Book Review: Understanding Ex-Christian America
Bullivant’s new book stands out as not just about nones in general, but about those Americans who used to affiliate with a religion but no longer do. Usually, that means leaving evangelical Protestantism, mainline Protestantism, Mormonism, or Catholicism. Bullivant makes a solid case for the importance of such people for understanding American religion moving forward, and with Nonverts he has put another very fine book into the world. It is worth reading and pondering.
Christianity in America is currently going through a watershed period as society and culture continue to secularize. Among younger adults, for every one person who goes from religiously unaffiliated to affiliating with a religion, there are five people who switch in the opposite direction, toward no religion. Having no religious affiliation is increasingly becoming normal, and even the expectation among certain enclaves of American life.
The United States is more ex-Christian and post-Christian than ever before in its history. How did this situation come about? And what does it mean for the nation? The key number concerning the frequently referenced “rise of the nones” is likely familiar to many: Roughly one-quarter of American adults, or 59 million people, are “nones”—that is, atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular when it comes to religion. The proportion of “nones” in the US population hovered between 5 and 9 percent throughout the 1970s and 80s, but right around the year 1990, the percentage of nones began to climb to its current highpoint.
Less known is that only 30 percent of nones in the United States report having been raised with no religious affiliation. The rest, totaling about 41 million American adults, identified with some kind of religion earlier in life, but eventually left it. This segment of the population therefore is pivotal for understanding the shifting American religious landscape over recent decades. And it is those Americans—along with the social and cultural forces that tend to influence them—who are the topic of sociologist and theologian Stephen Bullivant’s book, Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, recently published by Oxford University Press.
A Nation of “Nonverts”
Drawing from both survey data and interviews with a wide range of people, Bullivant provides a broad introduction to American adults who have thrown off their prior religious affiliations. The book is structured into nine chapters, which alternate between bigger-picture analysis/commentary and a series of “deep dives” into specific religious traditions. So, chapters 2, 4, 6, and 8 provide glimpses into disaffiliation from Mormonism, mainline Protestantism, evangelicalism, and Catholicism, respectively. Each of these tradition-specific chapters offers a helpful introduction to the character and troubles of each tradition. For anyone who wants to understand disaffiliation among one (or more) of those four traditions, these even-numbered chapters stand as quick and helpful overviews, brought to life by Bullivant’s skillful deployment of individual stories to represent larger themes.
Each of these chapters is, at the same time, broad and partial. They do not present findings that aim to be exhaustive or methodical. The chapters don’t analytically pick apart every conceivable reason that one might disaffiliate from a religion, the way past survey reports from Pew have done, for example. That’s not Bullivant’s purpose in writing. Instead, the chapter on “exvangelicals,” for instance, focuses on just three factors: purity culture, hypocrisy, and former President Trump. And readers hear about decades of sexual abuse scandals, devotional laxity, and simply not feeling it in various ways in the case of “recovering Catholics.”
As one would expect, Bullivant emphasizes that America’s “nonverts” are a diverse slice of the population on all sorts of metrics, such as age, race, and (to a limited degree) outlooks on politics. He also highlights that being religiously unaffiliated does not necessarily mean being entirely without faith of any kind, let alone an atheist. Only about 15 percent of nonverts are atheists, another 15 percent are agnostics, while 35 percent say they believe in a higher power of some kind (but not a personal God).