Here are some data on the “nones,” according to a 2013 report of the Pew Research Center.
· One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
· The third of adults under 30 who have no religious affiliation (32%) compares with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.
· Mainstream Protestants have declined the most. The Catholic share of the population has been roughly steady, in part because of immigration from Latin America.
· The vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans are not seeking a church or other religious group to join.
The reasons for these changes? Several leading scholars contend that young adults, in particular, have turned away from organized religion because they perceive it as deeply entangled with conservative politics. I know first-hand some who have left the church because they believe it’s too conservative, or because it’s too liberal.
Other theories include the notion that it’s related to the postponement of marriage and children by the under 30 group; or social disengagement, the “bowling alone” idea that young people are not “joiners;” still others believe secularization is the cause (though this could as easily be an effect); others say it’s related to unprecedented good health, relative prosperity, and the general lack of crises in most young people’s lives.
Undoubtedly, some “nones” are hostile toward or indifferent about organized religions because of religion’s hierarchies, dogma, and moral teachings, some of which clash with current societal values.
Many, however, profess an interest in “spirituality,” distinguishing between spirituality and religious practice.
This idea has become so well-known and established, according to Anthony Robinson, writing in the Christian Century magazine, that people who say they are spiritual but not religious have their own acronym, SBNRs.
“Publishers have identified the SBNRs as a key market,” writes Robinson, “and preachers flitter between testily putting them down and fawningly attempting to court them.
“So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear the eminent sociologist of religion Nancy Ammerman conclude in her new study of religion in everyday life that the SBNR is a unicorn - a species that does not exist in reality.
“For most people, Ammerman found, organized religion and spirituality are not two separate realms but one. Respondents who were "most active in organized religion," she reports, "were also most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world."
Further, writes Robinson, “…those who invoke the distinction between religion and spirituality ("I'm spiritual but not religious"),” turn out to be neither. For the most part, such language is what sociologists call boundary-maintaining discourse. It is a way that people who want nothing to do with religion have found to say to religious people or institutions, ‘Don't bug me.’”
Fact is, it’s difficult to be “spiritual” without being religious, without – consciously or not – tapping into the traditions of spirituality of the great religions; without sharing spiritual insights and benefiting from the insights of fellow spiritual searchers, current and past; without the practical ways to maintain and promote spirituality that religion provides.
Without religion, spirituality is a vague, inconsistent desire for something more without any means to fulfill it. It’s like an un-staked tent in the wind, or like trying to get into and stay in physical shape in today’s sedentary society without joining a gym. We need to “be spiritual” with others because that’s part of the meaning of spirituality.
Just what does it mean to be “spiritual?”
Many say it can’t be defined, or that it is useless to do so, because it doesn’t exist. Some scientists who study the brain, for instance, say it’s all there – that all that makes up what we formerly referred to as “the mind” is simply a function of the brain.
That seems to me to be a very narrow view of reality, excluding a dimension of life because it can’t be detected by science. To me, it’s obvious that humans have a spirit, something that can’t be seen or measured, something that makes us human.
The spiritual connects us to each other and, for many of us, to a transcendent being that we know from faith. All human beings are “spiritual” in that sense, and religion helps foster and promote our spiritual selves.
It’s the “churchiness,” the cultural baggage of many religions, that I believe accounts for the increase in the number of “nones.”