Meet the nominals

The rise of the religiously unaffiliated (referred to as the ‘nones’) in the US to about 20% of the population has already been widely noted and commented upon. These are people who say that they do not identify with any particular religion or religious institution or heritage, although they may not consider themselves to be atheists or agnostics.

But there is another group that has not been as closely measured and that is the group that may still belong to some religious denomination but are not committed at all to the doctrines of that institution. Such people have now also been given a label (because as a society we love giving people labels) and are called the ‘nominals’, “people who claim a religious identity but may live it in name only”.

They’re proud — but not practicing — Catholics. They’re Protestants who don’t think Jesus is essential to their salvation.

And they’re Jews who say they belong to the tribe by way of ancestry or culture, not religion. Indeed, many miss the most fundamental divide between Judaism and Christianity: The Pew survey found 34 percent of Jews say it’s OK to see Jesus as the Messiah and still call themselves Jewish.

The rising trend among the nominals is, unsurprisingly greatest among the young who always have been the most likely to distance themselves from organized religion and religious doctrines. It used to be thought that as they aged they would return to their inherited religions. But that is becoming increasingly unlikely.

They are unlikely to age into religious practice beyond personal prayer, said author and scholar Phyllis Tickle. She is working on a new book about the growing closeness of Jewish and Christian expression in America.

“The old saw is that after they married and had children, people would come back to organized faith. It is not true now. People under 40 are not returning to their inherited church,” she said.

Another scholar, Diana Butler Bass, author of “Christianity After Religion,” has a slightly different forecast.

“I suspect that many Nominals will move toward None, while a smaller percentage will embrace their inherited faiths in more personal, experiential ways,” said Bass. “Generally, being part of a faith tradition ‘in name only’ will be increasingly hard to maintain as society grows more accepting of people who have no religious ties.”

It will be interesting to see if future surveys of religion like the ones taken by Pew take into account nominals in addition to the nones.

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