I’ve heard a lot about “the nones” lately. No, don’t conjure up images of cantankerous ladies in penguin-like habits enforcing Catholic-school order. These “nones” are the new “spiritual but not religious.”
The Pew Center, a major force in the socio-cultural research world, issued a report last fall that found one in three young adults in the U.S. chooses “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation or identity. We humans love ourselves a meme, so of course, the “nones” became a new category of person that hadn’t exactly been labeled as such before.
So what’s the big deal? Who cares if they’re a “none?” For me, it smacks of a dying modernist mindset that simply doesn’t fit anymore. That, and it also imparts a negative connotation on them, as if they lack something everyone else has.
Maybe, but not necessarily.
In politics, someone can officially identify as “independent,” and they are considered to be a cut-above the fray. We think highly of those independent thinkers. So why is it that, when it comes to religion, you can’t be independent, but instead you have to be a “none?”
The United States was built on principles of religious and political liberty, which meant both freedom of choice, as well as freedom from being a part of the system all together. It seems that, while political independence is seen as at least a virtue – or at least as socially benign – there’s still negative baggage attached to those who seek freedom from religion, and not just freedom of religion.
Calling religious independents “nones” suggests, like I said above, an absence. But increasingly, there are intentional communities that provide much of what religion has historically offered, but that would not formally be defined as “religious.” For example, what do we call someone who gathers regularly with friends to discuss a book they’re reading (maybe even the Bible), and who also donates to charity and gets involved in causes that matter to them? What if they seek wisdom and guidance through regular prayer or meditation and yet don’t darken the doors of a church? What if they meet in a friend’s home once a week, led by an unpaid but intentionally trained facilitator that walks them through Scripture?
Or what if they do what they can to live their lives more like Jesus, but they’re not particularly concerned about bearing a religious identity?
This isn’t to say there’s not a benefit in being a part of a religious group, but truth be told, there are plenty of RINOS (“Religious in Name Only”) folks among those surveyed who did claim a religion. By doing so, do they really have anything the independents lack? What if being freed from the institutional trappings of the church was what some independents needed in order to truly find a meaningful connection with God and/or one another?
Of course there are plenty of folks who simply don’t put that much thought or effort into it. Their response to a survey like the Pew study is more of a knee-jerk response, and it may be the first time they’ve put any thought into their religious identity or affiliation in a long, long time. But that isn’t necessarily limited to the “nones.” In fact, there’s a tendency within modern Christianity to think much less about one’s faith after being baptized, making a statement of faith or even signing a church ledger, especially if the whole process is for that person little more than a holy fire insurance policy.
So what does the fact that one in three young adults are now “nones” tell us? To me, all it really lets us know is that people care less and less about labels. And yet we go about labeling them, often with monikers like “nones” that are loaded with negative implications. But we get no closer to really knowing the hearts, minds and spirits of the folks in question, whether they claim a religion or not.
If we have to call them anything, “Independents” seems more fitting. But this still tells us little or nothing about ourselves, except that we love labels. But as one who spent a decade of my young adult life among these folks being called “nones,” it smacks of the same old guard, framing the conversation based on their personal values and experience, which is largely why I became a “none” to begin with.
Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions about the Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a new memoir on faith, family and parenting called “PregMANcy: A Dad, a Little Dude, and a Due Date.”