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Unpacking the Term “Religious None”
This week’s headlines:
Christians drop, ‘nones’ soar…
Christianity faces sharp decline…
Number of Christians in US is Declining
Christianity in decline and atheism on the rise
Over the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably come across headlines like these.
The Pew Research Center recently released their 2014 Religious Landscape Study, which revealed a shift in the way individuals in the United States articulate their religious identity. The percentage and overall number of people who choose to self-identify as Christian is decreasing. Some claim the exclusive theology of the religious right is to blame. Others state that all religion—conservative or liberal—is simply becoming less enticing to people of all generations.
On the one hand, the results of this study have generated authentic conversations and important reflections: is Christianity (or the institution of religion) still relevant today? Can the actions of liberal Christianity speak louder than the words of the political agendas of the Right? Do both of these positions—liberal and conservative—represent the Christian tradition in all of its complexity? Who gets to decide?
On the other hand, the results of this study have caused some who identify as “Christian” to dismiss, “other,” and otherwise misconceive those who identify as “non-religious.” Here, I attempt to explain the expansive nature of the term “religious none,” and identify common misconceptions about this term.
Grey > “Black and White”
Isn’t it interesting that our culture frequently extends the invitation to choose, align with, or locate one’s identity within, one particular position or party?
From sports teams (Cubs or Cardinals? Nationals or Redskins? Gators or ‘Noles?), to social injustices (black lives or blue lives?), and practically everything in between, we are constantly and consistently being asked to choose—one or the other.
Once the choice is made, we are encouraged to prove our dedication through certainty. This includes not changing our mind, questioning, switching teams, or otherwise wavering in commitment. We are not encouraged to engage in dialogue with, or otherwise learn from, someone from the opposing side.
This kind of societal interaction can result in debate, arguing, yelling, and misunderstanding. Left unresolved, these sentiments breed fear and violence, generating far-reaching consequences in our nation and around the world.
As my friend Chelsea explains here, the social phenomenon of religion is vastly complex. Questions do not often lead to answers, but rather they lead to the discovery of more questions. She reminds us that religious complexity is a reflection of human complexity, for it is our human existence that allows for the possibility of religious encounter.
In my experience, analyzing the findings of this study and terminology contained therein will not offer black and white conclusions; instead, we are invited into the grey.
Aren’t All “Nones” the Same?
Polarized presentations of the findings depict “declining Christians” struggling to keep up with “a growing population of atheists.” But this rendering of the data is quite inaccurate, to say the least.
Researchers identified five key findings from the Pew Research Center’s study. The third finding reads: The decline of Christians in the US has corresponded with the continued rise in the share of Americans with no religious affiliation (religious “nones”).
A responsible unpacking of this finding requires a familiarity with the term “religious none.” A “religious none” is, primarily, an individual who does not identify as belonging to a religious tradition. This term measures one’s involvement in the institution of religion. Just as depth cannot be replaced as a measure for length, there are many things that this term does not measure. As we cannot confine any god or gods to the constraints of institutionalized religion, this term is simply incapable of quantifying whether one possesses any kind of belief in a god or gods. Atheism, on the other hand, is a term employed to conduct such a measurement. This term describes a position that does not recognize the existence of a god or gods. Agnosticism states that whether a god or gods exist is unknown. This worldview also recognizes the great unlikelihood that such an existence will or could ever be known.
To be sure, the growing group identified in the third finding as “religious nones” can certainly include atheists and agnostics. Such worldviews represent important voices and perspectives within our country’s religiously diverse landscape. But to interpret the category of “nones” as one that solely represents these two worldviews is simply incorrect. The research states that 22.8% of the US population identify as “nones.” Of this percentage, only 7% identify as atheists or agnostics—terms that more than two-thirds (15.8%) of individuals in this category did not use to describe themselves. Instead, they described themselves as “nothing in particular.”
A Concluding Hope
So how might we gain a better understanding of those who identify as “nothing in particular”?
I find it helpful to locate the question beyond the question, by becoming aware of the terms that comprise these categories: religious or non-religious? An implication exists here: one classification is socially defined as normative, while the other is not (“non”). Such a classification implies an identification of the non-normative group as “lacking.” (Even if the implication is unintentional.) We must recognize that the non-normative group does not have the power to name themselves, making it problematic to render them as “lacking.” So we must ask, who determined such categories? Of course, this is a question that extends far beyond the realm of this study. It is a question of the society in which we live.
I find it helpful to locate
As a result of this brief examination, perhaps we are able to recognize the vastness of the category known as “nones.” Perhaps we will see ourselves as having the ability to transform the polarizing renditions of this discussion by gently correcting inaccuracies and dismantling stereotypes. For belief in God, the practice of prayer or meditation, and being in touch with the spiritual dimensions of our existence are experiences that can be shared by both “religious” and “non-religious” alike.
Perhaps we may also recognize the limited nature of our current societal categories. “Christians” and “nones” alike are asking like-minded questions that lead to endlessly fascinating discussions and more questions, rather than answers.
Perhaps together, with the gifts and challenges of globalization, we are all beginning to outgrow the conventional containers used to transport our societal musings and memories.
Other Responses in the "Losing / Finding Faith" Series
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We value highly the metaphor of journey. We’re different people from different places and backgrounds, representing an intergenerational community, and we’ve traveled different paths. So, we agree not to make assumptions about the person across from us, next to us, or in conversation with us. We challenge ourselves to be sensitive, knowing this community includes a diverse group of people from life-long followers of Jesus, to people who are just now open to the idea that God might exist. We strive to avoid offense, ask good questions, articulate and explain our responses. We don’t assume fluency in bible, spirituality, or Church language, because we believe the message of Jesus is not for Christianity, but for humanity. So, we do everything in the spirit of love and grace.
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