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/.

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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.


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?