Religious ‘nones’ - a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular’ - now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when 16% of Americans were ‘nones.’ (1)
A high percentage of younger members of the Millennial generation - those who have entered adulthood in just the last several years - are religious ‘nones’ (saying that they are atheists or agnostics or that their religion is ‘nothing in particular’). At the same time, an increasing share of older Millennials also identify as ‘nones’, with more members of that group rejecting religious labels in recent years.
Overall, 35% of adult Millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) are religiously unaffiliated. Far more Millenials say they have not religious affiliation compared with those who identify as evangelical Protestants (21%), Catholics (16%) or mainline Protestants (11%). (2)
For nearly four years I have worked as the Pastor of a local New England congregation in the mainline Protestant denomination of the United Church of Christ (UCC).
This one little congregation is a pretty robust case study in the shifting religious identification the Pew Report speaks of across generations and particularly among Millennials.
Born in 1981, I am among the youngest 4 adults in the congregation of 160 members, which gathers about 60 people on a Sunday (there are not many children present either, so save for a handful of teenagers, I am pretty close to one of the youngest people in the church).
I am leaving my role as Pastor and (at least for a while) my participation in a church to join with the approximately 35% of my age cohort in not identifying with one particular religious identity label or any at all.
Part of what’s prompting my leaving is the non-religiousness within the construct of religion.
Every religious institution is in large part a social organization. Over the life span of the institution and of the members of it, the primacy of it being a social gathering shifts. For my congregation at this old and elder New England Congregational UCC Church, the social element is central. They gather to be with people they have known for years, for ‘fellowship’, and passing the peace. Certainly there is a reverence and appreciation for the quietness of prayer or the challenge of a sermon to engage with a deeper spirituality. Overall, however, the stickiness of this church is in the familiarity of people with one another over time and the practices of their fellowship, things like a Strawberry Supper.
There is room for things like “Theology on Tap” where we talk about more personally about faith and god and change, which at this particular church is very well received. It is not, however, seen as the church.
The majority of this congregation is well into their 50s and up. Our eldest living and still coming to worship member is 94. There are an active group of 70 year-olds.
The church for this congregation is as it was and seems always will be: it is the building and who knows it and what has happened in it over time. I have tried to shift the understanding, but I find myself bumping up into questions like: well, if the church is beyond these walls how is it different than any other gathering of people? what is it that marks it as ‘church’? does it matter? what is ‘religious’ about it?
If I were neighbors with one of these folks back when we were raising kids together say, and had some some company and support and uplift in this church, I would get it. It is people who support one another - there is nothing wrong with that. God knows we need to support one another!
Except for me it felt like in college when you defaulted to being friends with the people who lived on your floor that first year. Nothing wrong with it, they are good people and you get along alright and have some good quality times together, but there is a whole college full of people who you may actually have more in common with on those deeper levels or just more of an energetic attraction to, than those who merely share dorm and the floor with you.
Mainline Protestant Christianity is what I knew, particularly in its New England expression. It isn’t particularly religious. It’s religion is in its community routines with a nod to something greater.
I am leaving the role of Pastor in part because I cannot steward the traditions either of the religious elements or of the community elements in good faith that they are what I choose to draw me nearer to a life of beauty, courage and friendship.
I was formed in a good old mainline New England Protestant church. It was a loving supportive community that made this teenager feel like I was God’s gift to them. We didn’t defend beliefs, we didn’t pin beliefs down, but we did use the language of Christianity as a framework for our gathering: in Jesus’ name…
I feel like I’ve shifted out of a default mode with regard to my religious affiliation and linguistic framework and moved into intentionality - which is an awfully lofty sounding word and I'm not actually sure we be fully intentional in what claims us religiously or spiritually.
In part because it is no longer a default - and really has never been for my peer group - to affiliate with a religious tradition and to go through the routines of a religious community, if you do affiliate the bar is raised, you have to answer the question of why.
Which brings me to another way of looking at this all, and to the title of the project.
We’ve got the the “Nones”, defined for us by the Pew Research Center, as people who ‘self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular’, and then there are the “Somes.”
There is SOME in the Nones and there is NONE in the Somes.
The Somes are my congregants. They are the ones who go to church pretty regularly and identify with the local congregation. Many of them also have a strong thread of none-ness in them. With their church community so closely being identified with their geographical and familial network, the none-ness is how they think/identify/speak spiritually.
I have done nearly 30 funerals in my time as a church pastor. The number of times the conversation with family evolves to be something along the lines of "o, she wasn’t particularly religious or spiritual" is nearly the same! Often, not always, the deceased are individuals who have come to church regularly for years and even served on boards and committees. And yet they - at least their loved ones - say they were not particularly religious or spiritual…but that they loved their church.
That’s what I’m talking about! These ins and outs and ambiguities of religious identification and non-identification, community affiliation and engagement and self-in relation to the world understandings.
That’s what The None & Some Project is all about.
(1) Pew Research Center http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/ (May 13, 2015)
(2) Pew Research Center http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/12/millennials-increasingly-are-driving-growth-of-nones/ (May 9, 2016)