none of the above

The Power of None

Empty seats, LU HUANFENG / Shutterstock.com

Empty seats, LU HUANFENG / Shutterstock.com

A couple years ago, a survey found that one in five Americans don’t identify with any religion. For Americans under 30, the number was far higher – more like one third. This report is being cited constantly throughout the religious-nonprofit world. In many quarters, there seems to be a deep sense of shock at the decline in religious membership.

Me? I’m not surprised at all. What does surprise me is our failure to see that affiliation with a traditional, God-centered religion is no longer the primary way that many Americans express their deeply rooted need for faith. We humans are relentlessly religious animals, and post-modern America is no exception. We’re just embracing a different kind of faith.

‘Gravity’ and the Unanswered Questions of Unbelief

Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in  'Gravity.' Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in 'Gravity.' Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviews of the new hit movie Gravity note that it’s an unusually fine science fiction film. What they don’t mention is that the main character represents an increasingly common theme in American religion: The spiritual “none of the above.”

Yes, the special effects are splendid. And I’ll take the word of astronauts who say the visuals capture amazingly well what it’s like to work in the microgravity of near-Earth orbit.

But there are moments where spiritual and philosophical themes take center stage.

(Spoiler alert: I’ll give no more away than I’ve seen in most reviews, but if you really want to know nothing about the movie, see it first.)

Meet the Nones: Jewish Americans Increasingly Disaffiliating

Courtesy Pew Research Center

Courtesy Pew Research Center

The top religion story of 2012 was the “rise of the ‘Nones’” — the one in five adults in the U.S. eschewing any religious label. That trend is now evidenced across the American religious spectrum, including in Jewish communities. About 22 percent of Jews now describe themselves as having no religion, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews.

“Fully a fifth today of Jews in the United States are people who say they have no religion. They’re atheists, agnostics, or, the largest single subgroup, nothing in particular,” said Alan Cooperman, co-author of the study.

The trend of disaffiliation mimics that of other backgrounds, particularly by age. For example, 93 percent of Greatest Generation Jews (those born between 1914 and 1947) identified as being Jewish by religion, while only 68 percent of Millennial Jews (those born after 1980) say the same.

Who’s a Jew? Few American Jews Say It’s a Matter of Belief

American flag and Jewish David star, Photon75 / Shutterstock.com

American flag and Jewish David star, Photon75 / Shutterstock.com

WASHINGTON — In the most comprehensive study of American Jews in 12 years, a strong majority said being Jewish is mostly about ancestry or culture, not the religious practice of Judaism.

A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center, shows strong secularist trends most clearly seen in one finding: 62 percent of U.S. Jews said Jewishness is largely about culture or ancestry; just 15 percent said it’s about religious belief.

“Non-Jews may be stunned by it,” said Alan Cooperman, co-author of the study. “Being Jewish to most Jews in America today is not a matter of religion.”

The American Church: Searching for a New Imprint

Christian imprint illustration, SoulCurry / Shutterstock.com

Christian imprint illustration, SoulCurry / Shutterstock.com

Out of nowhere, I felt an urge to listen to Willie Nelson’s epic album Stardust, a collection of pop standards that went platinum when it was released in 1978.

As I listened to “Blue Skies” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” I remembered buying this album for my father. I thought he would enjoy a fresh take on these songs of his youth, his travails during the Great Depression, and the war that defined his generation.

I don’t think he ever listened to it a second time. He loved the songs, but he couldn’t bear the fresh take. He wanted Gertrude Lawrence, the original voices of Tin Pan Alley and Depression-era hopefulness, the crooners that carried his generation to war and back home again.

I understand. The music we hear at our first dreaming, first love, first dance becomes the soundtrack of our lives.

For many people, the same is true of faith. Our images of God, songs of worship and language of prayer tend to be those we acquired at first awareness. Many more images, songs and words will come later, but none might resonate so deeply as those that were imprinted on us early on.

Steve Jobs: Prophet of a New Religion

Steve Jobs The Economist cover, via Bill So / Flickr.com

Steve Jobs The Economist cover, via Bill So / Flickr.com

The new movie about Steve Jobs is short on anything explicitly religious. Like its main character, however, it’s got a thread of transcendence running through it.

The truth about Jobs and religion may be that, in this arena as in others, he was ahead of the cutting edge.

The film isn’t making the purists happy, in part because it takes too many liberties with history. But it’s not a documentary. I’ll go against many of the reviews and say that Ashton Kutcher does a pretty good job at representing the personality found in Jobs’ speeches and in what has been written about Jobs — particularly in the massive authorized biography by Walter Isaacson.

One quote in that book, from one of Jobs’ old girlfriends, pretty much captures the character in the film: “He was an enlightened being who was cruel,” she told Isaacson. “That’s a strange combination.”

A Year After Losing Faith, Atheist Pastor Finds a New Calling

This Easter, Teresa MacBain will mark an anniversary that’s uncommon for an ordained  minister — her first year as an atheist.

Last March, MacBain, now 45, stood at a podium before hundreds of people in a Maryland hotel ballroom at the national convention of American Atheists and told them that, after a lifetime as a Christian and 15 years as a pulpit pastor, she had lost her faith.

Her coming out was national news, and she expected it would cost her her position as pastor of a United Methodist church, and she expected she might lose some friends and family members. In the last year, she has lost all those things.

But there have been gains, too, including a new career, the embrace of a new community that she had been taught to distrust and a newfound sense of confidence.

Meet the Nones: Spiritual But Not Religious

Editor's Note: Sojourners has launched this new blog series to help shed light on the nation's latest "religious" affiliation. Go HERE to read their stories. Or EMAIL US to share your own.

PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has wrapped up its three-part new mini-series on the rise of the unaffiliated. Go HERE to read more about this week's episode.

Watch None of the Above: Religious Implications on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Politics, Debates, and the Nones

Debate image, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

Debate image, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

Monday night, I hit a new low. During the last presidential debate, I found myself arguing via Facebook about faith and politics … with a fellow pastor’s wife. Let’s just say, I managed to break each of Eugene Cho’s 10 commandments with my snark.

She who shall not be named suggested that anyone willing to support a certain candidate must be blind, stupid, or foolish. When I made it clear that I have prayed and reviewed the facts and would be supporting said candidate, I was told that my “prayers must not be backed by the Word of God.” I was then lambasted for my so-called "unbiblical" views. Oh, no she didn’t! 

Aside from feeling personally attacked, I was more frustrated that this kind of bad theology remains in the church. It’s no wonder that more and more people of faith are identifying as the “nones”— or none of the above when it comes to religious beliefs. Who wants to be associated with Christianity — Protestant, Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, etc. — and the Church when they are often dominated by such judgmental people who dare to speak for God? 

Occupy St. Paul’s: Thanks Be to God

Jim Wallis visits the Occupy London at St. Paul's Cathedral, 11/22/11.

Jim Wallis visits the Occupy London at St. Paul's Cathedral, 11/22/11. (Photo courtesy of Ed Thornton/The Church Times)

LONDON — It looks like the stage of a West End theater. The tents are gathered around and almost up against the steps of the historic St. Paul’s Cathedral. Each night, a General Assembly is held on those steps, and the sermons on inequality have a biblical ring to them.

This is Occupy London and the Occupiers were having their discussions with each other and visitors in the protective shadow of the Dome of St. Paul’s — as they should be. What a picture of the Incarnation, I thought, marveling at the scene.

What makes Christian faith most unique among all the religions of the world is, indeed, the incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God hits the streets — that’s what Incarnation means.

So here is the church in the midst of the international conversation that is changing the world — right where we should be.

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