More about the “Nones.” Who are they, anyway?

You remember, last week’s Pew survey stirred up a frenzy of speculation (and angst) about what it might mean that the number of religiously unaffiliated in the US has grown by 5% (and yes, I contributed in my own small way, to that frenzy).

There’s been a lot of commentary about the “nones”–who they are, why they have rejected institutional religion. Much of it is like a recent piece by Brian McLaren which focuses on college students who have been turned off by conservative Christianity.

Elizabeth Drescher offers a more nuanced approach, pointing out that the Pew Survey focuses on belief, rather than on practice:

My hunch is that questions about “belonging to a community of people who share your beliefs and values” confuses the idea of community as a gathered social-spiritual network (a tribe) with the fraught subject of doctrinal religious belief and, further, the problematic language of religious values. We know, of course, that attendance at religious services of all sorts is down (except, perhaps, among religious groups in which doctrinal pluralism is something of a core value), but that does not allow us to conclude that religious or spiritual community is not important in the United States among those who identify or formally affiliate with institutional religions as well as those who do not.

Still, it’s clear that McLaren, Drescher, and most Episcopalian commentators on the survey imagine the “nones” to be well-educated, middle-class or upper-middle class, and probably white.

The reality, revealed by the Pew survey itself, is rather different. Jeff Sharlet points out the connection between disaffiliation and economics:

so the Pew study of the Nones has distracted many from what I think are the most interesting numbers: the largest percentage, 38%, is in the under $30,000 income bracket. Another 34% are below $74,999. Which means 72% are poor, working class, or, for a family of four, lower middle class. Those identifying as “atheist/agnostic,” a much smaller group than the “Nothing in particulars,” skew 62% under $75,000. Look at the education demographics and you’ll find more evidence for the hypothesis that what these numbers show is economic absence as much as religious absence. 45% of those identifying as Nothing in Particulars (NiPs) have no college, roughly the same as many religious affiliations.

He also points out the historical connection between disconnectedness from religion and economic downturns. The Great Depression was the last historical period that saw such numbers of the “unchurched.”

If he’s right, that might require rethinking how one does outreach to the religiously unaffiliated (the “unchurched”).

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2 thoughts on “More about the “Nones.” Who are they, anyway?

  1. TALKING WITH THE “SBNR” (Spiritual, But Not Religious)

    Fr Jonathan, I would start out by saying that they are in good company because Jesus was not a religious person either. The most religious folks of his day, the Pharisees, wanted to at first to censure him, then to crucify him. Religion came after Jesus.

    But if a person is going to claim the faith they have as “spiritual,” then it needs some gentle exploration. Let me suggest five ways you can talk with those who claim to be SBNR:

    1. If we claim to be spiritual people, then we must have some kind of knowledge base. What do you study with regard to your spirituality? How do you grow the practice of your spirituality?

    2. Most spiritual people acknowledge a Creator or Holy One. How in your spirituality do you give thanks to that Creator or Holy One in whom we live and move and have our being?

    3. Another part of spirituality is prayer; that which connects us with each other and with what we believe to be God. How do you pray — and to and for whom?

    4. The world’s most spiritual people (from the Dalai Lama to Mother Theresa) give themselves to the service of people in need. How is it your spirituality serves those around you in need?

    5. One of the hallmarks of spiritual people is the community to which they belong. What spiritual community do you have for help and support as well as vehicle to serve to others?

    The key here is “practice,” you can neither claim to be a spiritual or religious person unless you practice that which you believe. And practice usually is defined in the five areas mentioned above: Study, Worship, Prayer, Service, and Community.

    I hope this little tutorial will help you talk more lovingly with those who are SBNR. Our encounters with them should cause them to think more deeply about that which they say they are – spiritual. And it may, once day, cause them, one day, to seek those of us who practice Christian religion.

    • I have blogged extensively about the “SBNR” phenomenon and if you look back over those posts, you will see that I am in fact quite sympathetic with those who are alienated from institutional religion. I’m convinced that those of us who are involved, invested, and committed to institutional religion need to find ways outside of old structures (and old buildings) to help people find meaning in our cultural context. At the same time, as a trained scholar of Religious Studies, I reject false dichotomies between “religion” and “spirituality” and the notion that Jesus was not a “religious person.” Of course he was. He was a first-century Palestinian Jew whose critique of the Pharisees was based in Judaism, specifically, an alternative interpretation of Torah. That he did not create a religious institution I will concede but that is only because he (and his early followers including Paul) saw themselves within Judaism.

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