The Rise of the "Nones"

The Rise of the "Nones" April 28, 2009

Yesterday, Pew released a follow-up to their much ballyhooed religion survey that showed a 10 percent rise in a decade in the number of Americans that, when asked their religious affiliation, declared, “None.”

The original press reports declared, and the in-depth graphics make clear, that the younger an American is, the more likely s/he is a None; Catholics leave their religion more frequently than Protestants; and most Nones, though not practicing a religion, still consider themselves spiritual and tend to believe in God.

At Explore the Spirit, David Crumm digs a little deeper to find some hidden gems in the study, and he lays out a Top Ten list of “secrets” in the Pew Report.

Among David’s observations,

  • Nones may be coming to a church near you.
  • If you’re Catholic, learn Spanish.
  • Diversity and switching are signs of health.
  • Church attendance is NOT declining.

Interestingly, here’s David’s lede under Secret #1:

The biggest headlines on religion over the past year or so concern the
growing number of Americans who have rejected the time-honored social
pressure to at least claim they’re part of some religious group.

This reminds me of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (which, yes, I’m still reading (slowly) and planning to blog about more). Taylor’s contention is that the rise of secularity in the modern West is not a failure of religion, but is instead a reflection of this simple fact: For the first time in human history, lack of belief in a divine being is socially acceptable.

Methinks this is good news for those of us who think religion is important and who encourage others to consider faith in God. Faith is becoming voluntary instead of socially mandatory. This will, in turn, lead to more robust faith among those of us who do believe and, I think, result in great theological adventures as we navigate an unprecendentedly globalized world.

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  • cp

    Spiritual evolution at its beautiful and brilliant best! No longer can stereotypes and stagnant classifications suffice. I quite agree with Tony–this is good news!

  • This has been my “argument” for many years with believers who lament the “removal” of prayer from schools. Prayer is not forbidden in schools; however, it is left up to the student to initiate it on their own. The principal just isn’t doing your praying for you.
    This also challenges students to pray in silence, without making it a production for the rest of the class. Advocating public prayer just to prove a point seems contrary to Jesus’ teaching on prayer.
    I much prefer that students learn to pray and choose to pray because the Spirit is leading them, not because it is simply part of their routine. The same can be said about following our faith in God. Last night, I heard Jay Leno identify himself as Presbyterian. Is he a practicing believer, or simply identifying the church where he grew up? I hope it is the former, but it could well be the latter. Aren’t we better off to identify ourselves as followers of Christ than just checking a box because it’s what we’re expected to do?

  • Tony:
    Thanks for the words of encouragement. Since founding the ReadTheSpirit project in the final weeks of ’07, we’ve moved deep into the implosion of traditional print media—and into the social crisis of a turbulently changing economy. In other words, at the same time our world is making historic changes that affect virtually everyone—our trusted “connective tissue” is vanishing.
    In the Pew conference call, I counted only a couple of long-time “religion newswriters.” People have lost their trusted local “religion writers.” They’re losing a number of key trusted writers in book form. (You can’t buy a Frederick Buechner book in a Borders store off the shelf anymore—they’ve downsized and removed him and many others.)
    In this whole turbulent situation, I talk to pastors and lay leaders almost every day who are very worried about their future and the future of congregations in general.
    I deeply appreciate your work Tony because you’re one of the voices consistently telling people, in effect, these are the time to which we are called. We are the people who know how to swim in turbulent waters.
    That’s the underlying message of my own “10 secrets” today. I see lots of hope in the Pew data.
    Thanks for spreading the word — and for your own ongoing encouragement of church folks.
    — David Crumm

  • I’ve been playing recently with the idea that secularism and freedom are evolutionarily unstable.
    And on the comment to one of your facebook tweets, I asked people to consider the idea that the Institutional Catholic Church isn’t only about self-preservation, but species-preservation (as in, preservation of the human species, which according to certain economic ideas is headed rather quickly towards an extinction event).
    What if the real danger in religion becoming voluntary instead of socially mandatory isn’t just a lack of belief in God, but a rejection of traditions worldwide that up until now, have given human beings an evolutionary edge?

  • Ted, I’ve lost you here. How would one argue that “socially mandatory religion” gives us an “evolutionary edge?” I’m not convinced that is true, so I would be interested to hear the argument for such a position.
    Also, I am skeptical that any institutional church has the ability to head off an “extinction event” for the human race, since such an event would somehow be in God’s control rather than the church.

  • Ann

    Ted, I think you need to read some of Thomas Malthus’s work.

  • good stuff.
    In response to Ted – my experience is that tradition and ritual will always exist in certain forms – with or without and institution to mandate them. Even non religious persons have spiritual rituals – they’re just not always framed as such. Institutions do not have to exist in order to preserve the species through a historical connection through tradition and ritual.

  • kenneth

    Tony’s observation is the first level-headed assessment of the data I’ve seen in the blogosphere. For weeks the hardcore atheists have been doing a victory dance about the death of religion in America (a bit prematurely!) while conservative Christians have been wailing that it’s all a conspiracy by left-wing media/Obama/gay mafia.
    All it really comes down to is that people finally have the freedom and initiative to truly think for themselves on these matters. There are fewer Christians as a result, and there will probably be some fewer a decade from now, but those you have will be there out of conviction, not inertia or because of a fear of hell that was beaten into the animal part of their brain early in life. Another thing to consider is that virtually all of the angry anti-religion voices today are people who were forced by family or convention to adhere to a religion that they didn’t agree with. We will all get along better if we are all allowed to be where we belong. I was a terrible Christian, and a resentful one, and since finding my true path as a pagan, I am in a much better place to respect Christian’s personal journeys as their own.
    I also cannot agree with the notion that religion as an enforced social consensus has ever kept the world safe. We are at greater risk of nuclear armageddon that at any time since the Kruschev years, and our enemy is the epitome of “socially mandatory religion.”

  • Anon

    I’ve been playing recently with the idea that secularism and freedom are evolutionarily unstable.
    Yes, I do think “playing” is the right word for what you’ve been doing with that idea…

  • “What if the real danger in religion becoming voluntary instead of socially mandatory isn’t just a lack of belief in God, but a rejection of traditions worldwide that up until now, have given human beings an evolutionary edge?”
    Your question assumes that voluntary religion means lack of belief in God; and that it breaks down traditions that somehow give humans an “evolutionary advantage.” I think we could argue that socially mandatory religion has actually crippled society and faith in a variety of ways. Socially mandated religion has brought us oppression, torture, war, etc. The least of the problems that it has caused is a comfort level with sameness and stagnation that creates a “Fool’s Paradise” for people who should be stuggling to live out a dynamic faith. It also runs the risk of making religion a tool of society rather than a shaping force within society. Institutional religion has inhibited faith development (at least within Christian society) because it does not allow faith to grow and expand; if anything, it halts faith evolution because faith is only allowed to grow to the point that the institution will allow it.
    The problem is not really even with socially mandatory religion. It is with the perversion and hijacking of the faith by social, political, and religious structures. Our institutions have inevitably been perverted by political maneuvering and the desire for power and control. Now, perhaps, we are moving past the desire to maintain the institution and seeking to follow Christ, and those two things do not necessarily go together. As the joke goes, we’ve been “Sitting on the Premises” rather than “Standing on the Promises” (sorry for the cheesy cliche). Socially mandated religion may maintaint the social order (which was never Jesus’ intention, IMHO); but it does not necessarily challenge us to a deeper understanding/following of Christ.
    Tony and Dave have a very simple interpretation of the recent data on religion. People no longer feel the need to identify with the institution or the social convention called Christianity, but that doesn’t mean they have stopped identifying with Christ. The church as a merely social institution is losing ground, but that may still be great news for Jesus.

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