Deconversion is the story of a generation. But other stories are already in the offing.
Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America by Stephen Bullivant. Oxford University Press, 2022. 272 pp., $29.95
The early 2000s were a golden age for pop-punk music. It was the heyday of Blink 182, New Found Glory, and Jimmy Eat World. It was also the beginning of Fall Out Boy, The All-American Rejects, and My Chemical Romance. This list includes but a few of the bands of almost all-male musicians who sang incessantly about adolescence, heartbreak, and partying.
As an evangelical teenager in the 2000s, I found in pop-punk a fascinating strand of religious imagery and language. The earlier genre of punk rock (think The Ramones or Bad Religion) was overtly anti-religious. It was especially skeptical about organized religion, which represented the enemy: conformity. By contrast, pop-punk aimed to draw a larger audience of suburban middle-class kids and usually avoided divisive social topics like religion entirely.
Even so, early 2000s pop-punk couldn’t escape religious language and metaphors. It often seemed like the bands didn’t want to. Some lyrics were overt, like Blink 182: “God has a master plan and I guess I am in his demand.” Others used religious phrases or idioms to amplify the message, like Fall Out Boy’s “Hum Hallelujah,” which invokes “faith,” “hell,” “chapel” and the titular “hallelujah” to describe a failed relationship. Still others, from Jimmy Eat World’s “Praise Chorus” to Panic! At the Disco’s “This is Gospel,” used church metaphors to make ironic or heightened emotional points. In fact, the examples of bands who did this number in the dozens: Motion City Soundtrack, The Starting Line, Simple Plan, Mayday Parade, Yellowcard, Brand New, Dashboard Confessional, and Taking Back Sunday. For the final two bands listed, religious references are even in the title.
Reading Stephen Bullivant’s new book Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America helped me understand how that era of pop-punk was on the cutting edge of a major social change in the United States. While the lyrics were often clichéd, they also revealed the future of the “nones”—the nonreligious demographic of Americans that ballooned starting in the 2000s. Without more definition, the “rise of the nones”—as sociologists and others have called this phenomenon—often fails to acknowledge what Bullivant pinpoints and what pop-punk bands embodied: The vast majority of Americans who now claim no religion were at one point Christians. They’re not, then, just “nones”: They are “post-Christians,” freighted with the experience of converting out of a religious culture and identity. They are the titular “nonverts.”
This was true of many pop-punk musicians. Most of the members of bands like Blink 182 and Jimmy Eat World grew up in Christian families in the suburbs of places like San Diego, California, and Mesa, Arizona. Some got their start in church worship, while others simply credited their religious upbringing for giving them a love of music. Many, though not all, ditched outward trappings of Christian culture in their public profiles. Some maintained personal connection to Christian spirituality, most often visible through religious tattoos. Some singers, such as Senses Fail lead Buddy Nielson, had messy breaks with Christianity and dedicated songs to exploring the rupture. Singers that explicitly addressed Christian themes were usually funneled into the subgenre of “Christian pop punk.” One example is Relient K, a band sonically indistinguishable from its counterparts, but one that more directly contemplated faith and God.
As with any high-profile commercialized class of people, pop-punk-star “nonversion” was likely a mix of performance and conviction. The “Christian pop-punk” market is smaller, the acceptable themes narrower. But these singers weren’t only playing for the crowd. Indeed, as went pop punk, so went the nation. Bullivant cites numbers that are both familiar and shocking. Today, nearly a quarter of U.S. adults (close to sixty million) identify as nonreligious. Of that group, 70% (about forty million) were raised Christian. Basically, if there had been no “nonverts” from Christianity in the past thirty years, the level of religiosity in the U.S. would have remained relatively stable. The rise of the nones, Bullivant writes, is largely due to the “vast, wholly unprecedented ‘mass nonversion’ of millions upon millions of Americans who were raised religious.”
While the prototypical nonvert in today’s popular culture is the “exvangelical,” Catholics and mainline Protestants have suffered the most drastic losses. Bullivant estimates there are now sixteen million ex-Catholics, 7.5 million ex-Baptists, two million ex-Lutherans, and one million ex-Presbyterians. He groups all nonverts into four categories based on their original religious communities: Mormons, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and Catholics.
While surveys lump all “nones” into a single category, Bullivant detects differences in the nonvert experience. For Mormons there is often an erosion of trust in Mormon history and teachings, while for mainline Protestants it appears that the main problem is that young members see no real benefit to staying involved. For evangelical nonverts, the culprit is often alienation from the subculture—the “purity culture” of the 1990s or the high-profile examples of corruption and abuse. Catholic nonverts retain a more ritualistic tie to their churches. Many still baptize their newborns in the Catholic Church, maybe out of family pressure, maybe out of a sort of “cultural Catholicism” that understands the ritual in nonreligious terms.
Nonverts explores these various trajectories out of religion through subject interviews, sociological and demographic data, and historical argumentation. In this last approach Bullivant offers two main arguments for why nonversion has increased so dramatically in recent decades. The first, and more familiar, is the mass adoption of the internet in the 1990s, which allowed the circulation of anti-religious arguments to circumvent normal institutional boundaries. For many young people, “it’s likely that ‘something they saw on the internet’—something, that is, they wouldn’t have seen had it not been for the internet—ended up sparking, or otherwise contributing to, a gradual path of nonversion.” The internet also allowed skeptics to find each other quickly and directly—a boon especially in the 1990s, when nonreligiosity remained a more powerful social stigma.
The second historical argument is less familiar but explains another puzzle when it comes to U.S. religion: why did the U.S. experience a seeming exceptional persistence of religiosity through the 1990s when much of Western Europe had their biggest wave of nonverts a generation earlier? Here Bullivant cites the Cold War, which the U.S. framed in starkly religious terms, unlike Western European allies.
This was true of Joseph McCarthy and his hunt for communists in the U.S. government—being an atheist carried the implication of being sympathetic to communism. This was also true of President Eisenhower, who famously described the United States as founded on the “Judeo-Christian concept.” Likewise, the U.S. Congress enshrined “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and placed “In God We Trust” on money in 1956. In short, the civil religion of the U.S. in the early Cold War delayed mass nonversion by at least a generation in relation to Great Britain or Canada. “The perceived un-Americanness of atheism directly, and hence of no-religionness by association, cast a long shadow,” Bullivant concludes—until the 1990s, when millennials, who largely grew up after the end of the Cold War, failed to inherit the same perspective.
What, ultimately, is the consequence of mass nonversion for American society? One is the short-term disposition of nonverts to religion. Like early 2000s pop-punk, religion among nonverts is disdained, yet it remains inescapable. In some ways, the nonverts’ deep familiarity with religion, though often in alienation from it, serves to heighten religious tensions between nonverts and the religious. Bullivant suspects that some of the tensions that currently rage around the culture wars will stabilize as the number of nonverts plateaus and the number of religious bottoms out.
In the long run, the religious future of America looks to be in the hands of the nonverts. Their numbers grow every year, and signs of nonversion slowdown in Gen Z are likely blips, writes Bullivant. But as Nonverts makes clear, “nones” are no unified category. There may arise tensions between subcategories of nones—including between nonverts and cradle atheists and agnostics, among others—just as much as between religious and nonreligious Americans.
In the next couple decades, Bullivant predicts, once the nonverts give way to cradle nones the nonreligious will “set (even) more of the cultural and political tone [of the U.S.].” Yet their lack of a nonvert experience will mean that they “will have the luxury of taking their majority for granted.” In fact, it may be that in the 2050s or so, a mass wave of young converts into Christianity (and other religious traditions) from nonreligious upbringings will trouble aging nonverts, who struggled to ensure that these same kids could be raised in a nonreligious culture. The tables will have been turned.
The pop-punk vanguard of that day may even invoke religion as a protest act, much like its early 2000s forebears used it as a toolbox of metaphors and the original generation of punk rock held it up as a sign of stodgy tradition.
In fact, examples of this turn are already appearing and are sometimes head-spinning. A much newer band, Meet Me @ The Alter, is made up of three Gen Z musicians, all women of color—the demographic inverse of the majority of pop-punk acts of yore. The band’s 2021 single was a feminist anthem with the intentionally ironic title “Hit Like a Girl.” The chorus blares, “I’m tough . . . I’m rowdy, yeah, I hit like a girl.” In the first verse, apparently to support this vision of girlhood, the song appropriates the famous descriptor of Jesus in John 1:14 as “full of grace and truth.”
In the hands of Meet Me @ The Alter, the singer has “got grace and truth,” a signal for listeners that “I’ll save the world and won’t even break a sweat.” Jesus, who the gospel of Luke says not only broke a sweat on his way to “save the world” but sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, is nothing but a distant reference point in Meet Me @ The Alter’s nascent oeuvre, even as the cadence has biblical roots. The sardonic line could be biting, heretical even. But I suspect it’s lost on all but the stray, middle-aged Christian listener of Gen Z pop-punk. Bullivant’s future is already here.
Daniel G. Hummel is the Director of University Engagement at Upper House, a Christian study center serving the University of Wisconsin-Madison.