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”).

Another Pew Survey: The numbers of religiously-unaffiliated spike again

Here is the story from Rachel Zoll of the AP. Full results of the survey are available here.

About the “nones,” now approximately 20%: They may believe in God; they may pray; they may be “spiritual but not religious.” But they do not affiliate with any religious organization nor do they want to:

Pew found overall that most of the unaffiliated aren’t actively seeking another religious home, indicating that their ties with organized religion are permanently broken.

Alan Jacobs ponders the significance of this:

The question I would ask is this: Has there been an actual increase in religiously unaffiliated people, or do people who are in fact unaffiliated simply feel more free than they once did to acknowledge that fact? My suspicion is that until quite recently a person born and baptized into the Catholic church who hadn’t attended Mass in fifteen years would still identify as a Catholic; but recently is more likely to accept his or her unaffiliated status. There is less social (and perhaps also psychological) cost in saying “I have no particular religion that I’m connected to” than there once was.

That is, the poll may reflect not a change in behavior but a change in how people think of their behavior — a change that brings their self-descriptions more closely into line with reality. And that wouldn’t at all be a bad thing: there’s always something to be said for the removal of illusions, for “reveal[ing] the situation which had long existed.”

Most striking about all this are the generational shifts. Among “millennials” the numbers are shocking. Of younger millennials (those born between 1990 and 1994), 34% claim no religious affiliation. Older millennials are only slightly more likely to be involved in organized religion (30% now compared to 26% in 2007). The number of unaffiliated Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers has also increased; the latter in spite of recent articles trumpeting the return of Boomers to church.

What are we to make of this? I think it’s right to say that part of it is that there is less stigma attached in saying one does not attend church. On the other hand, I suspect that a willingness to self-identify as non-religious reflects behavioral and attitudinal change.
Growing numbers of Americans simply don’t seem to care about institutional religion. It is irrelevant to their lives.

This certainly has enormous implications for denominations and local congregations. If large numbers of young people have no inclination to get involved in church, no interest in attending services even on Christmas or Easter, or being married in a church, that means they are seeking meaning in other places and in other ways than through traditional religious language and categories. It may be that they are not even asking questions about themselves, their lives and the world that can be engaged in religious terms.

This is what “post-Christian” culture looks like. It’s not simply a matter of a decline in prestige, power, and influence for the churches. If the trend continues, how many young adults will claim no religious affiliation 10 years from now? 50%? More?

How do we proclaim the gospel in this context? What does it mean to be church? For Anglicans, it won’t be enough to say that we offer a “via media” or that “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” People won’t understand what the former means and won’t even see the latter sign.

More on “Leaving Church:” the “nones,” young adults and the future of Christianity

Skye Jethani weighs in, building on Berger’s essay.

So, we are left with a narrow path. Veer too far to the cultural right and the young will dismiss the church as a puppet of Republican politics. Veer too far to the theological left and the power of the Gospel is lost amid cultural accommodation.

The younger generations, and our culture as a whole, needs evidence of a third way to be Christian. It will require more than individual voices, but an organized and identifiable community of believers that reject Christianism and stands for Christ’s Good News, manifested in good lives, and evident in good works.

So does Jonathan Fitzgerald:

Now, after spending much of my adulthood trying to find a place to belong, I’ve turned into the opposite of a None — I’ve become a proud Joiner. Since college, my own search has found me desperate to join. I have considered Roman Catholic confirmation, Presbyterian church membership and, most recently, Episcopalian identification. To that end, I have been attending confirmation classes at my local Episcopal parish since last month.

As I look around at my fellow Joiners, I see that it is specifically those who have lived the life of the unaffiliated who have decided, Sunday after Sunday, for several hours following Mass, to gather and discuss the rhythm of the liturgical calendar, the purpose of baptism, the history of the church and the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer. I’m not sure whether I’ll be confirmed when the class ends in eight weeks, but there is certainly something attractive about the prospect.

It would be foolish to think God requires affiliation as a means of access. We humans however tend to corral into formal groupings, whether it’s organized religion or political parties. In the absence of tried-and-true tradition, we begin to create our own. My guess is that, as the numbers of Nones continue to increase, they will begin to develop traditions, create rules and define their orthodoxy until, ultimately, something like a new denomination will arise. Perhaps in 2022 someone will declare “The Rise of the Joiners” as one of the life-changing ideas of the moment.

He wasn’t really ever a none. He was a Christian, grew up a Christian, but outside of Christian community.

Yesterday was one of those days of grace at Grace, surrounded by the ministry and faith of young (and older) adults. A fine sermon by Lauren Cochran (young adult herself); a presentation on our companion diocese relationship with the Diocese of Newala, in Tanzania.

The first session of a spontaneous confirmation class which bears out some of the discussion I’ve been linking to here. Four of the five who attended are young adults who have come from more conservative religious backgrounds; the fifth an older adult who was baptized and confirmed Roman Catholic. During our conversation, I pointed out that these demographics were pretty typical for Episcopal gatherings in that a majority (in our case all, including the two clergy in attendance) were not “cradle” Episcopalian.

Later in the day, I celebrated the Eucharist and shared dinner with the Episcopal Campus Ministry. We had planned on getting home by 7, but lively conversation and fellowship kept us lingering until almost 8. As we chatted, I noted to myself the rather different dynamics: of the six or eight who stayed till the end to help with cleanup, it was half and half–half had grown up Episcopalian, the other half not. The importance of that community to those who were there was palpable. Gathered together around the altar, gathered together to share a meal and working together to clean up; all the while talking to one another, asking questions about matters Episcopalian and theological, and checking in on how each other was doing.

That’s the work of Christian community, important work, and evangelistic work, as among those in attendance were people who had been coming every week, and some who had come for the first time; experiencing hospitality, welcome, and the love of Christ. When we do that, and do it well, we don’t have to worry about the future–and our work this semester is building a solid foundation for the chaplain we will call to that ministry.