Elizabeth Drescher, PhD

Writing in the Land Between Religions

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I’ve always been something of a spiritual seeker. Even after I found my way to the Episcopal church in my late twenties, I continued to be deeply curious about the multitude of ways that people have found throughout history to explore and shape deeper meaning in everyday life. I’m just as interested today in how people make meaning—how we try to get a handle on what’s “true” or “good,” how we experience fulfillment, how we reach beyond ourselves in various ways to connect with and enrich the lives of others, and how those practices shape the culture we share.

Most recently, I’ve been learning about so-called “Nones”—the religiously unaffiliated who answer “none” when asked with what religion they identify. Many people assume that Nones are atheists or other types of unbelievers. But, in fact, the majority hold beliefs and engage in spiritual practices that aren’t entirely inconsistent with those of the religious institutions they often reject. What’s more, many unbelievers celebrate and nurture the human spirit, engaging in practices of meaning-making that wouldn’t be entirely foreign to many religious folks. Still, Nones are hardly traditional in their approach to meaning-making, self-realization, and self-transcendence. Likewise, those who do think of themselves as religious unbelievers of one sort or another continue to wrestle with Big Questions of meaning and value that have animated religious thinkers and philosophers for eons.

For the past two years, I’ve been traveling around the United States interviewing Nones, conducting focus groups and periodic surveys to get beyond the demographic data that has poured out on the religiously unaffiliated for the past few years. I’m interested in understanding how Nones themselves tell their meaning-making story and how they describe the practices that help them to make sense of life and the world around them.

If you think of yourself as something like a None, I’d love to hear your story, too. The Nones Beyond the Numbers survey gives Nones the opportunity to share  perspectives on and approaches to making meaning in everyday life. It’s a narrative survey, which means it works something like an online journal in which you respond to open-ended questions about your approach to religion, spirituality, meaning-making, and other Big Questions.

Gleanings from the survey, interviews, and focus groups will find their way into my next book, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones, which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2014.

Meanwhile, please amble around my website, where you’ll find more about my writing projects, information about upcoming speaking, and periodic posts in my new blog, The In Between. You’ll also find information about my previous books, Tweet If You  Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011) and, with Keith AndersonClick 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012), and links to my articles in Religion Dispatches, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, the San Jose Mercury News, and other publications.

6 thoughts on “Writing in the Land Between Religions

  1. I was reading an interview with you on “Confirm not Conform” and really found myself taken with the article. It’s stayed on my mind for days. I have many questions I would love to ask but, as a young female pastor in a new church filled with young adults who is trying to create a diverse community, I found myself wondering about the demographics of your survey. Are the findings based on a mostly white, middle class group or are there people of color or generationally poor people in the mix? I wondered if there was a growing group of “nones” in those categories and if they found the same sense of connection with the “riches of the tradition”? I wondered what the answers of these sorts of groups would be because that is where I spend the majority of my time and would love to connect more deeply.

    • Abigail,

      Glad you saw the CNC piece and that it’s stirring something in your ministry. My cohort was reasonably mixed in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity. More than a third (36%) of the people who talked with me were under age 30. Nearly half (44%) were between 30-49. So, the data skews younger. The US population is 52% Female, 48% Male; the Pew “nones on the rise” report was 44% Female, 46% Male. My cohort was slightly more Male (58%) than female (42%) than the Pew sample. One ethnicity, my cohort tracks to Pew’s data with 73% white, 8% African American, 9% Hispanic, 7% Asian, and 3% Mixed/Other. However, my cohort overall is more educated. A full 93% have high school diplomas. Most had college degrees (52%), and many graduate (18% masters, 9% PhD). Income level likewise skewed a little higher than average, with a mean income of about $50,000/year. About a quarter (26%) earned under $30,000 a year, but a high percentage of the people who talked with me (15%) were still in college or graduate school. Ironically, perhaps, some of the most educated among my interviewees were the least affluent. Given that, I can’t say that there’s a strong read of the research from far beyond the white, middle class core that Pew has also identified as the nucleus of the unaffiliated. HOWEVER — and this is big — new research (not mine) is expanding this field. Pew just today released a study of religion among American Hispanics, showing that 18% are unaffiliated (http://www.pewforum.org/2014/05/07/the-shifting-religious-identity-of-latinos-in-the-united-states/). A 2009 Pew report (http://www.pewforum.org/2009/01/30/a-religious-portrait-of-african-americans/) profiles the religious affiliation patterns of African Americans, but it’s probably dated. What I think we’re seeing across all of these is that the ~20% pattern of unaffiliation holds across racial and ecumenic sectors, but it manifests in different ways. Middle class white people are more likely, it seems, to identify as Agnostic, Atheist, Humanist, SBNR, or some other specific term. Outside of that group, people tend to identify as “nothing in particular.” This suggests to me a certain kind of drift perhaps. Religion becomes less relevant, maybe less affordable in some cases. Nothing really replaces it. But, people of privilege are perhaps more likely to feel a certain need/entitlement to claim a new identity. This is pure speculation, of course. Apply with caution.

      You’re certainly asking the right questions. I wonder if you’ve encountered Jodi Bjornstad Houge at Humble Walk in Minnesota or Emily Scott at St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn. My hunch is that they’d be good conversation partners for you. They’re easily findable on Google.

  2. I am a happy atheist and have practiced Nichiren’s Buddhism for over 35 years. You don’t need a dogma to have religion. You just need to get your priorities straight. People should always come first!

  3. Thanks for sharing your inspiration!

  4. Any new word on the release of the book?

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