In my talk to the Sunday Assembly, I suggested that we may be entering what I called a post-religion era where irreligion (i.e., thinking of religion as irrelevant or unimportant, rather than being essential or hateful) may be replacing strong religious and anti-religious sentiment.
In an essay, Kaya Oakes provides some support for my belief, writing that a new survey of the religiously unaffiliated by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds that the hopes of religionists that the religiously unaffiliated will one day come back into the fold is unwarranted. Indeed, children raised in homes where the parents are unaffiliated or have different religions are more likely to be unaffiliated and less likely to join a religion.
Oakes says that the so-called ‘nones’ are looking for different things than what religion provides.
Earlier this year, I gave a talk via Skype to the Yale Humanists, a group organized by writer and Yale Humanist Chaplain Chris Stedman. Stedman told me the group had mostly begun with atheists and agnostics, but increasingly more and more Nones were turning up. And these Nones were interested in community service, community bonding, and working alongside the religious, not in opposition to them.
I found the same among the many people I interviewed for The Nones Are Alright, and among my mostly nonreligious students at UC Berkeley. If an ambiguous notion of God exists among these adults, it may be because they are too preoccupied with the multiple environmental and social crises bombarding them at every turn. The mistake religions often make of guilt-tripping them about adherence while ignoring the work they are doing to bring about social equality reduces them to statistics rather than trying to understand what their way of thinking about as “God” really means in a post-religious era.
Some emerging religious leaders like Rev. William Barber or Rev. Osagyefo Sekou offer a new understanding of morality that is intrinsically linked with social justice, which might appeal to religiously unaffiliated people seeking a greater meaning in these troubling times. But more often than not, what religion is offering looks deeply unappealing. Hokey “young adult” ministries, clunky social media, static notions about gender, deeply skewed perceptions of sexuality, out-of-touch clergy with political axes to grind, and little to no evidence of religion as a meaningful presence in their daily lives do nothing to lure back those who have left.
Meanwhile Patricia Miller suggests that the rise of the ‘nones’ is coming largely from losses in the numbers of Roman Catholics.
According to PPRI’s Director of Research, Daniel Cox, 36% of all those who left their childhood religion were Catholic. This means that Catholics are punching above their weight in adding to the growth of the nones in terms of their overall representation in the population.
And while 21% of the total population currently identifies as Catholic, only 15% of young adults ages 18–29 say they are Catholic, which is not a particularly encouraging trend line for the Catholic Church.
Most of the people who left religion did not do so because of any strong negative experience but simply because they stopped believing in its teachings. Religion has simply ceased to have any utility or relevance for them.