If a convert is someone who has been persuaded to change their religious faith, what’s a nonvert?
According to Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in Britain, a nonvert is a person who grew up in a religious home but who drifted away—who once identified with a religion, but now say they have no religion.
In Britain, the number of nonverts who experience what is called “nonversion” is growing.
Altogether, 48.6% of Britons now say they have no religion, according to data from the 2015 British Social Attitudes Survey and the 2014 European Social Survey.
“The striking thing is the clear sense of the growth of ‘no religion’ as a proportion of the population,” Bullivant told The Guardian.
“The main driver is people who were brought up with some religion now saying they have no religion . . . the rise of the non-religious is arguably the story of British religious history over the past half-century or so.”
In his report, titled “The ‘No Religion’ Population of Britain,” he notes that over 60% of the nonverts were brought up as Christians, mainly Anglican or Catholic.
Non-Christian religions have better retention levels; overall, only 2% of nonverts were raised in religious homes other than Christian.
According to Bullivant, the “nonversion” rate was 14% for Jews, 10% for Muslims and Sikhs and 6% for Hindus.
But what about people going the other way—converting from no-faith to being religious?
The news isn’t good on that front; the number of the non-religious who convert from no faith to faith is small.
Just over 5% of what Bullivant calls “cradle nones” report becoming Christians. Only 2% joined non-Christian faiths.
Or, to put it another way, for every person brought up in a non-religious household who becomes religious, 26 people raised as Christians became non-religious.
Other findings from Bullivant’s report showed that 67% of Britons identified as some kind of Christian in 1983; in 2015, it was 43%.
Over the same period, members of non-Christian religions have more than quadrupled.
Those who no longer identify with religions are younger on average—35% of the “nones” are under 35, compared to just 6% of that cohort who say they are Anglicans.
If there is any good news for religious groups, Bullivant says that after consistent decline the proportion of nones in Britain appears to have stabilized over the past few years.
“Younger people tend to be more non-religious, so you’d expect it to keep going,” he said in an interview.
“But it hasn’t. The steady growth of non-Christian religions is a contributing factor, but I wonder if everyone who is going to give up their Anglican affiliation has done so by now? We’ve seen a vast shedding of nominal Christianity, and perhaps it’s now down to its hardcore.”
And that may be another source of good news for religious groups, he suggests.
In an article in the Church Times, an Anglican newspaper in Britain, Bullivant noted that while many people have left Christianity, a “creative minority” of committed Christians remains.
This group is strongly committed, he said, and since they are “swimming against the tide” are often stronger in their faith.
This may lead to a rise in the number of people who are committed to religion in the future, he added, since they will be more intentional about bringing their children up in the faith.
What does this mean for Canadian religious groups?
Attendance at religious services is also declining in this country, as is affiliation with various religious groups—at 24% of the population, one of the fastest growing “faiths” is Canada is the nones. But will we reach the same levels as Britain? Time will tell.
In the meantime, one lesson that can be drawn out of the British experience might be for groups to consider pouring fewer resources into outreach and what Christians call evangelism, since it doesn’t appear to be working.
What might be more effective could be putting effort into shoring up current supporters—things like more family ministries, children’s programs, youth groups, creative ways to be relevant and community-minded, and provide more support for religious colleges and universities.
Maybe that way there will be fewer nonverts in the future.