Elizabeth Drescher, PhD

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3 Things You Might Not Know about Nones

photo-1427348693976-99e4aca06bb9.jpegNones are a name for people who answer “none” when asked with what religious group they most identify or to which they belong. Nones are a growing segment of the US religious landscape but there are some misconceptions about how they practice and what might count as “spirituality” or “religion.” Here are three challenges to typical misconceptions about Nones:

1. They’re not Unbelievers – at least not most of them.

The most recent Pew study of the US religious landscape shows a near doubling in the percentage of Americans who identify as Atheists. That’s a big jump, but it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s from a scant 1.6% in 2007 to a slight 3.1% in 2014. Nearly 80% of Nones were raised in a home with at least nominal religious identification and affiliation, and a majority—more than 65%—say that religion remains important to them. Yes, Nones are less likely to profess a belief in God, but more than 70% of the participants on Pew’s 2012 “Nones on the Rise” survey did report some level of belief in God or a Universal Spirit.

But my research and conversations with Nones showed that questions about religious identification and disidentification tied to traditional research categories of believing and belonging miss what are perhaps more important markers across the religious landscape in the United States. Many Nones who talked with me—those who believed in a supernatural being or power as well as those who did not—were often frustrated with what they saw as a fixation on religious belief as an essential component of religiosity or spirituality. Many resisted religious labeling and, with it, the idea that, once set, religious beliefs, identities, and affiliations remain fixed over the course of a lifetime. Indeed, attention to the evolution of spiritual and religious identity, practice, and belief throughout life was a defining feature of Nones.

Dorit Brauer, a Spiritual None from Pittsburgh, put it this way: “I would say I am ‘spiritual,’” she said, “but I am interested in religion, too. I don’t worry so much about the labels. You know, a long time ago, I couldn’t go into a church and feel comfortable. But that has changed for me over time. Now I can go to a Catholic mass with my mother and it’s a very spiritual experience—and a religious experience, I guess. But that is not the core of my spirituality, of course.”

2. Many are looking for spiritual community – just not necessarily a religious community.

It’s by now a commonplace to call out the religiously unaffiliated for individualistic, private, and, as they are very often characterized, narcissistic spiritualities. The idea of spiritual self-absorption and isolationism among Nones was reinforced by the Pew “Nones on the Rise” study. Researchers asked “Are you looking for a religion that would be right for you?” A commanding majority—88%—said, “not so much.”

This was true of many of the Nones who shared their spiritual stories with me. Most were not looking for a community to which they would belong for the rest of their lives. But many were also involved in multiple forms of gathering with different degrees of formality and regularity, some continuing for years, some popping up for a time, then fading away. Nones experienced yoga classes, monthly gatherings of musician friends and their families, gatherings of neighbors for weekly dinners, outings with coworkers to explore the culture of their city, community gardens, and online networks as richly spiritual. What tended to distinguish Nones in this regard was a cosmopolitan outlook rather than a communitarian one—the idea that regular and periodic encounters with others known well, only casually, or not really at all could be occasions of spiritual connection and significance.

This spiritual cosmopolitanism hardly ruled out all engagement with traditional religious communities. “I guess I still have a lot of religion in me, you could say. It just comes out differently now,” said Dan Li, a None from Waimea, Hawaii, who takes as a spiritual practice regularly visiting a diversity of religious sites. “I feel comfortable in a church for the most part, or in a Buddhist temple, or whatever, even if I don’t exactly believe what they believe. All religions have something good in them,” he acknowledged, “even the most small-minded of them. I like that. I like to be open to all of it.”


Such viewpoints mark Nones as very different from the Baby Boomer “generation of seekers” profiled by Wade Clark Roof (1993) in that they are not on an ongoing quest in hopes of finding one, lasting spiritual home. Rather, they enjoy the array of spiritual experiences available to them, and which they can create, in a more open and diverse spiritual environment. This reinforced the idea that traditional categories of believing and belonging are not significant markers of religiosity for Nones, but it challenged the idea that Nones have no interest in spiritual connection with others. Rather, being and becoming spiritual, as that unfolded organically in the course of everyday life and its diverse networks of relationships, were far more important.

3. They’re not inarticulate about religion and spirituality—They’re creating new languages.

Especially in research involving teens and young adults, an assertion has been made by some scholars that religious affiliation is fueled at least in part by Nones’ lack of familiarity and fluency with the languages of the religious traditions in which most of them were raised (Smith and Lindquist, 2005; Dean, 2010). They don’t, that is, learn how to talk about faith in ways that make institutional religious practice a part of their personal religious story.

That may be true in terms of the doctrinal teachings and dogma of traditional religions. But I’m not convinced that a deeper appreciation of Christian atonement theology or the twelve-linked chain of causation in Buddhist teaching would make much of a difference in terms of durable, institutional religious affiliation. The Nones I talked with were remarkably articulate about their own spiritual experience and its significance in their lives once they felt comfortable that their perspectives would be heard without impatience or judgment. I found, in particular, that what is often seen as a dismissive, throwaway phrase, “or whatever,” was in fact often an indication that the person speaking had not yet found language to fully express the particularity of their spiritual experience.

This was especially the case precisely because their experience didn’t map directly to conventional religious belief and practice. Nones often felt that the readily available language was freighted with religious connotations that were problematic, especially for nontheistic Nones. Further, because of the range of stereotypes about Nones as spiritually superficial and narcissistic, many Nones don’t have opportunities to discuss their spiritual lives in great breadth or depth. I found that in their descriptions and explanations of what was spiritually significant in their lives, Nones were often in the process of developing—perhaps for the first time—language that seemed true to their experience.

For example, when I asked Kimberly Arthur, a Secular Humanist from Phoenix, what she meant by “spiritual, or whatever,” she said, “I guess maybe it’s the experiences that people call ‘spiritual’ that I’m talking about. You know, when I say, ‘or whatever,” it’s because ‘spirituality’ isn’t exactly what I’m experiencing, but I don’t know what else you would call it. I mean, it’s just hard to explain when all the words are so loaded. I’ve never really thought about it a whole lot, I guess, what would be a better word. I don’t even know if there is one.”

Processes of spiritual and religious being and becoming trump the classic religious categories of believing, belonging, and behaving for Nones. New modes of networked, cosmopolitan affiliation tend to characterize the way Nones gather through their spiritual lives. And, from this, new stories of spiritual and religious experience that both draw upon and move beyond traditional religious language are beginning to emerge.

– Originally published on the OUPBlog at http://blog.oup.com/2016/04/3-things-about-religious-nones/.


Being None

What is religion? If one identifies this with the great historic faiths, or even with explicit belief in supernatural beings, then it seems to have declined. But if you include a wide range of spiritual and semi-spiritual beliefs; or if you cast your net even wider and think of someone’s religion as the shape of their ultimate concern, then indeed, one can make a case that religion is as present as ever.

~ Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 427


By Matheus Siqueira (Made from scratch) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It feels like I’ve been reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age for the last decade (though of course that can’t be true). I gave it a reasonably thorough scan when it first came out in 2007, and began rereading of it in more detailed earnest earlier this year. I frequently joke that I don’t agree with Taylor often enough, but what with the book weighing in at some 800 pages, I’m not planning to take up many more articulations of how secularity unfolds in Western history. Still, my many conversations with the religiously unaffiliated increasingly convince me that Taylor has much of the religious history right, but “misrecognizes” a good bit of the spirituality.

Ultimately, Taylor has a hard time with the in-between—with the idea, for instance, that a postmodern person might orient meaning-making practices within what he calls “the immanent frame” over a traditional “transcendent frame,” but that she might nonetheless experience moments of self-transcendence that point, if not decisively to a divine supernatural being or force, to something much larger than herself that matters in a particularly rich and fulfilling way that may reorient her life project. In the end, Taylor wants to suggest that it is possible, and indeed necessary, to choose between belief and unbelief, religion or not, as these are situated within an arguably (but not narrowly) Roman Catholic Christian transcendent frame. To experience the transcendent within the immanent frame and not wholly be turned toward the former, Taylor argues, is to be “responding to the transcendent reality, but misrecognizing it. … shutting out crucial features of it.” [768] It cannot, for Taylor, be both/and, or, perhaps more accurately, it cannot be one within the other.

Yet, of course, for his early followers and many later Christians, Jesus was exactly this: the transcendent expressed, lived, and experienced within the immanent. So fully was it the case that the immanent divine was experienced in Jesus, his teachings, and his Way that the Jesus of the New Testament made clear, and instructed his disciples to teach, that the Kingdom of God was present in the here and now reality of human life, infused, as the immanent frame always is in the Christian worldview, with the transcendent. Never either/or. Always both/and—always in the in-between.

Many of the religiously unaffiliated around the United States with whom I talked these last couple years don’t quite see it this way, particularly when Christian language comes into the conversation. If they sometimes experience a sense of what Taylor calls “fullness”—”a richness; that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be.” [5]—it is not, as Taylor insists, ultimately imbued with the transcendent. Some do see it something along those lines, yet still they resist Taylor’s assumed relationship between experience and durable, propositional belief. They report that they experience what they think of as moments of engagement with a transcendent “something,” but they are not particular keen to nail down what that means. In fact, much of the “fullness” experienced in such moments comes precisely from not insisting on a particular meaning, certainly not one that can be retained though all time.

This is what I’m beginning to think Taylor misses and what many of us who continue to practice religion, spirituality, faith, or whatever we might call it in some relationship with institutional churches also miss: the idea of process, of fullness unfolding in meaning and re-meaning throughout a life, of malleability and impermanence as markers of meaning-as-it-is-being-known, rather than as markers of belief. For many of the Nones I talk with, this sense of organic meaning-making, of attentiveness to an enriched now, an immanence perhaps enriched with transcendence, is the fluid center of their spiritual lives.

The truth for me is that I remain Mainline Protestant enough that often I kind of don’t get it. I dutifully take notes while I’m thinking that the person to whom I’m listening just can’t commit. She’s confused about her experience, I’ll think. He doesn’t know how reliant he is on theistic meaning-making structures, I’ll note. But more and more I do understand that they’re reaching for something else, something not yet named on its own terms in the either the past or the present that calls both on the language of immanence and the language of transcendence, then reaches beyond them.

To what? To what?

That’s the $64,000 religious question, and I surely don’t have the answer. But I do think the beginning of the answer is in language—in how we talk about experience, meaning, religion, spirituality, and how we continue to be infected by dualistic language that shuts out much of the provocative, productive, meaning rich in-between.

So, maybe the question isn’t so much “what?” Maybe it’s more “how?” How do we stay in conversation, in relationship, stay attentive and engaged in the process of change as the change is happening?