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?


David G. Markham said...

Dear Steve:

Excellent article!

I am not sure what I think. In my experience, a lot of the "nones" are members of Rotary, Kwanis, Lions, Elks, Moose, and other civic organizations.

I have been a member of Rotary International in two different districts and these folks are secular humanists for the most part who also are what we used to think of as moderate Republicans.

They are very civic minded and engage in a lot of fundraising for good causes like youth programs and to eliminate Polio world wide.

Do civic organizations offer fellowship and the opportunity for community service to the nones?

Should we and could we as UUs compete with them?

All the best,

David Markham

Robin Edgar said...

"Are the growth trends in New England a warning for the rest of the UUA?"

Surely you mean -

Are the *decline* trends in New England a warning for the rest of the UUA?

There has been no real growth in the UUA as a percentage of the overall population since the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article! Thank you

My concern is both about the health of our beloved UU movement, where numbers do matter and spreading our word. I have met people who are socially liberal and nones. They do not care about the philosophy. As a result, they can be easily confused. Their confusion becomes obvious in town politics, for example. With little systematic philosophical support of their liberal positions, they do not quickly assess a new proposal and become disorganized as a result.

Steve Caldwell said...

Robin - well a decrease in numbers is a "growth trend" in the same way that slowing down is an "acceleration" (aka "a change in velocity" as the term is defined in physics).

Strictly speaking from a demographic perspective, "population growth" is the change in a population over time. As we can see in New England, sometimes change is expressed as a negative number.

Regarding the assertion that the UU membership numbers as a percentage of the population haven't grown since the 1961 merger, that isn't totally accurate. From 1961 to 1969, the UUA grew by this measure as you can see from the 2005 UUA Financial Advisor's report on page 6 of this PDF:


After 1969, the UUA's internal disputes over the Vietnam War, denominational race relations, and other issues led to the decline in percentage of the population that we see today.

Steve Caldwell said...

David Markham wrote:
"In my experience, a lot of the "nones" are members of Rotary, Kwanis, Lions, Elks, Moose, and other civic organizations."


That may have been the case in the past but civic organizations are seeing the same decline in membership and aging of their membership that churches are seeing.

My Dad is a Shriner and he volunteered to drive pediatric patients and their parents from Washington DC to the Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia. He's mentioned that the Shriner membership is getting older. And similar trends are hitting the Masonic orders as well.

Part of the description of the "None" demographic was the following:

" ... 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"

Of course, some of these "Nones" would have never joined a UU congregation.

But this description fits many UU folks that I've met over the years who have joined our congregations and supported them both with their energy and their gifts.

The most-current survey of UU theological affinities that I can find dates back to 2001 (almost a decade old). You can find this survey data cited on Wikipedia here:


Here's the survey data:

In a survey, Unitarian Universalists in the United States were asked which provided term or set of terms best describe their belief. Many respondents chose more than one term to describe their beliefs. The top choices were:

* Humanist – 54%
* Agnostic – 33%
* Earth-centered – 31%
* Atheist – 18%
* Buddhist – 16.5%
* Christian – 13.1%
* Pagan – 13.1%

As one can see from this survey data, the UU profile from 2001 was heavily humanist, agnostic, and/or atheist in flavor. I don't know if this is still true today.

I also don't know if a humanist-agnostic-atheist person who fits into the "None" category would feel welcome in our congregations today. The ARIS survey described this demographic the "Nones" as "rational skeptics." Would a rational skeptic voice be welcome in our congregations today?

Finally, once 30% of one's neighbors are secular and non-religious, there is a lot less "peer pressure" to join a church. This peer pressure probably was a strong contributor to UU growth during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The humanists, agnostics, atheists, and others who would now be described as "Nones" may have joined our congregations to escape church peer pressure from our neighbors.

Once this peer pressure is gone, perhaps one result is a decrease in UU numbers? That's my guess to explain the New England demographic trend. And we may see similar patterns as other regions become more secular.

cltech said...
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Masasa said...

YES, and on the other hand, New England is a unique flavor of UUism. I have lived in and been active in churches in three districts, from west coast to east coast (New England region) and one basically towards the middle of the U.S. I'm in New England currently.

Below are just some of many regional differences that I think may impact growth based loosely on what "Faith Formation 2020" says are the demographic trends currently. Forgive me for my generalizations. Certainly not all items apply to all churches, including the church where I am. These are broad observations.

1. New England churches are not growth-centric, as a whole. More churches seem to be growth-resistant here than elsewhere in the country.

2. New England churches are slower to adopt innovation due to historical attachments. (For example, I'd love to see some stats on the use of the "new" UU hymnal supplement, which I am betting is used sparingly out here where we tend to stick to only those things that can be played well on the organ...we have these beautiful organs that are part of the history of our churces!)

3. New England churches are physically built for a mode of worship that may not prove to speak to future generations, based on demographic trends.

4. New England churches are historically social-status churches...places where people have attachments based on ancestoral/family histories of membership. At the same time, with increased mobility among families, maintaining memberships for family reasons is a decreasing trend, etc. So what used to bring people into churches is no longer...and it seems churches are only slowly adapting.

5. And to contradict #4 (it is only a contradiction on the surface level) people who live in New England may (I have to check on this) be less likely to be transplants from elsewhere in the country. There seems to be a significant part of the New England population that is well established where they are with a solid network of family and friends. Thus the trends explored in Faith Formation 2020 that indicate many folks may be seeking more of a "family gathering" subset experience of the larger church is a diminished need.

6. New England churches have a history of long service by ministers and other religious professionals such as directors of music and DREs. We have a whole lot of religious professionals out here in the nearing-retirement ages. Are young seekers coming to church and seeing themselves reflected? Are they hearing their experiences reflected in service and RE? Etc. I suspect that many aren't because the developmental stages of the older professionals does not match the developmental stages of the young seekers.

...there is more, but I suppose this has become far too long as it is.

How does New England church membership look in other traditions, outside the UUA?

joven said...
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Steve Caldwell said...

Masasa asked:
"How does New England church membership look in other traditions, outside the UUA?"

I just did a brief look at the ARIS report looking at the New England region in terms of changes between 1990 and 2008:


The ARIS report puts the following states into the "New England" category:




New Hampshire

Rhode Island


Here's the percentage changes showing the demographic shifts between 1990 and 2008:

Catholic -- 50% --> 36%

Other Christian -- 35% --> 32%

Other Religions -- 4% --> 5%

Nones -- 8% --> 22%

Don't Know/Refused -- 3% --> 6%

So it looks like nearly every religious group lost ground in New England except the "Nones" and the "Other Religions" category (e.g. "Other Religions" includes everything else that wasn't Catholic, Other Christian, None, or Don't Know).

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