How Seriously Should We Take the Phenomenon of “The Nones?”
According to a recent Pew-funded study of American religion, the percentage of Americans who claim to have no religious affiliation is growing. Many people are disturbed by this. Here I’d like to muse a bit about that.
First, who are the “we” in the title of this blog post? “We” are American Christians, especially American Christians who take the Christian faith seriously and believe it. To be more specific, “we” are evangelical Christians in the broadest sense of “evangelical”—God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians of whatever denomination (or none).
Second, who are the “nones?” That seems a bit unclear. According to the Pew study they are Americans who disclaim any specific religious affiliation. What does that mean? According to reports I’ve read they (the “nones”) do not identify as Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Mormon or anything else, but many of them say they are nonetheless “spiritual.” This raises the question, of course, what “spiritual” means without any more specific identification. My guess, hunch, is that many of them incline toward Christianity in some vague way but don’t want to call themselves “Christian” for some reason. I suspect that along with “evangelical” the label “Christian” is being sullied by the media’s constant connection between it and right-wing politics.
I recently came across this statement by philosopher R. M. Hare. I don’t know when it was written, but it was published in a brief essay in a book about philosophical theology (New Essays in Philosophical Theology) in 1955. Writing about people who claim not to be religious (presumably in Great Britain where Hare taught philosophy) he said:
The reason why they find it so easy to think they are not religious, is that they have never got into the frame of mind of one who suffers from the doubts to which religion is the answer. Not for them the terrors of the primitive jungle. Having abandoned some of the more picturesque fringes of religion, they think that they have abandoned the whole thing—whereas in fact they still have got, and could not live without, a religion of a comfortably substantial, albeit highly sophisticated, kind, which differs from that of many “religious people” in little more than this, that “religious people” like to sing Psalms about theirs—a very natural and proper thing to do.
This brings to mind two thoughts. First, Hare might have been suggesting (whether he knew it or not!) that the “religious people” who sing Psalms about their religion are pretty secular in reality. To express that idea in terms of the Pew “nones,” the Psalm-singers aren’t all that different from the nones except that they frequent church services (occasionally). Second, Hare might have been suggesting (and I suspect this is what he meant) that the people who think and say they are not religious (in our contemporary case Pew’s “nones”) are really religious whether they admit it or not because they live from the same basic worldview as the Psalm-singers in their daily lives. That is, their value system is the same as the Psalm-singers even if they have jettisoned the religious trappings of church.
I wonder if both meanings point to reality—that even in contemporary America many, perhaps most, Psalm-singing people (viz., ones who tell Pew researchers they are “Christians”) aren’t very religious after all—at least not in terms of their everyday lives. Going to church and singing Psalms (or whatever) is just habit, custom, not an expression of real religious commitment. They are what we evangelicals used to call “nominal Christians”—Christians in name only. Also (other reality) that many of the “nones” are actually just as religious as many of the Psalm-singing people in the pews occasionally on Sunday morning. They just don’t want to identify with any tribe of the Psalm-singing people. They are “non-nominal Christians” or non-Christians nominally but Christian in terms of value-system.
What might this mean, if it’s true? Well, if the “nones” are simply nominal Christians who have stopped naming themselves “Christian,” there’s not much real loss—except to those who count people in the pews and think that really matters. And if the “nones” still have a basically Christian value system, even if it’s not named as such, then their growth in numbers isn’t much to get worked up about.
I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of people who call themselves Christians only view Christianity as a value system, a set of ethical ideals to aim for (or judge others by) and not as a form of life that makes a difference in everything one thinks and does. Millennials are noted for demanding “authenticity.” The growth of “nones” is greatest among them. Perhaps they are noticing the inauthenticity of many older Christians’ Christianity and want nothing to do with that. (Of course some of them are creating their own forms of “authentic Christianity” but they don’t seem to appear in large numbers in Pew polls.)
I think the larger question the Pew study didn’t address (so far as I know) is whether the American population is moving in a secular direction—following the example of Great Britain and Europe? The fact that most of the “nones” say they are “spiritual” even if not “religious” would indicate not. To all appearances American society is not becoming more secular—at least not in terms of beliefs. Belief in God and in the supernatural (even if only the occult) is as strong as ever.
However, having said all that, I do take the growth of “nones” seriously for one reason—the gradual demise of traditional religious institutions including denominations. Denominations have established many of America’s great charitable and educational institutions and organizations. I expect it will be more difficult to sustain them without denominations. For all their faults, denominations have been a boon to American society. I think critics have grossly exaggerated their flaws—especially their alleged tribalism. Yes, some have displayed tribalist tendencies, but most have eagerly cooperated with other denominations in charitable and educational work—especially in the past half century as the ecumenical spirit has gripped them. Many people are simply ignorant when they assume that just because a group is a denomination with clear identity they think they are the “only Christians.” Most don’t think that at all.