How to cover the 1 in 5 Americans who say they have ‘no religion’

A new survey by Pew found that nearly 20 percent of Americans say they're unaffiliated with any religion, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. Is the country about to be overrun by atheists? Not exactly.

"Part of the study, if you read into it, says it’s not just that people are dropping out of being Protestant" or abandoning religion altogether, said Jaweed Kaleem, who reports on religion for The Huffington Post. "It's that people are changing the way they talk about religion."

Nuanced findings such as Pew's are a challenge to cover, even for people who spend much of their working time in the chiaroscuro world of spiritual differences. Kaleem said he's noticed most news organizations have played up the study's findings that Protestants are no longer the majority or the rise of what the study calls "nones" -- unaffiliated people including atheists, agnostics, people who describe themselves as "spiritual" and those who said they are "looking for a religion."

That this category is growing, Kaleem said, does not make his job 20 percent easier.

"If one in five adults is a quote 'none,' than absolutely you have to achieve a sense of parity in your reporting and cover every kind of religion or lack thereof."

Finding those people can be a challenge. Kaleem found Sarah Garrison, the woman who leads his article about the Pew findings, through a Facebook group. He'd been planning a story about people who were spiritual but not religious; when the Pew study dropped he told her, "I’m writing up the study, and it sounds like they’re describing you."

Atheists and agnostics have organizations that religion reporters can use if they're looking for quotes, but people who are spurning institutions are going to naturally be harder to find. Having Pew's data, Kaleem said, makes it easier to make the case that they're there, even if they're not exactly advertising on buses.

Two good pieces on the study (there are lots more!): Diana Penner, with an assist from Kristine Guerra and Ryan Sabalow, talks to people, including students at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, for her report about the study (The Indianapolis Star) | Cathy Lynn Grossman delves into the possible political conclusions of the report and embeds a PBS video (USA Today)

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  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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