This past week NPR ran a five-day series on the “Nones,” the increasing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans. The title comes from a Pew study released last fall noting an uptick in those who described their religious affiliation as “none.” About a fifth of American adults, and a third of Americans under 30, classify themselves this way, some firmly atheist, some agnostic, some spiritual but not looking for church. Affiliations have declined in several categories but more distinctly among Protestants, dropping from 53% in 2007 to 48% in 2012.
Some of this decline is new, but much such expression feels well-worn and nearly clichéd, especially the stress on “spirituality” over “religion,” on personalized faith over creed. Though the phenomenon receives—and deserves to receive—scholarly scrutiny for what it might betoken about church structure, mission, and extra-ecclesial spirituality, the NPR series was more predictable than illuminating. It rehearsed the younger generation’s support of same-sex marriage and abortion against churches’ conservatism on social issues. It observed desire for support and community alongside resistance to binding institutions. The common thread of the segments was this: that earnest, conscientious people are seeking something the church can’t provide, and because religion cannot provide it, they—authentically, admirably—forswear the hypocrisy of earlier generations and stay out.
In the series we hear from an atheist-Lutheran couple, a widow frustrated by the prayers proffered at her husband’s death, a bunch of young singles raised religious and now unaffiliated. Reasons for leaving church can be complex. Sometimes, though, the reasons given by interviewees indicated more about the emptiness of the seeker rather than the emptiness of the church. Religion certainly can foster community and sense of belonging, inspire good works, give meaning to life and death. But none of the religions left behind here ,Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, are just about those things, but this: that God is, that holiness is beautiful.
In a therapeutic society, reasons for being religious often are instrumentalized to the self (building community, finding support networks, etc.). So perhaps we should not be surprised that the reasons for leaving religion also are markedly therapeutic. The Nones perhaps tell us less about “religion” and more about the culture surrounding religious institutions.