October 15, 2012

The Rise of the "Nones"

Why are so many Americans religiously unaffiliated?Alex Caring-Lobel

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is on the rise. These unaffiliated, or "nones," currently number at 46 million—about one in five Americans. The rate of unaffiliated among adults under 30 numbers significantly higher at about one in three Americans.

Facing the seemingly imminent loss of the next generation, leaders of religious institutions have been left to grapple with the quickly tranforming landscape of religious life in this country. Religious News Services has asked a diverse range of religious leaders, as well as Tricycle's features editor Andrew Cooper, why so many Americans are walking away from organized religion. Andrew Cooper responded as follows:

I think the most significant factor in this is the acceleration of the American ethos of individualism. As in other spheres of life, when it comes to religion, there are benefits and drawbacks to this tendency. The valuing of critical intelligence, the rejection of sectarian dogma, openness to diverse viewpoints, the ability to adapt religious practices to modern life, the affirmation of life’s spiritual dimension—these are all positive things that are related to individualism. But if unchecked, the drawbacks of individualism can be serious: social isolation, narcissism in the name of spirituality, the weakening of the bonds to community and tradition that have always provided a context for spiritual experience, the collapse of coherent social life, the promotion of the good of the individual as the primary motivating value and reality. These tendencies don’t just weaken organized religion; they undermine our capacity live meaningful lives. For all their disagreements, all religions seem to recognize that we don’t just stand apart from others; we also stand as a part of others.

(Read the full article here, which includes a response from Bill Aiken of Soka Gokkai International.)

What causes and social factors do you think might underly the decline of institutional religious life in America? We've already witnessed a trend of general decay among our public institutions. Is the decline in affiliation with our religious institutions merely part of this larger decay, or might it herald a more thoroughly integrated, open-ended restructuring of religious and spiritual practice within public life?


Image: Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr

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gjfarrow@gmail.com's picture

We are seeing the downside of individualism environmentally, socially and economically. People's positive spirit of individualism has been crushed by the dark age we are living in. Like many different types of institutions, Americans are rejecting the Protestant church they grew up with. As a Shambhalain Buddhist, I enjoy the vitality of the experience which has a 2500 year heritage but in other ways is only 50 years old which coincides with its establishment here in the US. It's helpful to have a wisdom tradition passed down orally as well as by text.In the Northeast, Protestantism nowadays is a soul sucking corporate enterprise.
I am not sure that this is true in the South. Although they could be more different in many ways, the experiential religions such as Buddhism and Pentecostalism seem to be growing. Best Regards, Gary

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

@Richard Fidler and @Dominic Gomez, these statistics about the unaffiliated from Pew Forum confirm some of your statements:

Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor. (http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx)

Thank you for your comments.

southhoustonsangha's picture

I agree with Richard Fidler but perhaps for different reasons. Many of those esteemed survey respondents, including Andrew Cooper, were quick to blame individualism, which in my view is nothing more than a re-statement of an "us vs. them" mentality and a reference to the fact that the problem is "out there", originating with "other people", in this case, people of an overly-individualistic bent (I find this to be a curious mis-step for a commentator who declares a Buddhist affiliation). We got tired of hearing that we're all sinners a long, long time ago. Now we "Nones" are being roundly accused of the sin of individualism on top of the original laundry list of stuff that made us sinners?? Gimme a break!! Who in their right mind would volunteer to be affiliated with the likes of any group that has the shallow audacity to make such declarations??

Any religiously-defined group must meet multiple needs while at the same time providing multiple opportunities for meaningful participation. This is where many routes to religious affiliation simply fall flat. Unaffiliated people put out a feeler to different churches and it's an immediate feeding frenzy: how can we convince (brainwash?) that person to sign our membership book instead of some other church's book? How much money can that person be counted on to donate? This is all very meaningless and very much grounded in a lack of faith in basic humanity. What's needed instead is genuine opportunity for give and take. I see that here and there in little Sanghas and other groups, but I can't see it quite as clearly in our society's large lumbering institutional forms of religious association.

Richard Fidler's picture

I am not satisfied with Andrew Cooper's response to the question, "Why are Americans turning away from conventional religion?" He believes it has to do with an emphasis--an overemphasis?--on individualism. Within my experience, limited though it is, many of friends have rejected religion but devote themselves to improving community and the environment. At the same time, I see many believers--Christians, especially--who seem devoted to gathering personal wealth at the expense of others. I do not think individualism is the answer to the question.

Why are Americans turning away from religion? I think it is because religion does not offer the answers to the questions they are most interested in: How can I live my life productively without damaging the precious world we live in? How can I speak to the social injustice I see around me? How can I live my own life free of the restrictions religion has frequently imposed on sexuality? That summarizes my view.

Dominic Gomez's picture

George O. Wood of the Assemblies of God makes a good point: "Being religiously unaffiliated is not the same thing as being unreligious or antireligious." Forty-six million respondents to a survey cannot all be brain dead.