A PEW survey released at the end of August explored the phenomenon of the growing number of adults who do not identify with a religious group — usually self-identified as “nones.” They are a diverse group, including militant atheists, freelance spiritualists, one-time Catholics, non-observant Jews, secular Muslims and others. This trend has attracted the attention of both religious leaders and social scientists.
In the U.S., the nones grew from 8.2 per cent in 1990 to 15 per cent in 2008. In Canadian surveys, the number of nones grew from 10 per cent in 1985 to around 25 per cent of adults (and 32 per cent of teens) today.
The PEW survey was part of a broader Religious Landscape Study in America. The vast majority of these religious nones (78 per cent) say they were raised as a member of a particular religion but they have shed their religious identity in adulthood.
Many reasons are given by the nones for why they no longer identify with a religious group. Among the varied responses, a few common themes emerged.
About half of the nones who were raised in a religion said a lack of belief led them to move away from religion. Some explanations were: too many Christians doing un-Christian things, rational thought makes religion go out the window, learning about evolution when I went away to college, and “I'm a scientist now, and I don't believe in miracles.”
One in five nones are opposed to organized religion in general. This group includes people who do not like the hierarchical structure of religious groups, people who think religion is too much like a business and others who mention clergy sexual abuse scandals. Another response was: “I think that more harm has been done in the name of religion than any other area.”
Another one in five say they are religiously unsure. This includes people who say they are “spiritual” if not religious, who believe in God but in their own way and who say they are “seeking enlightenment” or are “open-minded.” For some, religion is personal, e.g., “I believe in a higher power, but I don't need a church to do that.”
One in 10 religious nones are now “inactive” religiously. They do not take part in religious practices and some say they are too busy for religion.
While participation in religion has been on the decline across the West since the 1970s, this is not necessarily a sign of cultural collapse. “Evidence is beginning to build outside of Canada that the unaffiliated are not as unreligious as many often assume,” Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, a Canadian studying at Oxford University, told a 2014 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. “This is an important development not only for the study of religion, but also for other social phenomena which religiosity is known to impact, such as physical and mental health, choice of educational track, volunteering, family formation and vote choice.”
But for pastors planning pastoral programs at any time of the year, it is important to know why people are at the peripheries rather than in the pews. These surveys can help guide their approach.