“Nones” on the Rise
There’s a recent research report from the clever folks at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Sociological research can be pretty dry stuff, but this report made headlines in a couple of ways: Protestants are no longer a majority in America, and religiously unaffiliated people are now one-fifth of the U.S. population. Those are good sound-bites, and they’re backed up by impressive research and a boatload of data. You can read a nice summary of the findings here, or download the whole (80-page) report, entitled “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” here. If you are interested in the religious thinking and practices of Americans (and I assume you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you weren’t), you should take a look.
When I heard the news, I wondered how many Protestants (whether the evangelical or the mainline variety) thought they were already a beleaguered minority in America. Even though America is the most religious country in the industrialized world–Robert Putnam points out that attendance at religious services is slightly higher in the United States than in the Islamic Republic of Iran!–religious Americans (including Christians) are perpetually worried that the wider culture is drifting away from God, or becoming more hostile toward religion.
The headlines generated by the Pew report may trigger that defensive reflex in many religious Americans, but the report itself is much more interesting than our stereotypes. For many years (since the early 1970’s), there has been a gradual decline in American religious practice (with some churches declining more than others), and more people have described themselves as having no religious affiliation. These are what the researchers call “Nones”. What’s interesting in this most recent study is that it seems the trends have sped up in the last five years.
Who are the “Nones”? The data suggest that they are younger, better educated, and affluent than the population as a whole. Their politics are much more likely to lean moderate-to-liberal than Americans generally. In the total population, about twice as many people describe themselves as “conservative” as “liberal,” but among the “Nones” that ratio is reversed. They are pro-choice, favor same-sex marriage, and vote for Democrats; in fact, the unaffiliated form the largest religious group among Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters (24%, compared to 16% Black Protestants and 14% White mainline Protestants).
And forget what you thought you knew about the unchurched being “seekers” who are hoping to find the answer to life’s questions. Only about 10% of the unaffiliated say they are “looking for a religion that would be right” for them. They are not a bunch of New Age mystics, either: they are about as likely to be into astrology, or crystals, or reincarnation, or yoga as a spiritual practice as other Americans (which makes me wonder how our own church members would answer those questions!). These “Nones” say that they “think about the meaning and purpose of life” somewhat less often than the population average; but they feel the same “deep connection with nature and the earth” as their religiously affiliated neighbors. Only a fraction call themselves “agnostics” or “atheists”; over 70% are just “nothing in particular,” though they mostly think of themselves as religious or spiritual people.
There is much food for thought in this study. We need to learn how to talk (and to listen) to the “Nones” if for no other reason than that are so many of them! We need to quit describing them in ways that aren’t true, and realize what they think of the church: they think we are too interested in money and power, that we focus too much on rules, and that we are too involved in politics–especially right-wing politics.
I hope we are talking about this stuff in our churches, not just to wring our hands but to reflect on what kind of conversations we can have with our “None” neighbors. They are very unlikely to drop in for a Sunday morning visit. They think they know what we’re like (and they might be kind of right, if we’re honest). Most of them don’t even think it’s important to be part of a community that shares their views and values. They aren’t really all that interested in us, the church, or religion in general; but that doesn’t mean we aren’t–or shouldn’t be–interested in them.
And since there are so many of them, it might be a good idea to devote more of our energy to figuring out how to talk to religiously unaffiliated folks who think they are “nothing in particular”, and maybe less energy to polemics against other Christians. Just a thought.