For the past two years, I’ve been deep in conversation and research about the phenomenon of “nones”–the rising number of religiously unaffiliated Americans. Although the word “none” appears in my forthcoming book’s title, it’s a term I and most of the people I interviewed for the book dislike. “None” implies negation and absence. And what’s been clear in the course of writing this book is that the rapid stream away from Christianity in particular is not indicative of a loss of interest in religion, or of a loss of faith in what people define for themselves as God. Rather, it’s more indicative of a move away from participating in institutional models of religion. In other words, as one of my interviewees put it, after a lifetime of pursuing ways of belonging in religions that weren’t always a good fit, “it feels nice to kind of lean into the uncertainty and indeterminacy of not really knowing” where he belongs.
But here we have to back up. If institutional models of religion were a good fit for many centuries, why has that changed for so many people, and particularly younger people? Let’s take my own urban Catholic parish as an example. While younger people do attend services (and let’s be frank; at 44 I am considered young at this parish), they are less likely to participate in the kinds of activities that would in the past have created community bonds. For example, arranging dinners for the homeless, singing in the choir, reading during Mass. Maybe those jobs were already taken when these young adults arrived. And maybe those younger adults are patching together multiple part-time gigs to make a living, and have little in the way of free time, and would like to spend at least some of that time with their peers. They go to church and notice their peers aren’t at the committee meetings for such and such an activity. They may also notice that there’s an emphasis on “we’ve always done it this way,” and that their input is not welcomed. So they feel uncomfortable and are unlikely to return. Or, because nobody else is taking on responsibility for things around the parish and the priests are overworked and distracted, they do manage to get involved, but then they’re constantly bombarded with more and more requests for time and money, to the point where they burn out. And then they also leave, because it’s not sustainable to stay. Maybe they still identify as Christian, and maybe they’ll attend church once in a while, but it’s not a core part of their identity.
Let’s look at a second, and perhaps increasingly more common scenario. A person is not practicing any one particular religion, but she does Buddhist meditation at a Zen center, thinks Jesus was a nice guy who did good things for the marginalized, and went to her niece’s bat mitzvah last weekend in a synagogue. Her friends’ upcoming wedding will feature readings from a Hindu poet and a period of Quaker-style silence. She donates money to Habitat for Humanity and more recently to earthquake victims in Nepal, volunteers at her kids’ school, and was involved in her town’s Occupy movement. She thinks she believes in a version of God, but her understanding of God changes daily, and for days on end she doesn’t think about God at all. Is this person a “none”? Not really. She’s just choosing a different kind of religious affiliation, one that reflects her individuality rather than a single, handed-down series of gestures and words.
One accusation lobbed at the religiously unaffiliated is that they want the “warm fuzzies” of spirituality without the accountability of a structured moral understanding of sin. But here’s the thing: no matter their religious background, the individual ultimately determines what they perceive as sinful. Setting aside the social and cultural pressures about when and where a person might attend worship, the individual decides how they will participate and what they believe. So the accountability being constructed by many of the people like our religious mix-and-matcher in the paragraph above is, these days, self-created. The accountability is not to institutions, but to the people in one’s immediate community. The sin is not defined from without, but from within.
But, the critical voices say, how does a person construct a community outside of religion? Well, she has to work at it, but it’s not impossible. In fact, in my own experience, and in those of many people I interviewed, it is harder to create community in a religion than it is to do so outside of religion. The trenchant resistance to change and evolution exhibited by religions, which feel like they’re being set upon by forces of secularization, means there is little room for dialogue with seekers and doubters, and more of an emphasis on “don’t try to change us, let us change you.” Why, those of us who are seekers might say, can’t this be about both?
The new Pew Survey should not be giving people who are creating their own religions and communities something to think about. They’ve already thought about the role religions should play in their lives. It should, however, be giving these Christian churches who are losing members something to think about. Why are so many people seeing what you model and turning away? What kind of church do you want to be? And are you truly creating a place of encounter, or standing with hands outthrust, asking for money just to keep the doors open and asking for butts just to fill your pews, only to be callous or indifferent toward those who walk through?
Kaya Oakes’ fourth book, The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between, is forthcoming from Orbis Books. She is also the author of a memoir, Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint Press, 2012), and a social-science based exploration of independent art and culture, Slanted and Enchanted (Henry Holt, 2009). She teaches creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, expository and research writing at the University of California, Berkeley.