More about the “Nones.” Who are they, anyway?

You remember, last week’s Pew survey stirred up a frenzy of speculation (and angst) about what it might mean that the number of religiously unaffiliated in the US has grown by 5% (and yes, I contributed in my own small way, to that frenzy).

There’s been a lot of commentary about the “nones”–who they are, why they have rejected institutional religion. Much of it is like a recent piece by Brian McLaren which focuses on college students who have been turned off by conservative Christianity.

Elizabeth Drescher offers a more nuanced approach, pointing out that the Pew Survey focuses on belief, rather than on practice:

My hunch is that questions about “belonging to a community of people who share your beliefs and values” confuses the idea of community as a gathered social-spiritual network (a tribe) with the fraught subject of doctrinal religious belief and, further, the problematic language of religious values. We know, of course, that attendance at religious services of all sorts is down (except, perhaps, among religious groups in which doctrinal pluralism is something of a core value), but that does not allow us to conclude that religious or spiritual community is not important in the United States among those who identify or formally affiliate with institutional religions as well as those who do not.

Still, it’s clear that McLaren, Drescher, and most Episcopalian commentators on the survey imagine the “nones” to be well-educated, middle-class or upper-middle class, and probably white.

The reality, revealed by the Pew survey itself, is rather different. Jeff Sharlet points out the connection between disaffiliation and economics:

so the Pew study of the Nones has distracted many from what I think are the most interesting numbers: the largest percentage, 38%, is in the under $30,000 income bracket. Another 34% are below $74,999. Which means 72% are poor, working class, or, for a family of four, lower middle class. Those identifying as “atheist/agnostic,” a much smaller group than the “Nothing in particulars,” skew 62% under $75,000. Look at the education demographics and you’ll find more evidence for the hypothesis that what these numbers show is economic absence as much as religious absence. 45% of those identifying as Nothing in Particulars (NiPs) have no college, roughly the same as many religious affiliations.

He also points out the historical connection between disconnectedness from religion and economic downturns. The Great Depression was the last historical period that saw such numbers of the “unchurched.”

If he’s right, that might require rethinking how one does outreach to the religiously unaffiliated (the “unchurched”).