24 April 2010

UUA Demographic Trends and "Tipping Points"

The Unitarian Universalist Association President Rev. Peter Morales just released a "Policy Governance" (tm) monitoring report titled Monitoring Report—Global Ends (dated March 2010). In this report, Rev. Morales writes about some troubling growth trends:
On the other hand, certain trends are profoundly disturbing. Progressive people are becoming more secular. One only need to look to Europe, where liberal religion in general and Unitarian Universalism are tiny. Here at home, our very modest rate of growth, always well below the growth of the population, has ceased. We are no longer growing.
Also in this report, Rev. Morales also discusses the regional differences in growth trends:
The chart above shows that three of our regions (Southland, Western and Mid Atlantic) have grown significantly. Unfortunately, the North Atlantic is in serious decline. In a decade it has gone from our second largest region to our smallest.

Here is the chart showing the North Atlantic regional growth trends over the past decade:

And here is the chart showing the Western regional growth trends over the past decade:

The North Atlantic Region and the Western Region are experiencing different growth trends.

Even though the historical roots for both Unitarianism and Universalism run deep in New England, our numbers are shrinking in New England.

This shrinkage in New England may related to the increase in the "None" religious demographic affiliation in this region. And this region may have reached a "tipping point" demographically for Unitarian Universalism (more to follow on this speculation).

First, you may be asking what exactly are "Nones." Here's a description from the American Religious Identification Survey 2008 report on this demographic group (American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population):
One of the most widely noted findings from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008), which was released in March 2009, was the substantial increase in the No Religion segment of the U.S. population, whom we designate as "Nones." The Nones increased from 8.1% of the U.S. adult population in 1990 to 15% in 2008 and from 14 to 34 million adults. Their numbers far exceed the combined total of all the non-Christian religious groups in the U.S. Who exactly are the Nones? "None" is not a movement, but a label for a diverse group of people who do not identify with any of the myriad of religious options in the American religious marketplace – the irreligious, the unreligious, the anti-religious, and the anti-clerical. Some believe in God; some do not. Some may participate occasionally in religious rituals; others never will. Nones are easily misunderstood. On the one hand, only a small minority are atheists. On the other hand, it is also not correct to describe them as "unchurched" or "unaffiliated" on the assumption that they are mainly theists and religious searchers who are temporarily between congregations. Yet another incorrect assumption is that large proportions of Nones are anti-rationalist proponents of New Age and supernatural ideas. As we will show, they are more likely to be rational skeptics.
Here's a list of the North Atlantic Region Districts provided by the UUA web site so we know what states are in which district:
The Western Region is experiencing growth but this region also has a high percentage of "Nones" compared to the national average of 15% of the total U.S. adult population. Here's a list of the Western Region Districts provided by the UUA web site so we will know what states are in which district:
Here's a listing of the North Atlantic Region states listed in rank-order by percentage of "Nones" in the adult population:
  • #1 - Vermont (34% "None")
  • #2 - New Hampshire (29% "None")
  • #4 - Maine (25% "None")
  • #10 - Massachusetts (22% "None")
  • #13 - Rhode Island (19% "None")
  • #28 - Connecticut (14% "None")
And here's a listing of the Western Region states listed in rank-order by percentage of "Nones" in the adult population (please note that the ARIS report did not have data on Alaska or Hawaii so they're not listed below for that reason):
  • #3 - Wyoming (28% "None")
  • #4 - Washington (25% "None")
  • #6 - Nevada (24% "None")
  • #6 - Oregon (24% "None")
  • #8 - Idaho (23% "None")
  • #11 - Colorado (21% "None")
  • #11 - Montana (21% "None")
  • #14 - California (18% "None")
  • #16 - Arizona (17% "None")
  • #19 - New Mexico (16% "None")
  • #28 - Utah (14% "None")
  • #36 - Texas (12% "None" - Western Texas near El Paso is part of the Mountain Desert District while the majority of the state is part of the Southwest District)
Both the North Atlantic Region and Western Region have higher percentages of "Nones" when compared to the US average. However, the most-recent ARIS report shows that New England has taken the lead on this trend.

I'm wondering if we've reached a "tipping point" in New England with respect to this increasing percentage of "Nones" (a "tipping point" describes " ... any process in which, beyond a certain point, the rate at which the process proceeds increases dramatically").

As the "None" demographic increases in other regions to 25-30% and beyond, will we see shrinkage of Unitarian Universalist congregational membership numbers? Are the growth trends in New England a warning for the rest of the UUA? How do we best market ourselves in a culture that is becoming increasingly secular?

The ARIS report suggests that adult "Nones" could account for around one-quarter of the American population in two decades.

This could be an important demographic trend for our future.

Although "Nones" are presently 15% of the total US adult population, 22% of Americans aged 18-29 years self-identify as Nones. As this growing "None" adult population become parents, they may not see a need to join Unitarian Universalist congregations or enroll their children in Unitarian Universalist religious education programs.

What do you think?