Religion in America: 'Nones' On the Rise, But Why?

"Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell."

This quote from the NPR story “Losing Our Religion” sums up well the problem which religious institutions will face in the coming years. Churches will see fewer attendees and shrinking budgets as a result of the growing numbers of “Nones,” as those who identify as religiously unaffiliated have been labeled. Though the United States remains by some measures the most “faithful” country in world, droves of young people are deserting established communities of faith in favor of finding happiness and fulfillment elsewhere. If they want remain a force in American culture, faith institutions are going to have to find ways to combat this desertion and turn young people back toward faith.

The Pew report upon which the NPR story is based cites several theories which offer speculation about the reasons for the rise in the religiously unaffiliated: political backlash, delays in marriage, broad social disengagement, and secularization. The two broad factors underlying all of these theories are connection and its partner, community.

Historically, one of the reasons that people have traditionally drawn together into codified faith groups is to feel connected to the communities in which they lived, and to receive support from like-minded individuals and families. Being a part of a strong community, whether it is a physical community, a social community, or a faith community, is viewed by many as essential to building personal resilience in a harsh world. Support from others can be crucial if one is to survive the ups and downs of life. But with the explosion of mobile technology and social networking, the task of creating community and fostering connection no longer needs to be centralized in physical locations. Now, since the only thing that is required to achieve meaningful connection with a community of people with whom you share broad similarities is a few mouse clicks, a codified faith tradition with rules and boundaries may becoming viewed as superfluous in many quarters. Hence, the rising number of individuals who identify their religious affiliation as “None.”

An intriguing statistic in the data gathered by Pew is that the rise in Nones is primarily a White/Caucasian phenomenon. The trend has largely bypassed the Black and Hispanic populations. This too has something to do with the role and definition of community for the affected populations. Traditionally, minority populations view community in much stronger and more well defined terms than Whites. For example, collective work and mutual support defined black communities throughout the era of Jim Crow and on through desegregation. Mutual support and outward solidarity were a matter of survival for oppressed communities, hemmed in as they were by hostile laws and majority populations. While much of that tangible community engagement broke down in concert with the end of segregation, there still exists a general feeling among many Blacks and Hispanics that minorities exist as communities, part of though still separate from the mainstream of America. And in many communities of color, the church still plays a very central role in maintaining the cohesiveness of the culture and identity that distinguishes them from what many see as the invasive, immoral culture of mainstream America and the results of economic disinvestment of inner city neighborhoods.

Though the concept of community has been core to the identity of Blacks and Hispanics for some time, it has defined Whites no less strongly. The old television shows and the nostalgia they induce illustrate it best. The Andy Griffith Show, Father Knows Best, and other classic shows defined the family and by extension, the communities of which those families were a part as the basis of society. Dennis the Menace was able to pester his neighbor, Mr. Wilson, day and night because Dennis and his family were intimate acquaintances of Mr. Wilson. This was no look-alike home subdivision where you may or may not know the names of the people two doors down but you have 400 Facebook friends spread out all over the globe. People formed close-knit communities where they knew and supported each other in tangible ways. It is this vision of the white picket fence community that is conjured when many people think of the American dream.

If America’s faith traditions wish to continue their existence in any recognizable state, they will have to address the perception that they are irrelevant and divisive. They will have to combat the perception of the creeping secularization of America. They will have to reinsert themselves into everyday life and again become the cornerstones of the communities in which we live and work. In short, faith traditions will have to take a hand in re-establishing the connections that have been severed by our connected culture.