The rise in the number of people who self-identify as not being affiliated with any religion, popularly referred to as ‘nones’, is now a well-reported story. Richard Flory has been researching this phenomenon and has written an article based on his findings and says that the reasons for the rise are more complex than just the increasing secularization of society.
First off, what the people who self-identify as a none mean by the term is quite varied.
For example, in the course of interviewing many nones for our current research project on innovative religious and irreligious groups, we are finding that, for some, religion has no place in their lives; others may be marginally interested in religion but rarely if ever attend services. This group claims that religion still has some relevance in their lives.
Some others attend religious services on occasion, are generally open to the idea of the supernatural and believe in God or a higher power. However, they do not identify either as religious or following any particular religious tradition.
Still others say that they are “spiritual but not religious,” and there are those who dismiss the whole idea of “spiritual but not religious” yet maintain some religious and spiritual beliefs and practices.
We also talked to individuals who occasionally attend services, pray and meditate, but don’t think of these things as having any particular religious or spiritual content. In one of my interviews with a young woman, I asked whether religion had any relevance in her life, and she said,
“A little bit, maybe five percent.”
So what is moving them away from affiliating with institutional religions?
First, traditional authority structures, including religious ones, have been flattened through access to knowledge. As a result, everyone and no one is an authority, which reduces the need for traditional authorities of any sort. One pastor I interviewed told me that during Sunday services, her parishioners regularly fact-checked her sermons on their smartphones, rather than simply accepting what she said.
Second, fewer Americans view important social institutions – such as religious organizations, corporations and government – as having a positive impact in society.
Third, religion has a bad brand. From sex scandals across different religious traditions to the increasing association between evangelical Christianity and the political right, religion per se has taken a beating.
Fourth, increasing competition for people’s attention from work, family responsibilities, social media and other activities means that religion loses out to more pressing commitments.
Finally, personal choice is a bedrock feature of American culture. Individuals choose professional affiliations, diets, club memberships and myriad other associations, with religion being one more affiliation that is “chosen” by adherents. Many young adults have been raised by parents who have encouraged them to make up their own mind about religion, resulting in their choosing “none of the above” as they think about whether they want to affiliate or be identified with any religious tradition.
I was amused by the first item in which parishioners fact-checked sermons in real time. That should actually be viewed as a good thing by the pastor in that it shows that people are paying attention and not distracted or daydreaming. As a teacher and former lay preacher, I would be delighted if my students and congregation were following me that closely.
As to the last point, I have noticed that of the younger generation that I know personally who are in their 20s and 30s, the children of family and friends or friends of my children, almost none of them are affiliated with religion. Of course, this group forms a very narrow spectrum of socio-economic class of people like me, but I still think it is remarkable since when I was that age, almost all of my friends (and myself) self-identified as religiously affiliated.
The nones are seeking different avenues for the kinds of volunteering and social activism that religious institutions can provide. But politically they still remain a marginal force representing just 15% of the electorate compared with 52% who are Protestant, 26% who are white evangelicals, and 23% who are Catholic. And of course, they are a lot less vocal than those religious groups and less of a cohesive organized political force, as can be seen from the fact that only one member of Congress has self-identified as having no religion. We may suspect that there are more closeted nones among elected representatives but the fact that they choose to remain hidden is a telling sign that religion is still a dominant power in US politics.