March 24, 2015—This past year, Barna Group has spent a considerable amount of time studying the unchurched—those who have not attended church within the past six months.

Much of that research is collected in the new Barna project Churchless, edited by David Kinnaman and George Barna. One of the most remarkable findings is that unchurched people are not always unbelievers—in fact, most aren’t. The majority are non-practicing Christians: They claim Christianity as their faith, but they haven’t been to church in a long time.

But what about atheists and agnostics? Are their numbers on the rise? Are more and more of the unchurched becoming unbelievers, too?

Who Are the Atheists?
For reporting purposes at Barna, we often combine atheists and agnostics into one group, which we call skeptics. Skeptics either do not believe God exists (atheists) or are not sure God exists, but are open to the possibility (agnostics). Skeptics represent one-quarter of all unchurched adults (25%). Nearly one-third of skeptics have never attended a Christian church service in their lives (31%). That’s nearly double the proportion of “virgin unchurched” who are not skeptics (17%).

The profile of a typical skeptic is different today from a decade or two ago. Today’s skeptics, like their counterparts from two decades ago, are defined by their denial of or doubts about God’s existence. But that is about the only thing they have in common with the unchurched atheist or agnostic of yesteryear. Below are five demographic shifts among skeptics in the past two decades.

Five Demographic Shifts among Skeptics

They are younger. Skeptics today are, on average, younger than in the past. Twenty years ago, 18 percent of skeptics were under 30 years old. Today that proportion has nearly doubled to 34 percent—nearly one-quarter of the total U.S. population (23%, compared to 17% in 1991). By the same token, the proportion of skeptics who are 65 or older has been cut in half, down to just 7 percent of the segment.

They are more educated. Today’s skeptics tend to be better educated than in the past. Two decades ago, one-third of skeptics were college graduates, but today half of the group has a college degree.

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