The phenomenon of religious "nones" has been around for several years now. These are the people -- now estimated to make up about 25 percent of adult Americans -- who, when asked to check a box listing their religious affiliation, chose "none of the above," meaning they're religious unaffiliated.
That doesn't mean they have no religious beliefs and practices or that they don't think of themselves as in some way spiritual. It just means they have nothing to do with institutional religion, though many of them once did.
Sociologists, theologians and worse have been trying to figure out why some people turn into nones and why others remain attached to religious institutions and traditions of some sort.
The latest such effort comes from the Pew Research Center, which conducted a survey of the nones. Well, not all millions of them but at least 1,300 of them to ask them what factors have led them to declare allegiance to none-ism, a term I just made up.
I wish I could say their answers are profoundly enlightening. They're not. Instead, they're kind of obvious, though they also show, once again, the limits of polling.
The Pew folks divided the respondents into "atheist," "agnostic" and "nothing in particular." They asked all of them the reasons they are unaffiliated. If you were an atheist, wouldn't your first answer be you're unaffiliated because you don't believe in God?
But only 89 percent of atheists picked that. Now, I guess that really doesn't mean that 11 percent of atheists are just kidding about not believing in God. Rather, it means that they have other reasons for being unaffiliated.
Another large category was made up of people who say they question a lot of religious teachings. But this tells us almost nothing. People of faith also question religious teachings. In fact, I argue in my latest book, The Value of Doubt, that one of the best and surest ways to get to a dependable religious faith is to be part of a community that allows you to express your doubts and ask the hard questions of faith.
But beyond that, it's my experience that the pews of churches and synagogues are crowded with people who in many ways are biblically and theologically illiterate. Which is to say that many of them don't understand religious teachings and practices and are not in a good position to dismiss those teachings. And if that's true of people in the pews, imagine how true it might be for people who rarely step inside a house of worship.
It would be fascinating to know which religious teachings the nones reject and what they really understand about them.
At any rate, I'm glad someone continues to try to figure out the reasons behind the "nones" phenomenon. But if faith communities really want to understand all this and engage the people who consider themselves nones, they're going to have to do it on an almost one-on-one basis. And a lot of religious leaders will ask who has time for that when there's so much to attend to with the people who actually are affiliated with their tradition.
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WHAT'S THE LESSON PLAN HERE?
In a case of bad timing, a global church leadership summit started on Thursday at a Chicago-area church where the lead pastor has quit amid sexual misconduct allegations and other pastors and the entire board of elders just resigned. I don't know if you've been following this saga at Willow Creek Church in South Barrington, Ill., but it's a hot mess. And this annual summit is designed to teach others how to create similar megachurches. It's this kind of scandal that gives people outside the church lots of good excuses never to come inside the church.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column (it's 9/11-related) now is online here.