This week's thought is about the growing number of "nones" in American society. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News Survey, younger Americans don’t value patriotism, having children, or organized religion as much as young people two decades ago. These are the so-called “Nones” whose religious affiliation “none.” And since the early 1990s the number of them have tripled.
Below is an interview involving Derek Thompson, senior editor at “The Atlantic” about why this has happened, taken from NPR's - Here & Now: Americans – Disassociated from Religion. It really is very thought provoking and worth the read - especially if you know young adults who have left the church, or distanced themselves from all forms of organized religion (some sections condensed and clarified due to discussion format). Enjoy.
Host: You write that more than 9 out of 10 Americans belonged to an organized religion throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, but then came the 1990s. You spoke to a sociology and religion professor at Notre Dame. What did he tell you about what happened in the 1990s?
Derek: The rise of the religiously non-affiliated, otherwise called the “Nones,” is an incredibly modern phenomenon in the US… that took off in the early 1990s. So I asked him. What happened in the early 1990s? He said, “Historically speaking there's sort of 3 events we have to key in on.” The first, is the association between the Republican Party and the Christian right. That did not necessarily exist in the 1960s and earlier. It was instead, a reaction to a series of things that happened in the late 60s early 70s. The sexual revolution, the Roe versus Wade decision, the nationalization of no-fault divorce laws, and the Bob Jones University case where it lost their tax-exempt status over its ban on interracial dating. Because of all those things the Christian right sort of jumped into politics and merged with the Republican Party in a way that, I think, offended a lot of moderates and liberals, who then began to detach from both organized religion and Republicans. That's number one. Second, is the end of the Cold War. For the previous, say, 40 years, there had been an association between those who didn’t believe in God (the communists) and “the evil empire.” Once the Cold War was over, being godless wasn't necessarily considered as evil [as it had been]. And third, I think after 911, during the Bush years, a new association – not between godlessness and the evil empire, but rather, between religion and zealotry (at the national level with the USA, or at the international level with al Qaeda) fed into the rise of religious non-affiliation.
Host: This is so fascinating. I mean, take the end of the Cold War reasoning. You know people (as you remind us) could suddenly say: “Well I don't I don't belong to a church” and not be thought to be communists, which previously they might have been. And then after the al Qaeda attacks, there were people wanting to distance from organized religion, and there was also the scandal in the Catholic Church.
Host: So, who is doing this non-affiliation? Is it one specific demographic?
Derek: Yes. The group that is most pulling away from organized religion over the last 20 to 30 years are young white liberals. Young white liberals are the ones that are leading the rise in the “Nones.” You don't see a similar dramatic increase from the Blacks and Hispanics. It is being led by young white liberals who see that the Republican Party has become more and more entrenched with the evangelical movement. Distancing themselves is their way of saying: “I’m not a Republican.” By proxy, by rejecting the Republican Party, a lot of young whites (I think) feel like they have to reject organized religion as well. And so, what's ironic to me is that there was this thesis from the late 19th century that said that religion was going to lose its halo effect because of science. Science was going to drive God from the public square. But, in fact, in the last 30 years, there's been no grand scientific revolution to make people lose their faith in God. Science hasn't driven God from the public square, politics has! And it’s particularly driven religion from the public square for young white millennial's.
Host: Well, we should clarify that there are many young white millennial's who are very active in churches, or temples, or mosque. We know that.
Derek: Absolutely. But also there is another factor. Which is that when young people nowadays are delaying having their families, and having their own individual lives for longer, by the time they settle down they may not have time for activities on Sunday morning, or Saturday morning, because they have gyms to go to, and they’ve got this other kind of schedule that's interesting.
Host: Yeah. But then you also write about what may be one of the paradoxical downsides. I mean obviously very religious people might worry about this from a different perspective, but you know, it becomes harder to have a social life without an institution to attend.
Derek: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. I should add that Christian Smith listed a lot of non-political reasons why religious non-affiliation might be growing, including as you mention, maybe rising divorce, delayed adulthood, etc. You know, it seems to me that religion isn't just theism. It's not just a belief in God. It's a bundle. It's a community. It's a theory of how the world works. It's a way of finding individual peace. And I find that a lot of people who have rejected the organized religion bundle shop for individual pieces of that bundle à la carte. So, you know, maybe their work is a religion, or their politics is a religion, and spin class is a church, and not looking at your phone for a few hours is akin to a digital Sabbath. So, it's interesting to me that although so many millions of Americans have abandoned organized religion, they have only sought to recreate it everywhere they look. They've given up God to a certain extent, only to seek him out everywhere else.”
We could surely add other things -- like the Jimmy Swaggert and James Baker scandal in evangelicalism, the misuse of funds and gifts given to ministries, and many other things -- that may have soured people against organized religion. Yet, regardless of what led to it (and I do believe they are right in suggesting that the end of the cold war, a far too close an association with one political party, and religious zealotry involving violence are to blame) we are left with what we are to do about it? And the fact that people have come up with all sorts of religious substitutes for organized religion suggests that if we could learn from our mistakes as we move forward, some may be drawn back -- since it the desires for religious expression seems hidden in human nature, even when we try to repress it.
Living in the Grace of Jesus, Pastor Jeff