout. But between 1972, when only 4% of women identified as nones, and 2018, 21% of women identified as nonreligious.
Why now? Ryan Burge, a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and author of the new book The Nones, issues a few hypotheses: broken trust, politics, the internet, and more people telling the truth. Many Americans have lost faith in our major institutions and within Christianity, this was exacerbated by the Catholic and Southern Baptist Convention sex abuse crises. The way #ChurchToo trended, it became clear sexual abuse and assault is not uncommon within churches. Seeing it on this scale caused many to lose trust in their church. It felt safer to leave.
Among the women most of us don’t learn about in school are America’s freethinking women, those who bucked societal pressures and had the audacity to question a tradition of patriarchal faith. Frances Wright, the freethinking abolitionist, women’s health advocate, confidant to General Lafayette and pupil of Jeremy Bentham, was dismissed by the 18th-century American press as the “Red Harlot of Infidelity,” the “high priestess of Beelzebub” and the “whore of Babylon.” Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists, was dubbed “the most hated woman in America” by Life Magazine. Her 1963 Supreme Court case resulted in the banning of compulsory Bible reading in school.
Women who dare to break from religion tend to be outspoken on other controversial issues, and are often marked by disdain or erasure from society. But women leaving religion in America today — in particular, Christianity — is far less of an anomaly. Part of the reason may be the way conservative Christianity has become so entangled with politics, driving progressives away.
In the academic study of religion, women deserting organized religion are depicted as a crucial indicator of the health and sustainability of a faith community. One of the oldest theories in the sociology of religion, secularization, suggests that with higher levels of education and economic prosperity, cultures tend to move away from religion. This was the case in most other developed countries, but until the 1990s, the U.S. remained stubbornly pious, thanks to a too-often-silenced majority, Christian women who stayed in the pews.
But in recent decades, millions of Christian-raised American women—including swelling numbers of Black Americans who are peeling off from religious identification—started calling themselves something else. They are part of America’s growing cohort of religious nones: agnostics, atheists, “spiritual, not religious,” or “nothing in particular.”
Burge crunched various survey data from over the past 25 years. Depending upon the survey, nones have gone from being about 10% of the U.S. population to between a quarter and 31.1%. For comparison’s sake, white evangelicals — whose clout has so captured the imagination of political commentators for years — represent 21.5% of the population, and their numbers are shrinking.
A long-held assumption was that religious freedom in America actually sustained higher religious identification. A diverse marketplace of ideas kept people from feeling trapped in one version of faith; a person could shop around but remain religious. In more secular countries, men were typically the first to reject religion and in larger numbers. In all faiths except Sikhism, notes Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce in their book Why Are Women More Religious Than Men?, there are more women believers than men. But once large numbers of women start to abandon religion, the tip toward secularization becomes more permanent.
“Women are the last line of defense for secularization,” says Burge. Children tend to adopt their mother’s faith instead of the father’s, so the shift has generational impact as well. For those trying to keep people in pews, “losing the women is when the battle is lost.” Plenty of others are going with them.
Since the 1970s, American Christianity has taken a sharp shift to the right. When those who used religion as a political weapon swung right, freedom from religion became an appeal to the left. In 1972, half of all white, weekly churchgoers identified as Democrats; now it’s a quarter. Mix in Donald Trump, QAnon, and Christian nationalism, and the rationale for abandoning church becomes even stronger for political progressives. Recently, influencer and conservative Bible teacher Beth Moore disaffiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which had become too extreme for her.
Despite the current evangelical reckoning, the largest evacuation from American Christianity has been among more moderate and progressive mainline Protestants. Over four decades, they declined from 30% of the population to around 10%. Burge explains the reasons are complicated, but in short, many theological and political moderates and liberals were reacting to the loudest voices in American Christianity who were preaching an increasingly conservative and extreme gospel.
“If we trace the drops in the mainline, a big hunk of it happened during the 1980s when evangelicalism really embraced the pro-life movement and men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson became national figures,” he says. “Many mainline Protestants didn’t believe a lot of theology anyway, and became tired of being lumped in with those loud and extreme voices on the right. It was easier to not fight those battles anymore and walk away.”
One recent book, Secular Surge, published by Cambridge University Press, showed that among people asked their religion before and after reading a news story in which people mixed religion and politics, Republicans’ religious identification remained consistent. But Democrats’ self-reported religious affiliation dropped by 13%. Compound this sort of distaste with decades of GOP and conservative Christian entanglement of media and public policy, and the current political identification of nones makes a lot of sense.
Analyzing data from the General Social Survey (GSS), Burge found that by 2018, over 70% of Americans who considered themselves liberal or liberal-leaning were religiously unaffiliated. Back in 1988, only 15.2% of liberals were unaffiliated. Atheists are by far the most liberal group in the U.S., with agnostics close behind— they are also more politically active. Using that 2018 GSS data, Burge found a quarter of atheists reported attending a protest or march, 30% had contacted a public official, and a quarter had displayed a political sign. Agnostics track close behind for political participation. But not all nones are the same. The segment of nones who identify as “nothing in particular” are much less politically engaged than the rest of the general public.
Another likely factor in normalizing religious skepticism has been the internet. People who might have remained silent about doubts can now find a community online to help them work through their questions or give them permission to walk away. For example, someone questioning the church in rural Mississippi once might have only heard about atheists as a bogeyman in a Sunday sermon. Now, you can find 2.6 million of them in the atheism subreddit alone.
Once large numbers of women start to abandon religion, the tip toward secularization becomes more permanent.
Last, some portion of survey respondents years ago likely lied about their faith. Even on an anonymous survey, there’s an urge to give the answer one thinks the questioner will approve of, or perhaps to make yourself feel better. One study in the 1990s asked people in Ashtabula County, Ohio, about their church attendance; the surveyors then fact-checked pastors for actual church attendance and went and counted cars in church parking lots. They deduced about half the people who said they attended church once a week had lied about it.
It may be easier to fess up to being nonreligious now because it is more common and therefore more accepted, so recent surveys may also offer a more accurate reflection of American faith. “Every generation is less religious than the prior one,” says Burge. But he’s also finding that every generation becomes less religious as they age at the same time. Gen Z and millennials may be more likely to be nones than their parents or grandparents, but boomers are less religious today than they were themselves in their thirties.
While the stigma of being nonreligious in the U.S. seems to be evaporating in many places, there’s still antagonism associated with being an atheist in America. According to public opinion polls, atheists come out as the least liked group of people, even worse than members of Congress. Just two-fifths of American atheists are women, though this population is growing.
If history has been unkind to women freethinkers, one could be forgiven for assuming the rising ranks of new atheism could offer a more beneficent home. But with movement figureheads that included the likes of Christopher Hitchens — who famously asserted that women aren’t funny — and Richard Dawkins, who alternately claims to be a feminist and makes swipes at feminists, it’s not always a welcoming place for women. And sometimes it can be downright abusive.
In 2011, Dawkins launched an online comment battle after American atheist blogger Rebecca Watson, founder of the Skepchick Network, described an uncomfortable encounter with a man who made sexual advances after following her into an elevator at the World Atheist Convention. After Dawkins minimized the situation online, Watson received a flood of death and rape threats. (Dawkins has since apologized, sort of.)
Serious allegations of harassment and assault at atheist conferences grew common among atheist leaders. Jey McCreight is a blogger who in 2012 penned the feminist and inclusive Atheism+ manifesto, trying to expand the modern atheist movement to include social justice and anti-racism and to combat homophobia. For this, McCreight received hate messages daily, including photos of bloody, mutilated penises and suggestions that McCreight, who has since come out as transgender, kill themself.
Death and rape threats, mostly from young, male atheists, became common, and a constant fusillade of them left Melody Hensley, the Center for Inquiry-DC’s former executive director, with PTSD. As much as Christianity from the time of Peter has systematically oppressed women, new atheism’s male leaders can sometimes look more like an angry boys’ club armed with disciple trolls, bent on securing elevated status within a new movement.
People who might have remained silent about doubts can now find a community online to help them work through their questions or give them permission to walk away.
In more recent years, several atheist organizations have implemented stronger and better codes of conduct with processes to respond to incidents. This was important for atheists “to show the community that building an inclusive and welcoming space was important to them,” says Debbie Goddard, vice president of programs for American Atheists. Today, more women are on boards and in leadership positions within atheist organizations.
Yet at the same time, another atheist thought leader, Sam Harris, for a time affiliated himself with the so-called Intellectual Dark Web and has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a pathway to the alt-right: “Under the guise of scientific objectivity, Harris has presented deeply flawed data to perpetuate fear of Muslims and to argue that Black people are genetically inferior to whites.” Dawkins, who has frequently criticized atrocities against women and queer people committed by Muslim people, claims to differentiate Islamism from Islam but has repeatedly faced accusations of anti-Islamic bigotry.
As the American atheist movement has matured, it seems to be flowing into two camps. On one side, an enlightenment-fetishizing, libertarian, individualism still reigns. There’s Sam Harris describing “identity politics” as a moral, political, and intellectual dead end and defending old, debunked, pseudoscientific tropes linking race and IQ. Leaders, such as Dawkins, describe themselves as “pro-science” empiricists while insisting gender is a matter of genetics.
In the other camp are the social justice warrior sort of atheists, notes Goddard. These are generally the organizers, not the folks headlining podcasts and secular conferences. They struggle, for example, with leaders “who have a certain perspective of biology they promote that is transphobic,” says Goddard. Just this week American Atheists had to put out a statement in response to more tweets from Dawkins concerning transgender people.
Perhaps there’s always been a gulf between the handful of men often seen as atheist figureheads, with their bestselling books and snappy public opinions, and the grassroots nonbelievers looking for community. But America’s recent moral confrontations with misogyny, racial injustice, homophobia, and transphobia have forced an interrogation of how those on the left need to improve too. Even last month a wave of American Humanist Association (AHA) Social Justice Alliances board members publicly broke with the AHA around what those leaving describe as failures to confront white supremacy within its culture. Atheism, as a movement, is now big enough for schisms, to break apart and form anew.
It’s difficult to know what the lasting impact of recent upheavals exacerbated by Trump and the pandemic will be on organized atheism. Some atheist activists Goddard knows in Ohio left organized atheism to work on reproductive rights; some in St. Louis redirected their energy to work on racial justice. “People who have strong identities that they recognize have other communities and groups they can join,” she says. “And if they’re not seeing their local atheist community is involved in an issue, they can get involved with other groups around identity.”
When I asked if the atheist movement has faced a reckoning concerning race in the same way some evangelical churches have, Goddard was thoughtful. “Has there been a reckoning? There have been challenges. But for some minority groups in the atheist community, we haven’t had enough of a voice to be able to challenge things to that point.”
In The Nones, Burge notes that while in 2008, Black Americans were the least likely to be religiously unaffiliated (17.7%), in a 10-year time, the rate of disaffiliation has jumped to 32.1%. “It seems possible that the share of Black people who are nones might double in less than 15 years,” he writes.
Burge also writes that 86% of Black nones call themselves “nothing in particular.” “The word ‘atheist’ has a lot of stigma attached to it for every community, every racial group, but it seems like it is orders of magnitude worse in the Black community,” with only 5% of Black nones identifying as atheists, Burge writes. Part of this is history speaking. The Black church is “part of all parts of African American life… When you were locked out of fraternal organizations and social groups and country clubs, the Black church became the social hub.” Leaving the church meant leaving one’s core social gathering place.
Sometimes in the Black community, atheists are stigmatized or seen as immoral, explains Goddard. “For many African Americans, religion is wrapped up as part of Black identity, as a crucial part of Black history,” she says. Rejecting the church can seem like rejecting the good the church has done for the Black community.
Interestingly, Burge notes some preliminary data from those staying in Black churches. Particularly among those who attend weekly, some people, and men especially, are beginning to trend away from the Democratic party. “Black devout people are becoming more like evangelicals every year,” he says. “They’re a less reliable blue vote now than they were even 10 or 15 years ago.”
Burge’s advice to pastors who are watching their congregations shrink? Stop preaching politics. Stop posting things on social media that ridicule other groups. There are plenty of people who leave church for legitimate reasons — LGBTQ kids whose parents told them they were no longer welcome at home, those raised in controlling environments, or those ostracized for marrying someone of another faith or having a child without being married. To make a place people want to join, people need community. “I’ve been telling people a lot recently that churches need to remember first and foremost, they’re social organizations that happen to have a religious component to them,” he says.
Although more men are nones than women, where the gender gap among nones is beginning to disappear is among those who are child-free. While 40% of men without children are nones, 38.5% of women without kids are nones. It’s an open question whether women who don’t have kids are more comfortable bucking societal norms (and so they don’t get fussed calling themselves nonreligious as well), or if by not feeling the pull to establish kids’ moral education — which often draws families back or into church during childbearing years — they avoid getting pulled back in.
This also might mean there’s space to welcome in more nonbelieving moms. Goddard notes that maybe 20 years ago grassroots atheist groups were predominantly older men. There was no childcare. There need to be more spaces for women who don’t see a place for themselves in atheist communities, Goddard says. “They don’t necessarily want to go to a lecture on a Wednesday or Sunday afternoon about science and the Bible, but they’d love to meet other nonreligious people.” She describes groups led by women, like Little Heathens in Virginia or Girl Scout groups for nonreligious kids. New, secular family groups are growing, but there are so many Christian daycares — especially in the Black church. When a person needs resources or support, they can find this at many churches, regardless of what they believe.
In some ways, Goddard’s perspective is similar to Burge’s: Create a wider net, but one that acknowledges the nonreligious power dynamics impacting people’s lives. The path ahead, to her mind, is building more inclusive spaces that deal with issues relevant to a variety of communities. “Classically, historically, the atheist community has focused on fighting religion in government and representing atheism,” says Goddard. Not all issues facing atheists can be framed as nonbelievers fighting religion when religion has political power. “Sometimes you have to slice it differently,” Goddard says, or face losing people.