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.”

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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/.


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Epiphany Update: Jesus is Just Alright with (Many) Nones

The weekend after Christmas, a tweeted quote from comedian John Fugelsang made its way from the Huffington Post to the Facebook pages, Pinterest boards, and Twitter feeds of progressive Christians of my ilk:

FugelsangJesus

Fugelsang’s spin on the popular “Jesus was a Liberal” bumper sticker likewise appeared on the social media feeds of many atheists, agnostics, humanists, and sundry other Nones—people who do not claim an institutional religious affiliation—of my social media acquaintance. Many of these were participants in my study of the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated in America, which has involved interviewing nearly a hundred Nones across the United States over the past eighteen months and gathering narrative input from another hundred-and-forty online.

While the appeal to this religiously unaffiliated cohort of such plainly religious (and, not for nothing, political) messaging might come as a surprise to some, according to the 2008 Pew “US Religious Landscape Survey,” seven-in-ten Nones emerge into Noneness from Christian backgrounds. So, it makes sense that the Christian idiom—its narratives, rituals, symbols, professed ethics, and so on—remains a significant resource for many Nones, whether they’re arguing against it’s religious principles and practices or adapting them to what they understand as more meaningful spiritualities.

This was certainly the case for the majority of the Nones I interviewed across the country, regardless of their current self-understanding with regard to religious belief or unbelief, or the practices through which they nurtured and expressed that understanding. Repeatedly, people I interviewed told me how much they admired the Jesus of the Christian Gospels, typically understanding him in much the same light as he appears in the Fugelsang meme—as a radical defender of the poor and outcast. Indeed, as one of their own.

“Being an atheist doesn’t mean I hate Jesus,” a None from North Carolina who had been raised in a nondenominational Evangelical family told me. “You have to love the whole Good Samaritan story, or the way he stood up for the adultery woman. You don’t want to throw that away, because we need those stories.” He paused, “It’s just that my church experience didn’t really focus on that. It was about no sinning, avoiding temptation. It was about helping yourself to get saved, not helping others so much.”

Another None, a Californian who had been brought up as a Presbyterian but now sets an adaptation of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, Hatha yoga, and long mountain hikes at the center of her spiritual life, called on an understanding of Jesus as a social justice exemplar as an important part of her own ethical views. On a small home altar—among assorted crystals; small Buddhist and Hindu figurines; feathers, seashells, small stones collected on nature walks; and photos of family and friends—leaned a contemporary Orthodox-style icon depicting Jesus as the Good Samaritan. When I asked her about it, she explained,

I just was always inspired by that story ever since I was little. You know, that we could be that way toward each other. It’s really the ideal for me of how people should behave. Not “do unto others,” but more like “do what they need when you find them on the road.” That still really matters to me even though I don’t think of myself as a “Christian” in a religious sense anymore. Spiritually, though, I guess I still have that in my personal beliefs—that this was what Jesus stood for and expected us to emulate.

“I think of Jesus first and foremost as a healer,” a secular humanist from Boston who had been educated by Jesuits in Brazil told me. “He’s such an icon for reaching out to people most in need. That didn’t end up making me believe in a supernatural being who gives out miracle cures,” he made clear, “but it’s a big social lesson. It’s really the best side of Christianity.

Indeed, so compelling is this understanding of Jesus to many Nones that in close to a hundred interviews, the story of the Good Samaritan, specifically, came up nearly twenty times. Other Gospel stories of Jesus’s healing and advocacy for those on the margins of society were cited as influential in the spiritualities of these and another thirty Nones. At the end of the day, for half of the people I interviewed, the Jesus of radical compassion and justice remained spiritually and ethically significant regardless of religious identification, affiliation, or practice.

There are a number of ways to read this small body of qualitative data. The first is, of course, that, growth in the unaffiliated notwithstanding, the majority of Americans still identify with one Christian tradition or another. If you’re outside of that normative religious core, you have to contend on some level with the more dominant religiosity of American culture. Nones—like Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, and others outside of institutional Christianity—live in a culture saturated with Christian language, symbols, and rituals. Given this, and the high percentage of Nones who themselves come from Christian backgrounds, reckoning with the significance of Jesus in relation to their own current beliefs and practices will likely factor into both spiritual and wider social identity construction.

But the Good Samaritan and other Gospel narratives also have an ethical resonance with Nones that extends beyond their place in the larger cultural vocabulary for meaning-making. Nancy Ammerman’s study of what she termed “Golden Rule Christians”—practicing believers across Christian denominations and ideological spectrums who take the scriptural teaching that one should “do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Mt. 7:12) as the core Christian value—certainly tracks a similarly generalized Christian ethic. But I would suggest that the ethical perspective of those I might tag as “Good Samaritan Nones” goes somewhat further in ways that are particular to the spiritualities of American Nones.

Very basically, the ethos of “Golden Rule Christianity” is to treat each person we might encounter with the same fairness and respect we would desire ourselves. Philosophers from Emmanuel Kant to Ayn Rand have criticized ethical practice based on the Golden Rule for a variety of reasons. It assumes self as the basis for authentic knowledge of the needs of the other. It ignores the context in which self and other interact. It values reciprocity over self-preservation and, potentially, justice. It offers a general moral principle without defining normative moral action. Christian thinkers, in turn, have robustly argued that the wider Gospel context of the Golden Rule grounds its interpretation in a self-giving love of neighbor exemplified by Jesus Christ.

Still, “Good Samaritan Nones” up the ethical ante on the basis of their understanding the ministry and character of Jesus as calling for more radical ethical action requiring risk, challenge, and even conflict on behalf of the most marginalized and oppressed. Here, the needs of the other are the starting point for moral engagement rather than a presumed commonality between the other and the self. Indeed, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, difference—otherness—in itself is the locus of both moral action and of the moral assessment of the Samaritan as “good.”

“I’m not a Christian anymore,” said an agnostic woman from Nebraska, “but I’m still impressed by the story of the Good Samaritan in the bible, which was about seeing past ethnic or tribal categories. I wish Christians and other religions would learn that. We all just are who we are walking down the road. We want to be seen as no more and no less than that.”

Some Nones I talked with did fairly routinely point out what they saw as hypocrisy in churches that do not exhibit this Jesus-like quality toward whomever their particular others might be. But most focused more on what the Gospel stories continued to mean for them personally in terms of ethical practice outside of institutional churches. Still, even those who did not critique or condemn churches and their members for their failure to live up to the Good Samaritan ethic did not seem to feel that institutional religions were up to the challenge of offering genuinely self-sacrificing service to others.

“You know,” a None in Kansas who described herself as “an agnostic Jesus Follower” told me, “the big church organizations—Habitat [for Humanity] or whatever—will do things like that. Or, maybe after a hurricane. But day to day, week to week, you don’t really see [churches] where you live being involved—out on the streets with homeless people. I think most of them are just trying to hold on to the members they have, to make them happy and comfortable. They take care of their own, in my experience.”

Now, of course, those active in churches will argue—rightly—that most local churches and their members are involved in all manner of ministries to those on the margins of their communities. They staff and donate to food banks, homeless shelters, meal programs, after school programs, environmental initiatives, anti-violence campaigns, and so on tirelessly. But it is also the case that these activities are almost invisible except to those most actively involved, very often within the sponsoring church communities themselves. Even—sometimes especially—to Nones who come from Christian backgrounds, Good Samaritan practices don’t read as being at the spiritual heart of most churches as they present themselves in worship services, websites, and other public platforms.

An “atheist most days” from Virginia who had been raised in a progressive Episcopalian church talked warmly about annual youth group service trips to Haiti, Mexico, New Orleans, and other “areas in need.” He insisted that these trips had been incredibly important in his personal and spiritual development. But, he said, “they were basically extracurricular activities. You went on these trips, and did a presentation at church one week, then that was it. It was just a thing they did for the youth to develop Christian values of charity and compassion, I guess.”

Few churches, it seems, express their identities in the prophetic, radically other-oriented registers illustrated in the Good Samaritan story, even to their own members. For many, Jesus is the cute, swaddled infant of Christmas pageants; the kindly Good Shepherd who leads us beside still waters; the regal risen Christ who triumphs over sin and death. But, he’s not often a dude who would leave the comfort of a cozy church coffee hour with folks of his own social milieu to part with cloak and coin for the benefit of the dazed Iraq war vet with two pit bulls at the highway underpass down the road from church.

It’s possible, then, to read the lingering significance of “Good Samaritan Jesus” for the religiously unaffiliated as a yearning for a more ethically engaged, prophetic Christianity. It does seem to be the case that some of the largest and most vibrant Christian congregations across the denominational and ideological spectrum are those with a pointedly prophetic self-representation. Take the Mars Hill nondenominational industrial complex, for instance, with its booming call to conservative hipster masculinist Christianity; or, in a much more progressive register, All Saints Church, Pasadena, with its sustained advocacy for LGBT inclusion and interreligious engagement. Even the recently launched Sunday Assembly—“a global movement of wonder and good,” according to its website—offers a call to community and service to atheists, humanists, and others among the religiously unaffiliated.

So, do Nones of a more spiritual leaning hunger for participation in religious and/or spiritual institutions that more boldly call for the sorts of practices Good Samaritan Jesus represents? Perhaps some do, but largely, not so much. Or, at least not in the ways religious organizations and religion researchers typically understand participation in religious institutions, in terms of sustained, exclusive affiliation on the model of voluntary membership. Thus, when Pew researchers asked Nones if they were “looking for a religion that would be right for you,” a commanding majority—88%—said, “thanks, but no thanks.”

My qualitative research with Nones, however, cautions me not to read this demographic data as an indication that Nones are necessarily anti-institutional or uninterested in participation in religious organizations overall. Indeed, some twenty percent of the Nones I interviewed were at least somewhat active in traditional religious communities. But the plural here—communities—is important. Many Nones in my study, that is, reported participating on a regular basis in more than one community they identified as spiritual or religious, perhaps taking in a Taizé service at a local church on Saturday evening, practicing yoga a few times a week, and sitting with a meditation group from time to time.

Any enduring attractiveness of Good Samaritan Jesus, then, does not translate into a desire for exclusive Christian affiliation. Indeed, the appeal of Good Samaritan Noneness over Golden Rule Christianity may have much to do with the fact that it is not understood as a universal ethic centered in an exclusive (even if welcoming) community, but as a multiversal one—as an ethic for a profoundly pluralistic, cosmopolitan postmodernity much defined by encounters with wide varieties of ethnic, racial, national, gendered, and religious others. In this cosmopolitan spiritual landscape, Jesus is just alright with Nones—othered as they are by choice or circumstance from traditional religions—to the extent that he is seen as a particularly exemplary inhabitant of the “many dwelling places” in a diverse cosmic household rather than as the keeper of the “narrow gate.”

The appeal of Jesus to Nones, especially as it is characterized in Gospel stories like that of the Good Samaritan, may also have to do with the practical, material enactment of his ministry—his willingness to walk across religious and other social boundaries, through the lives of ordinary people, attending to their suffering, healing their afflictions, welcoming them into relationship—over against the credal or doctrinal expressions of Christianity that have largely characterized the tradition since the Reformation.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you what it means to be ‘saved in Jesus,’ or ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit,’” a former Evangelical None from Missouri told me. “But I get what it is to help someone out, to really put yourself out there for someone going through something bad. I think that was what Jesus was all about. Was that Jesus truly God? At this point in my life, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter. But I do believe it probably felt like that to the people he helped.”


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I Am A Disgrace to Journalism (Or Maybe Not So Much…)

Old Man Yells at CloudA month ago, on the National Day of Prayer, I wrote an article in the Washington Post, “What the ‘Nones’ Teach Us on the National Day of Prayer.” The article piqued the ire of a couple self-described Nones/Atheists, including one Gil Gaudia, PhD, who wrote the following comment (then, when I didn’t respond, made sure to email it to me again):

Your slanderous article about “Nones” is a disgrace to journalism, philosophy and morality. You have mischaracterized the vast majority of people who call themselves “Nones” and certainly the group of thirty-five or so senior citizens in the community where I reside in Eugene Oregon who meet weekly to discuss the issues you claim to be knowledgeable about. Your description of “praying atheists and agnostics” is ludicrous on its face and demonstrates that you simply make it up as you go along. You should be ashamed to call yourself a commentator on religious or nonreligious matters, because it is obvious that the word research means to you about the same as my plumber saying, “I heard that it will be a cold summer this year. 

You say “My research shows that prayer stands alone among traditional practices like attending church and reading scripture,” but you don’t say how you conducted your “research” or who the subject population was. 

Just exactly what do you mean by “prayer” and how would anyone with even a modicum of scientific acumen admit to such an inane practice? To ascribe it the Nones that I know and interact with regularly is an insult to all atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, secular humanists and other non-theists, and a display of gross incompetence and ignorance on your part.

I usually don’t respond to comments on news sites unless someone’s pointed out a factual error (which happens more than I wish, but did not in this case) because I feel like I’ve already had my say in the article. I leave the comment space for readers, from whom I often learn a great deal. Indeed, as I’ll discuss shortly, reader comments have changed my research on Nones in important ways. But, setting aside good Dr. Gaudia’s over the top invectives, his comments reflect more common confusions about Nones and about different kinds of scholarship and writing. So it seems it might be a good idea to respond in some measure. I can’t address all of his complaints in a blog post, but I’ll try to address those that speak to more general questions and confusions.

First, the demographic data on which I base my research is well-known and highly credible. It comes from the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2008), the American Religious Identification Survey (2008), and the Pew “Nones on the Rise Study” (2012), among others. All of these show, first, that relatively few—about 20 percent—of whose who answer “none” when asked with what religion they are affiliated or with which they identify, are unbelievers. Indeed, in the most recent Pew report, four in ten of those who self identify as “Atheist” or “Agnostic” report some level of belief in a divinity, including, say the Pew folk, 14 percent of Atheists. Much of this empirical research has been confirmed in the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the U.S. government, which was recently analyzed by researchers at UC Berkeley and Duke University (2013). Go figure.

Source: Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, "Nones on the Rise," October 2012. Available online at http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

Source: Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, “Nones on the Rise,” October 2012. Available online at http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

My own research is more ethnographic than empirical in nature. That is, I listen to people’s stories and sometimes observe how they practice their spirituality. I have also conducted narrative surveys that allow people to offer written responses to a number of questions about their religious or spiritual perspectives. In light of this research, my hunch, having spoken to many self-described Atheists who retain some sort belief in some sort of supernatural, transcendent reality that influences humanity and creation in direct or indirect ways, is that they aren’t meaning to offer “insult to all atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, secular humanists and other non-theists … [in a] a display of gross incompetence and ignorance.” Rather, in some cases, they value how the label stands ideologically and politically in relation to various religious or spiritual designations. Maybe they don’t entirely understand the complicated historical, political, and lexical meanings of the term, it’s true. Often, it seems, when someone tells me she or he is an Atheist, it seems to mean something along the lines of, “I really don’t want to talk about what I believe, and people leave me alone on that count if I say I’m an ‘atheist.’” Sometimes, too, it means, “I was thinking of myself as an Atheist when you first asked me, then I kind of changed my mind.”

This raises two important points that Dr. Gaudia, and perhaps many others, misunderstand about research on current or historical cultural phenomenon and, further, about religious identity in the current age. With regard to the former, as a researcher, when I ask people how they describe themselves in religious, spiritual, or philosophical terms, I accept the descriptions they offer as valid for them. That is, I don’t say (though sometimes I want to, and I gather that Dr. Gaudia would expect me to), “You know, if you believe in God or prayer or whatever, you really aren’t an Atheist. Stop saying that!). I note what they say, and what they think it means, not what I might think it should mean. It’s an interview, not a quiz.

This is the difference between a theological or philosophical assessment, which would ask if the prayer practice is valid within a particular tradition, and a social or cultural study, which asks what people do when they say they pray and tries to determine how that contributes to changing meanings of the term and associated practices in the wider culture. Lots of people are confused by this distinction, so Dr. Gaudia might be excused for his ignorance on this count (though that would be easier if he were less, you know, nasty).

Thus, having conducted in depth, narrative surveys with more than a thousand people across the country, and having interviewed a few dozen people in considerably more depth, what I’m able to see is certain patterns in how religious identifications and other definitions vary from the more formal, academic definitions that Dr. Gaudia believes I have flagrantly disregarded. (Well, to be fair, I have kind of disregarded such definitions, because my research is not about how well people conform to standard definitions. But I don’t think I’m full on “flagrant” about it.)

Now, many Nones do report praying on a regular basis, including no small number of those who self-identify as Atheist or Agnostic. The most recent Pew report shows more than 40 percent of Nones overall praying at least monthly, including close to 20 percent of those in the Atheist/Agnostic category. In a survey I conducted in 2012, “prayer” was among the top practices that the unaffiliated ranked as “spiritually meaningful”—the only traditional religious practice that made it to the top of the list. Like many people, perhaps—although I hope with fewer preconceived notions about an ironic, almost papal inerrancy about my own perspectives than Dr. Gaudia seems to maintain—I was curious about what it would mean for someone who says she is “atheist” or “agnostic” or “unaffiliated” in some less specific way to “pray.” But, initially, I had bracketed unbelievers out of my study.

I was actually tipped to the modest pervasiveness of prayer and other “spiritual” practices among self-described unbelievers themselves by Atheists and Agnostics themselves, however, after a December 2012 article in Religion Dispatches that offered a short reading list on Nones. In response to the piece, a number of (generally very polite and respectful) Atheists and Agnostics contacted me to ask why I hadn’t included any titles on their “spirituality.” This actually shifted my research away from a more exclusive attention to so-called “religious Nones”—the unaffiliated who claim belief in God or a higher power—to include the narratives of non-believing Nones. Again, rather than evaluating their self-descriptions as “valid” or “invalid” by my definition of “atheist,” “secular,” “humanist,” “freethinker,” “unbeliever,” “skeptic,” and so on, I aimed to listen to theirs and to better understand how they understood “spirituality” and existential meaning-making more generally from the point of view they claimed. I’m facilitating conversation, not conducting midterms.

This confirmed for me a second key point that many people, including no few researchers such as those at the Pew Forum, Gallup, the Barna Group, the GSS, and so on often forget: late modern religious identification and affiliation is not fixed or durable in the same way it has been in previous generations. That is, in a world in which people no longer die before they’re 50—when most of us will live well into our 70s and 80s or beyond—an identity as a Catholic, or an Evangelical, or an Atheist is less and less likely to last a lifetime. For one thing, as Charles Taylor has described as the particular mode of “secularity” that characterizes the present period, we “live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on” (A Secular Age, 11). For another, we simply have more time to think about those “different construals,” to try them on at least notionally, at different times in our lives. Indeed, under the influence of cultural epistemologies and associated practices in the current Digital Age, we might shift identities and affiliations from one week—or day—to the next.

So, the person who answered “Atheist” when asked about her religious preference in a survey on Tuesday, may by Friday be intrigued by Kabbalah. This is no mere fickleness, but rather a real change in how people approach meaning-making in the present day. Religious and spiritual identity are more provisional, more strategic, more malleable over time. Including self-identified Atheists and Agnostics in my work on the spiritual lives of Nones has allowed me to see what I think are much more significant patterns in American religiosity from the ground up than I would had applied rigid, fundamentalist, definitions of “Atheist” and “prayer” that, say, Pat Robertson and Dr. Gaudia might apply. I’ll have much to say about this in Choosing Our Religion when it’s released next spring. It’s not the sort of material that one covers in an 800-word article for a general readership news outlet.

Now, responding to Dr. Gaudia has required a very, very long blog post, and I appreciate your attention if you’ve made it this far. Indulge me for one final note on what I suspect are the “Nones” of Dr. Gaudia’s more local, Pacific Northwest experience. For some time, the Pacific Northwest was known a “The None Zone.” Well before the blossoming of religious unaffiliation and disidentification in the rest of the United States, some 30 percent of the population in the region identified as “humanist” or having “no religion,” with more than 60 percent claiming “no religious affiliation,” according to a fine collection of academic essays edited by Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk (2004) that drew on data primarily from 2001 and 2000, and slightly earlier.

I expect that Dr. Gaudia and his None community in Eugene have a very different experience of unaffiliation than do the more recently going population of Nones elsewhere in the country. Which is to say, when we look outside the window, most of the time we don’t see the world, we see our world.


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As Religion Dispatches Turns

Religion DispatchesThis week Religion Dispatches, where I write reasonably regularly as a senior correspondent, shared news about a reality of digitally-integrated, late modern life with which most of us are familiar: everything changes. A nonprofit publication that occupies a unique place on the religion journalism landscape at the intersection of academic discourse and thoughtful reflection that appeals to an educated general readership, RD has found its institutional and administrative home in educational settings, first with Emory University and more recently with Auburn Theological Seminary. This has allowed funders to have a perhaps more settled confidence that things financial would be overseen by folks accustomed to that while also, at least in theory, allowing RD the kind of editorial latitude that has enabled it to take on topics from which other publications might shy away or at least be slow to consider.

Focusing only on my own contributions, for instance, RD was the first national magazine to take up the religious dimensions of the Occupy Wall Street movement, to explore the relationship between new media and religion from beyond a “gee wiz, isn’t that app cool!” perspective, and to invite reflection on the wider cultural implications of the growing number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated. Among my RD colleagues, contributions from Joanna Brooks opened up Mormonism as a more complex and ideologically diverse tradition than had previously been explored in  popular or many academic publications. Haroon Moghul‘s contributions on Muslims in America have enriched and significantly shifted perceptions well beyond the academy. If time permitted, I could go on about the work of RD regulars like Peter Laarman, Candace Chellew-Hodge,  Kathryn Joyce, and others. For now, however, I merely note that the real and perceived editorial integrity, creativity, and courage displayed by RD since it first blinked onto screens in 2007 has been no small part of the unique and valuable contribution it has allowed contributors to offer to a world in which, however much pollsters may report declines in religious participation and influence, the complexities of religious practice and belief remain meaningful in politics, education, culture, and everyday life in general. Finding an institutional partner with the culture and character to encourage and support that work is a huge deal, and I’m glad that RD is transitioning to just such a space over the next few weeks.

I’ll certainly continue to publish with RD during the transition, and I’ll celebrate RD’s move to a new institutional home come midsummer. I encourage you to visit often and to share your own stories on how RD has been meaningful to you and what you’d like to hear more about in the future.


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Praying a Mystery

PrayingI’ve been writing a great deal of late about prayer. The bulk of this is in the context of my research and writing as a journalism fellow on the Social Science Research Council’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer (NDSP) initiative, through which I’m studying how the religiously unaffiliated—some 40% of whom report that they pray on a regular basis—approach prayer. What does someone who thinks of herself as an agnostic or an atheist mean when she says she “prays”? What is prayer for people who believe in God or a Higher Power but who engage that being or force primarily outside of institutional religion and its more formal, liturgical, and theological conceptions of prayer? When someone tweets #PrayForBoston or #PrayForOklahoma after a tragedy, what might she or he be gesturing toward in terms of the disposition and action of the person who prays, the subject of the prayer, and its possible object?

In the Christian tradition, prayer has been understood as inherently intersubjective—and engagement between a human who prays and the god who hears and answers that prayer. There’s an element, too, of prayer as sacrificial or at least consequential for the person who prays, as when Jesus prays, “Father, take this cup away from me,” but adds, “yet, not my will, but yours be done,” sacrificing his deepest desire to the presumed higher will of God. We pray for what we need, what we desire, that is, but we temper our human longing with deference to the divine will within which we live, and move, and  have our being.

For many of the religiously unaffiliated I’ve interviewed or who have responded to my Nones Beyond the Numbers online narrative survey, prayer is something more intrasubjective. Influenced significantly by a very generalized understanding of Buddhist mindfulness meditation and practices of depth psychology, “prayer” is a deeper exploration of the self, an intrapsychic opening toward a certain register of calm within which the “authentic self” can better be heard. For some Nones, this practice is consequential in the sense that what they learn in prayer about their deepest, truest desires calls them to new modes of action in the world, and this is often action on behalf of others. “I came to see,” one None told me, “that I’m not this person who is basically a money-making, thrill-seeking machine. That’s not who I want to be. I can be more than that. I can be someone who really matters, who makes a difference—dorky as that sounds.”

I’ve also argued here and there that prayer also serves a discursive function, holding a space in our cultural lexicon for simultaneous expressions of anxiety and hope, as with all the prayer tweeting during crises. When someone tells me he “prays” for peace in the world, or help in a crisis, or for a parking space around the next corner, very often that has nothing to do with turning to a supernatural being or force for help or reaching inward for a clearer vision of what might be possible. It means something like, “I’m worried about violence in the world, and I hope it will stop.” As I wrote recently in Religion Dispatches, “No other word in English, so far as I know, marks that register as does the word ‘prayer.’” You don’t meditate for a parking space. You don’t contemplate help on your chem exam. You pray, whether you believe a god is listening to those prayers or not.

I began by noting that most of my reflection on prayer has been in the context of the NDSP project, but not all of it. A year or so ago, I started working on a novel, The Prayer Chain, that has turned out to be about prayer as all of the above, I guess, but also an opening to the imagination—as a particular space that allows for mental experiments in anxiety, hope, freedom, and transformation. As I read back over the story of a daughter, a sister, and a cousin dealing with the extended coma of a loved one as a result of a random, recreational accident, I also see that prayer is a tableau within which we might also experiment with various conceptions of the divine, its powers, its agency, its fluctuating reality in our day-to-day life. It’s a space within which we rehearse various ethical contingencies. Drawing perhaps on the deep Latin root of the word “pray,” precari, “to ask, to beg, to entreat,” it is where we hold and explore our questions. It holds, then, always a certain mystical capacity—a space in which mystery is gathered, engaged, and, depending on what you believe, resolved.

Of course, I hardly have all the answers here. No one does. So, I wonder, do you pray? How does prayer mean for you?


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Between a Rock and a Hard Place in Today’s Church

Blooming Between a Rock & a Hard Place

(Originally posted July 2, 2012)

Recently, Keith Anderson, my friend and co-author on Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible, wrote a  post that’s been stirring a good deal of interest — and concern — across the blogosphere.

Anderson’s piece, “What Young Clergy Want You to Know,” has, I suspect, attracted so much attention because it dives right into the middle of the frustration, anxiety, and discouragement one increasingly finds among clergy of all ages and levels of experience, but that is amplified among younger clergy because they’ve made a vocational commitment to the Church at a time when such a choice seems crazier than ever.

This, as Anderson points out in the post, is because younger clergy “understand they are presiding over the death of American Christendom.”

Younger clergy, says Anderson, “are worried about job security — not just about getting paid (which is not always a given) — but whether they can do the job they feel called to do in congregations that don’t want to change.” He continues, “Being prophetic is an attribute we laud in seminary, but it can get you fired in the parish.”

Well, there you have it. The unvarnished truth of vocational experience in institutional contexts that over time wears out even the most patient, most tolerant, most enthusiastic of clergy. The wrenching responses to the post make clear that Anderson struck a nerve among his clergy colleagues.

But clergy are not, of course, alone in these feelings. So, too, are lay leaders and lay people more generally, who are struggling to remain faithful to a Church that is often decades out of touch with the spiritual needs and interests of its people.

And, among young people who don’t muster the wherewithal to claim a place in the church by clerical vocation, the story is even grimmer. They have simply voted with their feet, spending their Sunday mornings hiking or cycling with friends, hanging out with their pets, and exercising their commitment to social justice by participating in one of the greatest decades of volunteerism in American history.

These are all things that young adults tend to find deeply spiritually meaningful for which there often seems no space in most churches.

For the past year or so, I’ve been speaking with clergy and lay leaders across denominations about the ways in which the world is changing and what that might mean for churches. I tend to begin these conversations with these stark facts from the Pew U.S. Religion Landscape Survey:

If current trends continue:

  • 32 percent of young people raised as Roman Catholics will leave the denomination
  • 54 percent of young people raised as Evangelicals will leave the faith family
  • 55 percent of young people raised as Mainline Protestants will leave the faith family

And then, I generally say this: Our kids are leaving our churches not because of something “out there,” not because of “the culture,” but because we are teaching them in our churches that faith is unimportant in everyday life, that religious identity is private and largely decorative, and that religious commitment is mostly about being nice and feeling good about oneself and others.

This last bit I draw mainly from the work of Kenda Creasy Dean, whose starling book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church should be required reading for every lay and ordained leader in every church.

Dean advances the work of Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, whose work with data from the National Study of Youth and Religion revealed a bland, feel-good, and ultimately forgettable version of Christianity offered up by most Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches. Dean contrasts this “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” with a “consequential faith” grounded in a sense of authentic mission, sacrifice, and radical compassion.

But “consequential faith” is of course also consequential for congregations, who must make space available for kids, teens, and young adults to take up new ways of doing church and new ways of serving God in the world in communities largely shaped and governed by people who are just fine with the way things are — which is often the way they were in 1952. So, as we’re all too well aware, our young people just fade away.

I have to tell you, as much as I really do love talking with people in church communities around the country, it is six kinds of no fun to look into the faces of a room full of people in their 60s and 70s and tell them that the ways they have come to love and find comfort in the church don’t work for many of the rest of us. These are lovely, faithful, caring people who have often worked very hard to create the churches that remain today.

They’ve given generously, as we say, of their time, talent, and treasure, and it has to be a bitter pill to be told, in essence, “thanks, but no thanks” to a lot of the way the experience of church is currently structured and enacted.

Indeed, I confessed to a group a few weeks ago that I often wished I were one of those folks offering glowing example after glowing example of thriving Mainline communities or promising that a new emergence of church was just around the corner. There are thriving churches across the country, but we all know that they are not the norm. And, certainly, something new is emerging from among the disparate beliefs and spiritual practices swirling among the under-sixty set.

But it’s not likely an emergence or an awakening that will find its way back to the valuable networks of built churches in neighborhoods around the United States and across the world. Rather, without a structure to support all the spiritual energy floating around the cosmos — and there remains much of it — it seems likely to swirl off into the ether, never fully channeled into the work of kingdom-making on earth to which God calls us.

For those of us in the generational in-between — no longer “young adults” in anyone’s imagination, but not much a part of the now-traditional structure and practices of the church — this is a particularly frustrating time. We want to open the doors to younger people, to turn over the liturgy, the music, and the priorities for service to them. But we also want to honor the gifts of our elders, to listen to their voices and value their wisdom as we work together to allow whatever might emerge to do so as the Spirit will have it do.

We’re stuck, many of us, between our kids and our parents. We understand, on the one hand, how alienating all the male god-talk of the church and the seemingly endless roiling about LGBT people is for almost anyone under 40. On the other hand, we grew up hearing our parents say “hallowED be THY name” when they prayed the Lord’s Prayer, so the stilted pronunciation offers a certain nostalgic comfort to us as well.

For those of us in lay or ordained leadership, the stress of trying to please everyone, or the difficulty of being honest about what we know really must change with people we truly love and admire, often sucks the spiritual life out of worship and church community for us. We continue because we feel that we must, but sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly why or to what end.

“I feel completely spiritually dry in church,” a woman in her late 40s said to me recently. “And yet I feel that this is the richest time spiritually in my life. My kids are on their own now, and I’m able to explore my own spirituality and serve based on where I feel most called in ways I never could before. I don’t want to do that on my own. I want companions, fellow travelers. But I’m just not finding that at church—in the choir, in the bible study group, on the grounds committee. That’s just not where I am spiritually. Am I really alone in this?”

I suspect she isn’t. I suspect that there are too many of us, lay and clergy alike, who want more from the experience of church. We want it to be consequential — to make demands of our lives, to work us over, to renew us as friends of God and servants of God’s people. And, we don’t so much want to be presiding over the death of American Christianity as participating in its renewal as well.

Many years ago, the poet Adrienne Rich, wrote about poetic “awakening” happening as a startling act of renewed imagination. For this renewal to happen, she wrote,

there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed — freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away. Moreover, if, the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment.

Those of us who are “stuck in the middle” don’t have to remain so. If you’re over 30 and under 60, your “in between” status gives you a unique perspective on what ails and what might help to renew the church.

Now is the time to share your experience, insight, and imagination.

What do you see as the alternatives to the very life we are living as a church right now?

What might we be able to grow between the rock and the hard place in which so many of us find ourselves in the church these days?

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