Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger discusses the phenomena of the “nones,” the growing demographic–currently 19% of the American population– that is unaffiliated with any religion. Some say this group represents the secular elite, a wave of atheism, the sexually-liberated young people reacting against the sexual restrictions of religion. But, says Berger, the evidence suggests otherwise:
The “nones” are most strongly represented among people with an income under $30,000, with high school graduation or less, who are married but (interestingly) without children. I am enough of a sociologist to think that class comes in somewhere in this matter, but it is unlikely to be a major factor.
I find most intriguing the Pew data on the religious beliefs and behavior of the “nones”. Let us stipulate that the “nones”, especially if they are young, are repelled by the neo-Puritanism of religious conservatives. But does this mean that they have decided (in the words of the authors) “to opt out of religion altogether”? I am strongly inclined to say no. Back to Pew data: 60% of “nones” say that they believe in God, as against 22% who say not. 41% say that religion is important in their lives, a minority as against the 57% who say that religion is not important—but a minority large enough to contradict the assertion that the “nones” have turned against religion altogether. What they have clearly turned away from is participation in institutional worship: 72% say that they seldom or never attend church services.
Let me, with all due respect for Campbell and Putnam [authors of a book on the subject that Berger is reviewing], suggest a hypothesis of my own: Most “nones” have not opted out of religion as such, but have opted out of affiliation with organized religion. Among Christians (the great majority of all survey respondents) there are different reasons for this disaffection. The two authors are very probably correct that, broadly speaking, those who are turned off by Evangelicals and conservative Catholics do so because they don’t like the repressive sexual morality of those churches (the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church has not helped). But the “nones” have also exited from mainline Protestantism, which has been much more accommodating to the liberationist ethic. Here, I think, there has been frustration with what my friend and colleague Thomas Luckmann long ago called “secularization from within”—the stripping away of the transcendent dimensions of the Gospel, and its reduction to conventional good deeds, popular psychotherapy and (mostly left-of-center) political agendas. Put differently: My hypothesis implies that some “nones” are put off by churches that preach a repressive morality, some others by churches whose message is mainly secular.
What then do these people believe? There is very likely a number (in America a relatively small one) of “nones” who are really without religion—agnostics or (even fewer) outright atheists. The latter have been encouraged by the advocates of the so-called “new atheism”—which is not new at all, but rather a reiteration of a tired 19th-century rationalism, pushed by a handful of writers who have been misrepresented as an important cultural movement. Presumably it is committed atheists who spark litigation over allegations that, for instance, a Christmas tree in a public park is a violation of the constitution. The bulk of the “nones” probably consist of a mix of two categories of unaffiliated believers—in the words of the British sociologist Grace Davie, people who “believe without belonging”. There are those who have put together an idiosyncratic personal creed, putting together bits and pieces of their own tradition with other components. Robert Wuthnow, the most productive and insightful sociologist of American religion, has called this “patchwork religion”. This includes the kind of people who will say “I am Catholic, but…”, followed by a list of items where they differ from the teachings of the church. The other category are the children—by now, grandchildren—of the counter-culture. They will most often say, “I am spiritual, not religious”. The “spirituality” is typically an expression of what Colin Campbell, another British sociologist, has called “Easternization”—an invasion of Western civilization by beliefs and practices from Asia. A few of these are organized, for instance by the various Buddhist schools. But most are diffused in an informal manner—such as belief in reincarnation or the spiritual continuity between humans and nature, and practices like yoga or martial arts.
So 60% of those who belong to no religion believe in God, and 41% say religion is important to them, even though they don’t have one. I agree with Berger that the privatization of religion–the anti-institutionalism that rejects churches and “organized religion” and the impulse to devise one’s own personal theology–accounts for much of this.
That’s a useful term: “secularization from within.” That is, the way churches have embraced secular values, thus rendering themselves superfluous.
What other observations can you make about the “nones”?
Are any of you readers “nones,” and if so does any of this ring true?