The Rise of “The Nones”

There has been much internet chatter lately (sampling here and here) about the reports coming out about “the nones” – those Americans who check off “none” on surveys when asked about their religious affiliation. America is an important area to study because of the role of religion in their short history as a nation and their impact on the global climate.

The Numbers

According to Pew Forum and others, approximately 16% of Americans now classify themselves as “nones”. In 1950, somewhere around 2% did not identify with a religion. The “nones” fall into a variety of categories and most of them do not identify as atheists. Many have a belief in a god but do not identify with an organized religion or they may not have any belief in a god but have what they would consider to be a “spiritual identity”. The largest group of nones are under 30. This group is not only less religiously affiliated than their elders, they are less religiously affiliated than any group of young people in the past which means this trend cannot be dismissed simply as “young people rebelling against their elders”.

Why the Increase?

There is great speculation on why this is happening. It’s probably safe to say there is an overarching distaste for institutions in general and religious ones in particular. This trend became apparent in the 1990s when those who grew up during the culture wars were coming of age. Nones have stated that religious institutions are too concerned with “rules”, too interested with money and power, too involved in politics and are generally too socially conservative. One would expect then, that we would see a decline in conservative religious communities and a rise in liberal ones but this isn’t the case at this point. Liberal, mainline denominations in America are declining as well. Clearly, this is a trend that is worth watching.

So What?

Why should this matter? In particular, why should this matter to atheists. Aside from the general importance of human understanding, I believe this is important because non-religious people in North America have a unique opportunity to provide resources and guidance to an entire generation of burgeoning non-religious people.

My husband and I (along with our young children) used to identify as religious. We were Protestant Christians, along with almost half of all Americans. Not only that, we were leaders in the Christian community, independently affiliated pastors. Because of my past, I have a personal fascination with the conversations surrounding these reports. However, I’m most interested in those who have left religion only to experience frustration. The word I hear most often from them is “lost”.

What “The Nones” are Looking For

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I’m not convinced agnostics and atheists are doing a good job providing for the needs of the nones. Even in our own family, we have experienced gaps. We live in a big city but are finding it difficult to identify places of belonging. There are many avenues for conversations for young people who don’t have kids or for people who have grown children. Many of these groups are dominated by highly educated young men. It’s virtually impossible to find a group of non-theist families getting together on a regular basis and I am not alone in my frustrations. While the nones might be averse to organized religion or even institutions in general, it’s very common for them to desire some sort of communal experience at some point, especially if they have children. This need becomes more pronounced if/when they experience a difficult time in their lives marked by disease, death or some other tragedy that causes grief.

Here are some observations I have made about the “nones” that might help us create pathways for community.

They:

  • desire cultural belonging
  • desire “spiritual” experiences – those feelings that appear transcendent in some way
  • want to be part of community – a group of people who gather on a regular basis to learn and grow together
  • often still have a lingering desire to believe in a god and an afterlife if they once did which creates a frustrating cognitive dissonance and they want to be reassured that this is normal
  • want to be part of something “bigger”
  • want to be able to give meaning to difficulties

The truth is that most people in the United States are still religious. Even with the shift, American religious commitments are still strong. This means it’s just as important (if not more so) for there to be supportive, secular communities providing for the needs of the nones.

The Types of Communities We Can Create

Humans thrive in communities of compassion that have rituals, rhythms and rites of passage; where the people are working to achieve things together that they could not achieve alone. We want to experience a sense of belonging and cultural identity in a group of people who can support and nurture us through the difficult times. Transient groups of friends don’t meet these needs, and I worry that if our children don’t have anchors, they will be drawn to communities of faith as a place to feel rooted or will flounder through life unmoored.

Atheists can, and should be proactive and vocal about what we have to offer, not only those things we reject.

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