The Nuance of the 'Nones' | Sojourners

The Nuance of the 'Nones'

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In my day-to-day life, I have to pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in religion news. In the past few weeks, the major talk has been “the rise of the nones,” a talking point drawn out of the recent Pew Research Survey detailing shifts in American religious affiliation.

The rising number of people choosing “nothing in particular,“ a subset of the "unaffiliated” label, has raised hackles across the theo-political spectrum, from some fundamentalist evangelicals decrying the de-Christianizing of the nation to more mainline Protestant handwringing over the loss of current and future members from already-struggling denominations.

The problem with this range of views (as far as I’ve read) is that, while certainly broad, it’s pretty shallow. There’s nuance to the “nones.” I can say this with confidence as someone who has drifted across the borders of that category once or twice or every other day. While there are certainly those in the group who don’t care about religion, there are also those with complicated feelings. These are people who still see their lives, maybe all life around them, as uniquely religious. Many have even done the work to interpret such complicated feelings, which is no small task.

The “spiritual but not religious” crowd tends to be cited here, though it’s often referenced with an air of disdain or ignorance. Sure, there are problematic views that can come with the label, but there are also some legitimate expressions from thoughtful people who are keenly aware of divinity as deeply woven into life, even though they have no interest in an organized structure focused on it. I can’t say I’m in agreement with them, but they can make good points. And they might be “nones.”

On the not-quite-flip-side, you’ve got the “religious but not spiritual,” a growing group who are keenly aware of the importance of religious community, of liturgical expression, of the collective search for mystery. Yet they do not experience the spiritual elements of the faith community as personally transformative, at least not in the traditional ways that other adherents within the community might. I’ve rested in this group for long stretches of my life. Maybe I’m there today. I’ll let you know.

Then there are true “nones,” people who have no sense of their being as spiritual and who have no interest in the communities who do. But even in this group there is nuance. Plenty of folks I know fall here, yet even they have complicated relationships with religion, whether as something that drives their academic lives, something that used to drive their personal lives, something that influences how they still seek to live in their secular community, etc.

This rise of the nones probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. Or rather, it doesn’t mean only what you think it means. Don’t forget the nuance. And please, if you’re part of a faith community that’s already trying to figure out how to reclaim this group from secularism, take the nuance into account before you begin your conversion efforts. The nones will be grateful.

Mark Lockard is an editor at Ministry Matters. He has a Master of Theological Studies degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School, writes, and draws for the religion and culture blog, and lives in Nashville.

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