“Nones” and the Future of Religion in America

“Nones” and the Future of Religion in America March 22, 2012

Since the 2010 elections, and some would argue since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Christian social conservatism in the United States has been flexing its muscles. Anti-abortion legislation is at record highs, contraception is a hot-button issue once more, same-sex marriage (not to mention gay soldiers) continues to be used as a political football, and disturbing moments of Christian nativism have been creeping back into our national discourse. There are two popular theories as to why religiously-motivated culture wars have intensified at this moment. The hubris theory, which posits that Christian conservatives have already “won” in changing the American landscape and now are slowly pushing for even more, and the desperation theory, which envisions a demographically doomed conservative Christian rump fighting a rear-guard action against the inevitability of their inconsequentiality.

“…contrary to the whims of lazy pundits, the waning of enthusiasm for battling over “social issues” is not due to higher concerns about jobs, the deficit, and the economic future […] Put simply, the Christian Right is getting old.According to the largest and most recent study we have of American religion and politics, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, almost twice as many people 18 to 29 confess to no faith at all as adhere to evangelical Protestantism. Young people who have attended college, a growing percentage of the population, are more secular still. Catholicism has held its own only because the Church keeps gathering in newcomers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, few of whom are likely to show up at a Santorum rally. To their surprise, Putnam and Campbell discovered that conservative preachers infrequently discuss polarizing issues from the pulpit. Sermons about hunger and poverty far outnumber those about homosexuality or abortion. On any given Sunday, just one group of Christians routinely grapples with divisive political issues: black Protestants, the most reliably Democratic constituency of them all.”

That January 2012 New Republic article by Michael Kazin, quoted above, draws on the work of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam and Notre Dame professor David E. Campbell, authors of the book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” In it the two political scientists argue that our religious culture has become increasingly polarized, while at the same time fostering a broad interfaith tolerance. Putnam and Campbell were recently given pride of place in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs to talk about the intersection of religion and politics (hint: they don’t like it), with much of the piece given over to talking about “nones,” individuals who claim no formal religion.

“In surveys conducted by the authors all “nones” grew by about 18% between 2006 and 2011, but young “nones” grew by about 90%–a truly remarkable difference. Campbell and Putnam have a convincing political explanation of this development: The growth of the “nones”, and especially of their young constituent, is a reaction against the Religious Right.”

What many have pointed out, including those who’ve gathered data on this growing demographic, is that “nones” aren’t anti-religious per se, they are simply against what they feel institutionalized religion has become (ie polarized and fixated on culture war issues). In short, as some would have it, we are becoming a nation of heretics. The big question is, if traditional (ie Christian) religion as we know is declining, if we are entering a post-Christian era, what will take its place? According to religion scholar Diana Butler Bass, author of the recently released “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening,” we are at a pivotal moment in history in regards to that question.

“The United States is currently in the throes of a spiritual awakening, says Diana Butler Bass. In her new book, Christianity After Religion, the author argues that we are at a crossroads in history—we can choose to move forward into new emerging spiritualities, or we can heed the siren sound of the traditionalists calling us back to a romanticized, rigid, past.”

Bass makes it plain that this awakening isn’t isolated to Christianity, or even to monotheism.

“…when I talk about the fact that we’re in an awakening, I believe we are in a period of intense cultural reorientation or revitalization, and that during an awakening, politics, worldviews, religion, education—the whole way a society approaches being community, and connecting with one another, and understanding their God or their gods—it all changes.”

I’ve mentioned before that the rise of the “nones” could be a very good thing for modern Paganism, and for religious minorities in general. Many “nones” are picking up spiritual practices from nature and the New Age, and scholars like Bron Taylor, author of “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future,” believe that nature-based spiritualities are best equipped to survive the collapse of the traditional religions.

“Where this cognitive shift has been made, traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings.”

This all sounds like great news, but it should be noted that Taylor, and Bass, envision a push-back from traditional religions. The numbers may be  shifting, generational plate tectonics slowly changing the old religious order, but the near future will continue to be numerically dominated by Christian adherents. For many of these Christians the answer is simple: teach young people the “real,” “authentic,” Christianity that has been distorted by the modern world (an argument that works on both the Christian right and left).

“It all comes down to teaching and role-modeling the elusive real fundamental Christianity to young people. [Drew] Dyck’s book [“Generation Ex-Christian”] , and books like “UnChristian”“Generation Hex”“Wicca’s Charm”, and many, many, more, all call for a return to an elusive central core of faith that is pure enough to withstand the rigors of engaging the wider secular/non-Christian world.Christians love these books, because it not only addresses a problem that worries them, but tells them that the solution is to become more Christian as a way to solve the problem.”

The latest call for revival comes from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, whose “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” comes out this April. In it, he makes a “urgent call for a revival of traditional Christianity” to “confront our most pressing challenges and accelerated American decline.” Douthat, a proud hurler of the Cynthia Eller brickbat, does not want to live in a “Dan Brown America” and is very, very concerned about Hollywood’s rampant pantheism.

“It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James. But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world. In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing. If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.”

In the mind of Douthat, and many others, it all comes down to (traditional) Christianity vs. Nature Religion (ie pantheism, New Age beliefs, “false” Christianities, and Paganism). The “green dragon” of environmentalism run amok. A preoccupation spawned by the existential dread of losing one’s invisible privilege in our society. Hence, the uptick in culture-war issues discussed at the beginning of this piece. Of course, being a Pagan, I’m hoping for a day when we truly do enter a post-Christian society. When non-Christian voices, and non-religious voices, truly get seat at the table (as opposed to occasional sympathetic Hollywood films or appearances on reality television). That the moment of reckoning for religion in America swings away from a reestablishment of traditional Christian power, and towards the inclusive awakening envisioned by Bass. A pluralistic nation that lives up to its pluralistic (and pagan) foundations.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the “nones.”

[REMINDER: I am currently raising funds so I can go on assignment to the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in Chicago this November. Two days into the campaign and I’m already over half-way to my goal! To everyone who has donated so far, THANK YOU, you are making robust and responsive Pagan journalism possible. If you haven’t pledged yet, please consider doing so today, the quicker we reach the goal, the faster we can move forward on building new funding models for Pagan media.]

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39 responses to ““Nones” and the Future of Religion in America”

  1. I find myself conflicted. On one hand I hate fundamentalism as much as the next pagan, but a world without organized religion makes me uncomfortable. A rise in ‘unorganized’ religion can only be a bad thing; especially if it starts to chip away at Traditional Christianity (ie. Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism). I suppose I would just prefer a more even status quo; without one side dominating the other. Gods know I’d love to see a few more temples out there….

  2. Protestants are traditional Christianity as well – or are you unfamiliar with Arianism, Catharism, Hugonots, Copts, Gnostics, or any of the other hundreds of ‘heretical’ sects that flourish right alongside the other branches?

  3.  To be honest, it should be a lot easier for them. Christians have had a lot more doctrinal councils.

  4. Yes, and they’ve shed enough blood to overflow the Amazon Basin to try to decide which of those doctrinal councils got it “wrong.” I won’t miss these guys when they’re gone, or at least diminished to the fringe cult status they deserve. 

  5.  Fringe cult status? Because people died? I’m so tired of people whining about Christians and how many people they killed. People die. Get over it.

  6.  And without the Other of Christianity, what would become of cohesive Paganism?  If the ‘Nones’ triumph in this spiritual contest, and Traditionalist religions are put on the back-burner of society, what happens to us?  There are so many groups that define themselves (at least superficially where I cannot see them without actively participating) against and in opposition to Abrahamic faiths, tenets, etc.  Would Paganism emerge as a truly cohesive force on its own, or would it splinter into incessant infighting?  After all, it seems without fail that we are our own worst enemies at times.

    Honest questions, truly.  I’m not trying to start any trouble.

  7. I know that my hope is that Paganism can truly become post-Christian.  I do get tired of the need to focus on a religious movement we are not, rather than the religious movement we are trying to grow up and be!  Defining myself in opposition to anything seems to me a waste of my time.  (For the record, I am not accusing Jason of doing that here; I’m commenting on the prominence Christianity seems to have among Pagans as the Other you describe, Lettuceman.)

    On the other hand, I do understand that many of us grew up inside of Dominionist Christian families and communities.  When I heard the other day that 80% of the residents of Alabama define themselves as evangelical Christians, I admit, I was shocked!  That’s certainly not the case in my part of the country… which probably leads me to underestimate how demoralizing it can be to be Pagan where Christianist privilege goes unquestioned.

    However, I do long for the day when we can spend more of our time and energy reflecting on what our experience of religion is, rather than needing to minister the wounds of those who have been marginalized by what our religion is not.

  8. Paganism has never really been a cohesive force, nor am I sure such a thing is even desirable. I think we’ll see less of pagans defining themselves as “non-Abrahamic” as we get into second and third generations. 

  9. You’re right. I shouldn’t make such a stink about pan-global genocide. I mean, who of us didn’t smoke pot in college or did something we wouldn’t be proud to tell our grandkids one day? 
       They deserve fringe status, and will attain it, because they have no moral authority beyond their ability to instill raw fear and shame in people. They have nothing to offer people that they can’t get, and get more authentically, through their own spiritual development and relation with deity. 

  10.  No, and I completely understand.  One of the issues with being Solitary is that I’m this nebulous entity that doesn’t really grasp the entirety of an ebb and flow of sentiment.  I just see a lot of people, and not even in a religious sense, defining themselves AGAINST something.  And I hope I’m not the only one who sees this and am not making a fool out of myself.

    I’m not saying Paganism is defined by being not-Christian, at all (Well, I mean..technically…).  But having a privileged group being there that marginalizes/seeks to marginalize another group certainly helps put people “on the same side”.  I’m wondering how the different Pagan groups would react in a world where that privileged group is no longer a force.

    I agree with you, and wish for a reallocation of energy resources, too. :/

  11. @ Sophie – I know, I was making a tongue-in-cheek response to Castus, everyone favorite local fascist who enjoys making inflammatory comments and then disappearing.  And the ‘heretical’ in quotes was in regards to what Castus said about ‘traditional Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican)’ – since they are not a part of any of the three named sects, they would be considered ‘heretical’.  Of course, one wonders why Anglicanism is represented as Traditional Christianity, when it was clearly part of the Reformation, and certainly younger by about a millennia than the Coptic Church… 

  12. This is an American problem as much as a pagan one. We’re having to define ourselves as what we’re NOT on a daily basis because fundamentalists are waging a culture war in which head counts and labels mean everything. They’re about 20% of the population which has the influence and swagger of a 55% bloc, simply because they’re smart and ballsy enough to create the impression that they speak for the majority.
        Anyone, pagan, secular or even moderate Christian, had better work on deflating that illusion, unless we want to find ourselves living in a theocracy/confessional state run by the likes of Rick Santorum. I don’t like having to do that, but I simply see no way around it unless we want to surrender. 
        In other words, I don’t think we as pagans focus on being “not Christian” because we don’t have anything better in our own theology or praxis to focus upon. We do it in large measure because there is a sizeable and very noisy minority pressing the matter upon us and saying “all real Americans, all people of good will must be Christian.” 
       I really think that will pass as demographics shrinks them down to size. I don’t think we have an inherent obsession with being “not Christian.” I mean, I’m not Bahai, and not Buddhist, and not Hindu and not lots of other things but I don’t have to expend any energy on those because those folks aren’t the ones trying to use out government to coerce us into following their doctrines. 

  13. I agree, Star. The difficulty with a return to some “core” Christianity is that it doesn’t exist. The various Christian powers have co-existed for a few centuries under a tacit “all paths up the mountain lead to the same summit” treaty that settled the religious wars in Europe and which none of them truly believes — each thinks its way is the only true one — but which survives as long as they have parallel, or at least non-conflicting, political agendas. If, in the face of the Green Dragon, they get into specific theological combat, their amity will vanish and they will feed on each other. (I can’t wait.)

  14. Lettuceman, this reminds me of what my Dad used to say about Israel, that if the Arabs would just leave it alone for ten years it would disintegrate from its own internal disagreements.

  15. And this, Cat, reminds me of a trope I’ve heard about Unitarian Universalism. That a UU church is a lifeboat rescuing survivors of shipwrecks elsewhere in the Sea of Faith; we haul them out, get them dry and some coffee down them, and give them an invisible T-shirt, “I survived the wreck of the SS Presbyteria” (or whatever). They have a negative UU identity: “I’m UU because I’m *not* what my old Sunday School tried to turn me into.” Arguably institutional UUism could put more effort into migrating them to a positive UU identity, “I’m UU because I *am*….[whatever].”

    Perhaps institutional Paganism could ponder the value of encouraging such migration.

  16. But the Baha’i’ and Buddhists and Hindus are our natural allies in any effort to deny that 20% minority the 55% affect they project. That this is *not* a Christian country, that it is *not* necessary to be Christian to be  trustworthy, patriotic, whatever, is a straightforward message. Propagating it would be an exercise in known political technology. What’s needed is the unity and motivation to do it.

  17.  With two billion people, unlimited funding and access to serious firepower, I don’t Christians are the ones likely to be relegated fringe status for some time.

  18. We may loose a few of the fringe groups , but i believe paganism in general will survive and grow . Some of the nones will jion our ranks , this is true . From what i’ve seen most pagan faiths donnot depend on hatred for Christians for their existance . Newbies flame on the organised monothiest faiths , but most outgrow that stage quickly as they grow and develop a more meaningful pagan faith . Most pagans will do just fine in a post Christian world, actualy should be easier for us .     Kilm

  19.  I apologize if honestly-held opinions are ‘inflammatory’ and as I’ve stated before, I’m not a fascist. Orthodoxy covers all types, including Oriental; which the Coptic church is considered a part of. Many heretical sects have died out by now, so I felt no need to include them. I do consider Gnostic Christianity to be separate from Traditional Christianity regardless of my personal fondness for Gnosticism.

  20. Right, they’ll have to define themselves as “non-Wiccan” in their explanations, now that Paganism is growing and forming/adopting numerous distinct identities 😛

  21.  Every religion, every nation, every political group ever, has committed some form of atrocity. Singling out Christianity on that basis alone is nonsense. As for moral authority and fringe status, why cannot one attain spiritual fulfillment through Christianity? Beyond baseless, angry statements of course.

  22. IIRC you referred to yourself as fascist in a post of recent days. Don’t cop an attitude if people take you seriously. Yes, you modulated that stand further down in that post; don’t pitch a tizzy if some folk read only to that word and BLIP moved on. We’re all very human here.

  23. At least one non-newbie regular on this board flames Christianity with great reliability.

  24. I’m not too worried about paganism’s ability to survive without Christianity, or without it’s overarching presence as an object of rebellion. Past performance is often a decent indicator of the future of a system.  Essentially all human religion before Judaism and Christianity (and later Islam), was pagan. At a minimum, pagan religions then had been around for 100,000 to a quarter million years before Christianity came along, depending what evidence for early human or hominid religion you find convincing. Pagan religion hung on for a number of centuries after the arrival of Christianity, and even after it was overtly suppressed, it hung on by integrating itself into the very fabric of Christian practice and theology and the culture of its host societies. 

  25. Exactly right Kenneth. monotheism spends most of it’s energy convincing people that nothing came before it. The world was entirely polytheist until the Abrahamic faiths emerged. It’s like a history show I watched, the “Gates of Hell” where they tried to prove the existence of the Christan hell (complete with near death experience) but also dug into pagan religions as well. Polytheism existed before monotheism and it will exist after. Polytheism may be how humans are wired, an why there was just as much as fire and sword to convert as fire and brimbstone

  26. The part that we need to really worry about is the fact that Xians will not go quietly into that good night. We are talking about the religion that brought us such things as the Crusades, the Spanish inquisition, the Burning Times, and the attempted eradication of every non-xian culture they ever encountered.

  27. The liberal branch of Quakers has that in common with UUs, and it can be a real issue, as refugee newcomers attempt to shut down traditional Quaker voices that often rely on Christian language to communicate very non-Dominionist ideas.  It’s triggering to some, and it’s good to be sensitive to that–but not to dictate how others, who find that language works for them, express ideas that are deeply important to them.

    No religious group does well only as a refugee camp.  There has to be more to religion than the binding up of old wounds left by previous religious communities!

    At the same time, it is a place to begin.  So many of the Pagans I love and cherish have wounds from Christianity that they’ve worked to heal; I would hate to be understood to be discouraging people from becoming Pagan if they are motivated in part by a need to become something very different from the Christianists who harmed them.  I just don’t want anyone to stay in a place where the most important thing about their Paganism is that it isn’t Christianity!

    Also… what is this “institutional Paganism” of which you speak, my friend?  *grinning*

  28. Dominionism deserves to be debunked.  I just don’t think any form of Christianity deserves to be as central in our internal discussions as it sometimes becomes.

    I’d much rather discuss the evolution of our own movement.

  29. Seminaries, for a start. The UUs have an adult religious education curriculum, “Building Your Own Theology,” that tries to elicit just that. If that could be translated to the key of Pagan…

  30. What’s “flaming” is giving no quarter to the Pagan whose dour view of Christianity’s crimes is tempered by memories of a Christian mother, aunt or grandmother who was a good and moral person.

  31. I do have to agree w/ No Bod E tho. the Christians aren’t going quietly into the night . Will more than likely be a quite bloody afaire.Hopefully none of us will be hurt in the process.  I personaly will be staying on way on the side lines, out of harms way . Watching the radical Christians self destruct , as I believe they will.Kilm 

  32. Your both ridicules, arguing about proposed theory’s of which neither of you have a clue, christens have committed atrocity yes and that’s terrible but don’t dwell on it and don’t forget it ether that would be like forgetting the holocaust; it’s not worth arguing over. You’re like children

  33.  I’m a UU pagan who grew up Pentecostal, so I’ll speak to this. I joined the UU Church because of what it *is*. I saw there a community of people working for the betterment of all, open to people of all backgrounds, working for change. I joined the UU Church because I want to be a part of that movement, not to move away from Christianity.