The King’s College has posted a video of excerpts from my Constitution Day Address last month, on how cultural trends, including the rise of the Nones, will likely affect the legal debate on religious accommodations. Here’s the link:
That young Americans affiliate with religion much less than past generations seems irrefutable. But does that mean twentysomethings lack interest in religion? Maybe–but most Nones, young and old, say something different. Nones lack interest in traditional religion, but typically say they believe in God and think it possible to follow their own, individuated, spiritual paths. A new book out this month from Oxford, The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults, by sociologist Tim Clydesdale (College of New Jersey) and religious studies scholar Kathleen Garces-Foley (Marymount), explores the phenomenon. I wonder how it compares with Smith and Denton’s Soul Searching, from 2005? Here’s the description from the Oxford website:
Today’s twentysomethings have been labeled the “lost generation” for their presumed inability to identify and lead fulfilling lives, “kidults” for their alleged refusal to “grow up” and accept adult responsibilities, and the “least religious generation” for their purported disinterest in religion and spirituality. These characterizations are not only unflattering — they are wrong.
The Twentysomething Soul tells an optimistic story about American twentysomethings by introducing readers to the full spectrum of American young adults, many of whom live purposefully, responsibly, and reflectively. Some prioritize faith and involvement in a religious congregation. Others reject their childhood religion to explore alternatives and practice a personal spirituality. Still others sideline religion and spirituality until their lives get settled, or reject organized religion completely.
Drawing from interviews with more than 200 young adults, as well as national survey of 1,880 twentysomethings, Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley seek to change the way we view contemporary young adults, giving an accurate and refreshing understanding of their religious, spiritual, and secular lives.
I don’t know enough of the history to say whether Gnosticism qualified as its own religion or whether it was a loose movement among members of many religions. If the latter, Gnosticism has a great deal in common with today’s movement of the Nones–people who belong to no single religion, but draw from mystical streams in many different faith traditions. So this new history of Gnosticism from Columbia, The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today, might help in sorting through an important trend in contemporary American religion. The author is Rice University scholar April DeConick. Here’s the description from the Columbia website:
Gnosticism is a countercultural spirituality that forever changed the practice of Christianity. Before it emerged in the second century, passage to the afterlife required obedience to God and king. Gnosticism proposed that human beings were manifestations of the divine, unsettling the hierarchical foundations of the ancient world. Subversive and revolutionary, Gnostics taught that prayer and mediation could bring human beings into an ecstatic spiritual union with a transcendent deity. This mystical strain affected not just Christianity but many other religions, and it characterizes our understanding of the purpose and meaning of religion today.
In The Gnostic New Age, April D. DeConick recovers this vibrant underground history to prove that Gnosticism was not suppressed or defeated by the Catholic Church long ago, nor was the movement a fabrication to justify the violent repression of alternative forms of Christianity. Gnosticism alleviated human suffering, soothing feelings of existential brokenness and alienation through the promise of renewal as God. DeConick begins in ancient Egypt and follows with the rise of Gnosticism in the Middle Ages, the advent of theosophy and other occult movements in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and contemporary New Age spiritual philosophies. As these theories find expression in science-fiction and fantasy films, DeConick sees evidence of Gnosticism’s next incarnation. Her work emphasizes the universal, countercultural appeal of a movement that embodies much more than a simple challenge to religious authority.
The rise of the Nones has been the most remarked upon development in American religion since the turn of this century. A recent book from Columbia University Press, A None’s Story: Searching for Meaning Inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam, by author Corinna Nicolaou, is an insider’s depiction of what it’s like to follow the Nones’ path–or, perhaps, it’s better to write, a None’s path. The publisher’s description follows:
The rising population known as “nones” for its members’ lack of religious affiliation is changing American society, politics, and culture. Many nones believe in God and even visit places of worship, but they do not identify with a specific faith or belong to a spiritual community. Corinna Nicolaou is a none, and in this layered narrative, she describes what it is like for her and thousands of others to live without religion or to be spiritual without committing to a specific faith.
Nicolaou tours America’s major traditional religions to see what, if anything, one might lack without God. She moves through Christianity’s denominations, learning their tenets and worshiping alongside their followers. She travels to Los Angeles to immerse herself in Judaism, Berkeley to educate herself about Buddhism, and Dallas and Washington, D.C., to familiarize herself with Islam. She explores what light they can shed on the fears and failings of her past, and these encounters prove the significant role religion still plays in modern life. They also exemplify the vibrant relationship between religion and American culture and the enduring value it provides to immigrants and outsiders. Though she remains a devout none, Nicolaou’s experiences reveal points of contact between the religious and the unaffiliated, suggesting that nones may be radically revising the practice of faith in contemporary times.
To the dismay of religious leaders, study after study has shown a steady decline in affiliation and identification with traditional religions in America. By 2014, more than twenty percent of adults identified as unaffiliated–up more than seven percent just since 2007. Even more startling, more than thirty percent of those under the age of thirty now identify as “Nones”–answering “none” when queried about their religious affiliation. Is America losing its religion? Or, as more and more Americans choose different spiritual paths, are they changing what it means to be religious in the United States today?
In Choosing Our Religion, Elizabeth Drescherexplores the diverse, complex spiritual lives of Nones across generations and across categories of self-identification as “Spiritual-But-Not-Religious,” “Atheist,” “Agnostic,” “Humanist,” “just Spiritual,” and more. Drawing on more than one hundred interviews conducted across the United States, Drescher opens a window into the lives of a broad cross-section of Nones, diverse with respect to age, gender, race, sexual orientation, and prior religious background. She allows Nones to speak eloquently for themselves, illuminating the processes by which they became None, the sources of information and inspiration that enrich their spiritual lives, the practices they find spiritually meaningful, how prayer functions in spiritual lives not centered on doctrinal belief, how morals and values are shaped outside of institutional religions, and how Nones approach the spiritual development of their own children.
These compelling stories are deeply revealing about how religion is changing in America–both for Nones and for the religiously affiliated family, friends, and neighbors with whom their lives remain intertwined.
The number of nonreligious people has increased dramatically over the past several decades, yet scholarship on the nonreligious is severely lacking. In response to this critical gap in knowledge, The Nonreligious provides a comprehensive summation and analysis of existing social scientific research on secular people and societies. The authors present a thorough overview of existing knowledge while also drawing upon ongoing research and suggesting ways to improve our understanding of this growing population. Offering a research- and data-based examination of the nonreligious, this book will be an invaluable source of information and a foundation for further scholarship. Written in clear, accessible language that will appeal to students and the increasingly interested general reader, The Nonreligiousprovides an unbiased and thorough account of relevant existing scholarship within the social sciences that bears on lived experiences of the nonreligious.
The latest edition of First Things magazine, currently available only in print, contains an important piece by Princeton sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow, “In Polls We Trust.” Actually, it’s one of the most important pieces on American religion I’ve read in quite a while. Not for what it says about American religion, necessarily. Wuthnow’s piece is important because of what it says about the polls on which everyone, academics included, rely for insights on American religion.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of these surveys. Scholars pore over the results to ascertain trends, and, on the basis of those trends, to evaluate the state of American institutions: churches, government, courts. For example, the much touted rise of the “Nones,” the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation, has implications for our First Amendment jurisprudence. The fewer Americans who identify with institutional religion, the weaker we can expect First Amendment protections to get. Or so some scholars, myself included, have argued.
Of course, everything turns on the accuracy of the surveys. Most of us, not being statisticians, more or less take them on faith. If Wuthnow is right, though, our faith is misguided. He points out that many surveys of American religion have serious methodological flaws. For example, religion does not always lend itself to straightforward yes/no questions of the sort surveyors ask. In addition, pollsters sometimes fail to account for regional and racial variations.
Most important, response rates are very low. The typical response rate nowadays is about nine or 10%, and rarely exceeds 15%. “In other words,” Wuthnow writes, “upwards of 90% of the people who should have been included in a poll for it to be nationally representative are missing. They were either unreachable or refused to participate.” With such poor response rates, it’s hard to know what the polls reveal about religion in America. This problem is compounded by the fact that the media present the results as accurate representations of what Americans believe – a misimpression that the polling industry, now worth a billion dollars a year, is understandably reluctant to correct – and by the fact that most of us “are unlikely to wade through obscure methodological appendices to learn if the response rate was respectable or not.”
Consider the rise of the Nones, for example. Maybe we really are seeing an explosion in the number of Americans without a religious affiliation, as these surveys suggest. But maybe we aren’t. Maybe the number of Nones is actually much lower. Maybe the number is much higher. Wuthnow’s point is, it’s hard to know on the basis of flawed polls. Now, to be sure, there are other indications that organized religion is declining. Some churches keep membership records; these are harder numbers, and they show that some churches are experiencing declining memberships. Still, one has to be a little careful about declaring trends on the basis of limited information.
The inaccuracy of the polls is more than just an academic matter, because polls may actually help drive social change. It’s human nature to want to follow the crowd. If you think that Nones are the wave of the future, you’re more likely to call yourself one; if you think that church is a dying institution, you’re more likely to leave. On the basis of these polls, pundits will write stories about the new religious movement; advertisers and other cultural influencers will take note of the polls and factor them into their work. Before you know it, the decline of religion and the rise of the Nones will be matters of conventional wisdom people take for granted. In other words, polls can have a disproportionate social impact, even if they are unreliable.
None of this is to say that organized religion isn’t in fact experiencing a decline; as I say, there are plenty of indications, other than these polls. But I wonder how major polling firms will respond to Wuthnow’s criticisms. At the very least, his essay suggests we should treat surveys on American religion with more caution than we do.
That’s the takeaway from the latest Pew survey of American religion, released with great fanfare this week. The percentage of Americans who describe themselves as Christians has dropped sharply, by nearly eight percent since the last analogous Pew survey, in 2007. Most of the decline comes from mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church. The percentage of Americans who call themselves Evangelicals has stayed roughly the same.
A corresponding increase has occurred in the number of Americans who say they are religiously unaffiliated–the so-called “Nones.” In the 2007 survey, roughly 16% of Americans described themselves as unaffiliated. Now it’s about 23%, a seven percent rise. When one looks at younger Americans, the numbers are even more stark. More than one-third of Millennials say they are religiously unaffiliated. The younger Americans are, the more they have checked out of religious institutions.
Some argue that surveys like Pew’s overstate the percentage of American Nones, and I’m curious what sociologists will say about these numbers. But the trend is clear, at least for the moment. A significant and growing percentage of Americans are detaching from organized religion, especially from the historically important mainline churches. A minority of American Nones–a growing number, according to Pew–describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. But the majority of Nones do not have problems with belief as such. They reject, or are at least indifferent to, the claims of organized religion. They are the so-called “spiritual but not religious,” or, perhaps “religious indifferents.”
A few quick observations. First, it seems unlikely that these new Nones have had sudden, reverse-Damascus Road experiences in the last several years. I suspect many of the new Nones already had weak commitments to their religious institutions–or, in the case of Millennials, commitments that never really formed–and now have dropped out completely. Church membership confers less social status than it used to do–in some settings, it confers negative social status–and the marginal probably feel more comfortable cutting their ties completely. So the decline in genuine religious attachment is probably not as precipitous as the Pew numbers would suggest.
Second, one often hears that Christianity’s identification with conservatism explains the Nones. People, especially the Millennials, don’t care for conservatism, and so avoid conservative Christian churches. But it’s precisely the liberal churches that have experienced the greatest decline in the last several years. Plus, George W. Bush has been out of office for six years, during which time we have had a president who touts his liberal Christianity on many occasions. If it were just about politics, you would expect the liberal Christian churches to be gaining ground. But they’re falling further behind. Perhaps the association with conservatism is so profound and odious that people don’t want to be affiliated even with liberal Christian churches. Whatever the explanation, the political dynamic seems to be complicated.
Finally, it’s hard to see how the rise of the Nones is good for religious freedom. As people check out of organized religion, they are less likely to view it as important and worthy of protection. People with even marginal affiliations may still understand and endorse the importance of religious commitment. The fact that they affiliate at all shows that religion makes up at least some part of their identity. Once people cut their ties completely, however, they are much less likely to be sympathetic to religious communities. If the future of religious freedom depends on the ability of believers to persuade our fellow citizens that faith commitments deserve respect and protection, that task may well become more difficult in the years ahead.