Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What is a "none"

Perhaps you have heard one of these phrases.

  • The rise of the "nones"
  • The growing number of "nones"
  • American religious "none"
What exactly is a "none?"

Robert Putnam in his book, "American Grace" would describe a "none" as anyone who does not hold an official religious affiliation.  In other words, "nones" are individuals who do not allow themselves to be identified as a member of any particular religious group be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other group.  They certainly would not classify themselves as part of any sort of subgroup or denomination either.  It is believed that about 1 in 5 American or 20% and 1/3 of all people under 30 are "nones."  This represents the highest numbers in this category since polling began.  According to PEW research
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).
So there are about 33 million Americans who do not hold any sort of religious affiliation.  But does that mean they hold no spiritual beliefs?  A resounding NO according to a PBS joint report with PEW Research Forum on Religion and Public life among the "nones."
Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.
So if these self classified unaffiliated or "nones" believe that churches benefit society, pray regularly, and believe in God why do they not exercise their beliefs by joining a community of believers?  The answer is what Robert Putnam says again in his book, "American Grace" is a backlash.  His research indicates that non affiliation for many is a direct response to what many view is the unhealthy relationship between the "religious right" and the Republican party that began in the 1970s and was at its zenith in the 1980s and 1990s but still holds influence today even though it is dwindling.  Said another way the mixing of the religious institution with politics is unpalatable to many people, especially those under the age of 30.  A second element would be the evangelical emphasis on three specific issues, sex before marriage, homosexuality, and abortion.  Many of the "nones" do not agree with the stances and the resulting political policies that go with these issues.

But look again at the statistics many "nones" pray, most feel that churches benefit society, and most believe in God.  In other words to use a consumerism term, there is a vast market of people out there who though are currently unaffiliated are not opposed to participating in religious activity or more specifically a local church.  The question is what sort of church?

The answer is one of these adaptive challenges that has no clear answer at the moment but is slowly coming into focus.  It will require some religious entrepreneur energy from our churches and leadership.  But that is nothing new to American culture or my denomination in particular.  People tend to join churches that teach or preach well and have a welcoming worship element.  They stay because of community elements such as small groups, Sunday school, friendships that develop etc.  The things that need to be emphasized for the "nones" to join and then stay have to do with social justice elements, sense of genuine community, creation care, and individual development.

Now all of this far more complicated than simply defining a few key elements.  "Nones" are not universally homogeneous.  Who is more likely to be self described as unaffiliated depends on a myriad of factors including race, economic standing, religious background, parental religious beliefs, personal experience within or without religion, and a few others.  But the 10,000 foot view does allow us to see that even though this demographic is growing, most are not atheist or agnostic  most still believe in God, and most would probably welcome a religious identity if that identity was not attached to a perceived negative such as the issues previously mentioned.  

The unaffiliated, especially the 1/3 under 30 want to be for things not against things.  They want to separate religion from political influence, but not from personal belief and action.  They like to blend traditional religious symbolism with modern technology and images.  In other words don't remove the stained glass just yet, perhaps adding to it with modern elements would be better. Many growing churches that have young adults in them are experts at mixing the ancient with the modern.  An emphasis on missional living is important.  This allows members to live into their beliefs more than simply agree to a set of doctrines that may or may not impact their everyday lives. This is one of the major differences between the current generation and previous ones.  Doctrine is much lower on the priority list than right action which would be at the top right next to community.  Probably one of the key things is to move away from issues of sex, abortion, and homosexuality.  This is a major non-starter with "nones."  These concepts and the words connected to them are the switch that immediately turns them off.

I hope this helps us all understand the concepts of the "none" a little more.  For more information read "American Grace" and "Christianity after Religion" by Dianna Butler Bass or look into these links

Nones on the Rise by PEW Forum
An article from 4 years ago before the term "nones" was popularized describes the pessimism and hope of many nones and church members alike by Rev. Larry Harvey