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How Many “Nones” Are There? Explaining the Discrepancies in Survey Estimates

Abstract

While there has been a great deal of media focus recently on the rise of those without religious affiliation (also known as the “nones”), there is an underlying issue facing this line of research: different surveys come to completely different conclusions about how many nones actually exist in the United States. Using the General Social Survey (GSS) and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) this work details how each of these instruments measures religious affiliation in a different manner and how that results in an estimate of the nones that diverges by over 8% points in 2018. Statistical analysis reveals that the GSS has a much higher share of Protestants who never attend church than that found in the CCES. In addition, the CCES Protestant subsample is more Republican, while the nones in the GSS are more to the left of the political spectrum than the nones in the CCES. Some advice and caution is offered to researchers who are interested in studying the religiously unaffiliated in these two surveys.

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Notes

  1. It is worth pointing out that the survey method for the GSS is distinct from the CCES. The GSS is conducted through in-person interviews, while the CCES is done through an online procedure. While it’s impossible to pin down the exact impact on responses, it seems possible that social desirability bias may be more of an issue when survey questions are asked by an actual person versus an online portal.

  2. It’s noteworthy that the question in these two surveys differs in one important way: the GSS asks about “religious preference,” while the CCES asks: “What is your present religion, if any?” The key distinction is the inclusion of the term “preference.” This may lead some respondents to think that this question means: “if I had to choose a religion, what would that be?” versus “what religion do I affiliate with?” The end result may be that GSS respondents are choosing a religious tradition that they don’t feel particularly close to, because they “prefer” it to other options, but the extent to which this happens is not discernible with the current data.

  3. There may be some debate about whether a “nothing in particular” respondent should be classified as a religious “none.” In the 2018 CCES, 91% of the “nothing in particular” group said that they attended church “seldom” or “never”; compared to 98% of agnostics and 98.6% of atheists. For comparison, only 39.8% of the least religiously active Christian group (white Catholics) chose one of these two attendance options. Additionally, on a measure of religious importance, “nothing in particulars” look much more similar to atheists/agnostics than they do any other large faith group. Another consideration is this: if the “nothing in particular” group is excluded then the nones in the CCES are just 12%, which is about half of the size of the GSS estimate of 23.3%.

  4. The CCES sample is so large that the standard errors often do not extend past the point estimate shapes.

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Burge, R.P. How Many “Nones” Are There? Explaining the Discrepancies in Survey Estimates. Rev Relig Res 62, 173–190 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-020-00400-7

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Keywords

  • Religious affiliation
  • Nones
  • Atheists
  • Agnostic
  • Social desirability bias