Listening to the "Nones": an interview with Elizabeth Drescher

Elizabeth Drescher

I am very pleased to have had a chance to interview Dr. Elizabeth Drescher who has really important things to tell us about those who are religiously unaffiliated -- and about ourselves.

Dr. Drescher is a scholar, researcher, and writer. She is a faculty member in religious studies and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She is also a senior correspondent for the online magazine Religion Dispatches and a scholar-in-residence in the Diocese of El Camino Real. She holds a PhD in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union and an MA in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University. Her work particularly focuses on how people make meaning: "how everyday people use the resources available to them in different times and places to make sense of life, to understand its challenges, to move toward self-fulfillment and, for many, self-transcendence." Her next book is entitled Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Life of America's Nones, which explores practices of meaning-making, self-fulfillment, ethics, and self-transcendence among America’s fast-growing religious demographic, the religiously unaffiliated. It will be published by Oxford University Press in 2014. 

First can you tell us what is meant by ‘Nones’? How do you define that?

The term comes from sociology and demographic studies in sociology in particular as any sort of remainder group in a survey. It becomes more nuanced in the study of religion when people are asked, given a list of religious beliefs, “Which of these are you?” and you say “None.” In the study of religion, “None” is an ironically amusing homonym, of course, with “nun.” For the most part, sociologists of religion don’t have a lot of jokes, but they’ve got the nun/none thing. Technically, the term is “religiously unaffiliated.” These terms have actually been around for a long time, but “None” is an informal term. That’s what was used in more recently published data on the growth in that population, and the term kind of stuck. 

What’s the difference between being a ‘None’ and being ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’? 

Some Nones are Spiritual But Not Religious—they have beliefs and practices that nurture the spirit, but they are less comfortable with institutional religion. The terminology tends to be declining in popularity; it’s baby boomer terminology, and many religiously unaffiliated self-identify and self-label in other ways—although that word ‘label’ itself is problematic for many Nones. 

That’s the really important thing about the Nones designation. One of the people I interviewed for this project explained it this way: “I really don’t want to be labeled. I might be religious, I might be spiritual. I don’t want to be defined by terms of my identity.” 

Do they self-identify that way? 

What many of the religiously unaffiliated are saying is that, for too long, people have been defined as human beings on the basis of their religious belief or unbelief. The religiously unaffiliated often tell me, “When I say ‘none,’ I mean ‘none.’” Religious belief is not a marker of identity for them.

After October 2012, when the Pew Forum’s “Nones on the Rise” report came out, more people started self-identifying as “Nones.” Now “None” is a part of the popular culture.

I remember when you were trying to find real, live, actual Nones to talk to.  How did you find them? 

Several ways. One is that I did a survey in early 2012, a little more than a year ago. I wanted to understand spiritual practices, practices that were spiritually meaningful to the religiously unaffiliated. My hunch through the research I was reading was that one of the challenges we had with understanding the religiously unaffiliated is that traditionally what’s measured is the extent to which people believe in God, the extent to which they identify with particular religious tradition, read scripture, and pray. But that’s not telling us the whole story about how people make meaning.

In March 2012, I developed this survey hoping for 200 people to respond. I sent out emails to people and said, “If you know people, please share this survey.” I received 1,166 responses in a few days to test the survey from people all over the country who have a lot to say about their spiritual practices and spiritual background, how they came to be believers and unbelievers.

This year, I have been using the “Nones Beyond the Numbers” narrative online survey , which is kind of like an online journal with open-ended questions, to let Nones tell their story. Pew data indicates (and that data is reinforced by my survey) that a majority of Nones are urban, coastal, a little bit younger, a little bit more male. But Nones are growing in every demographic category in every area of the country. I talked to Nones in the Deep South, the Bible Belt, Hawaii, Kansas, Wyoming, Alaska. I’m really trying to capture a wide net and look beyond young urban dweller. For example, I talked to an 83 year old man in Kansas who recently kind of ‘came out’ as a “None.” 

Were they willing – or eager – to talk about their experiences? 

Absolutely. That said, the population I’m not talking to are the group that aren’t interested in talking about it. But the ones I did talk to often said, “You know, I’ve never taken the time to think through this.” 

I gather most Nones actually have a religious background – is that accurate? Do they have anything in common about their background? 

That’s true. 70 percent of people who identify as Nones come from a Christian background.

I recently saw a comment you made that “Catholics who become Nones are hurt. Evangelicals that become Nones are angry. Mainline Protestants who become Nones are just bored.” Can you say a little more about this?

In the people that I’ve talked with, there are themes that tend to appear denominationally. 

In the Roman Catholic tradition, it’s a bigger deal to give up the religious identity label than it is for Mainline Protestants. It’s almost an ethnic/cultural identification. In the Nones who grew up Roman Catholic, there’s a real theme of feeling hurt or wounded by the church, especially women, whose full identity may not have been honored in that tradition. Lesbian and Gay people have same feeling of being hurt or excluded from their tradition. Whether they were directly affected or not, many are of course deeply troubled by clergy abuse scandal and how the Vatican hierarchy have seemed to respond to that. What they often told me was that they left the Catholic Church not so much due to a theological shift, but because “something happened to me. My identity was not affirmed and that was painful.”

For Evangelicals, the theme that emerges consistently is anger. Many have felt that conservative evangelical teaching in regards to science, Darwinism, and the environment set them up to look foolish. They feel they were tricked. Some reason brings them to a place where they get more information and understanding about the world, and they feel like they were duped by the teachings in their traditions. They didn’t need to be, but they feel they were set up to look like idiots and it makes them really angry. 

For Mainline Protestants, we know that the data tells us that about 55 percent now of young people raised Episcopalian will leave the church as adults. Among Congregationalists, it’s closer to 65 percent. About 20 percent of those will become “Nones.” Evangelicals are right on their heels at 19%; and it goes down a little bit after that. 

For Mainline Protestants, the theme is neither hurt nor anger, but a sense of ennui. They got it. They get that they’re supposed to be good to people, share what they have, do good in the world. If I had a nickel for how they love, love, love their youth group, or what a great time they had on their mission trips, I’d be a very wealthy woman. 

What tends to happen with Mainline Protestants is that they are deeply affirmed in early formation and then they “graduate” from church. And we let them have that model. Our church schools are parallel to other kinds of schooling. One young woman told me, “I learned everything I needed to know there, I get it. I don’t need this in order to be a good person or in order to make sense of everyday life.” I hear this when I interview parents as well: “Our children will learn good values. Check. They’ve learned this, we can move on.” 

One thing about this comment is that it makes me suspect we in the church are setting ourselves up for failure and for losing people. What are we doing that drives young people away? And Building relations with religiously unaffiliatedwhat do you think we should be doing differently? 

Doing formation on the model of age segregated schooling – worst idea ever. Doing church school, youth group, confirmation class, separated from the rest of the church -- worst idea ever. 

The fact that we’re not doing intergenerational formation limits the durability of formation over time, across demographic sectors of the church. Adults are not responsible for forming one another in faith or for reinforcing the formation of young people who are not their own children. Parents are modeling that you let any formation practice go after church. 

What I’m finding is a deep spirituality when we understand why going to church is meaningful for people. Worship does have deep spiritual meaning for people, but for young people especially, we tend to keep them out of worship until they’re older. 

What surprised you as you talked to Nones? 

One big, big thing: when I originally planned the book, I was calling it “Choosing Our Religion: Spirituality of Religious Nones.” Researchers tend to distinguish those who are religiously unaffiliated, but might say that they have spiritual practices like prayer as opposed to non-religious Nones who identify as atheist/hard agnostic. I had planned to focus on the so-called “religious Nones.” I thought the other people were not really about meaning-making. But as I collected the data, the non-religious Nones asked me, “Why aren’t you writing about our spirituality?” So the book changed to “the Spirituality of America’s Nones” with the deeper question of how do people make meaning regardless of how they understand themselves in terms of religious belief. 

The other big surprise was the significance of practices of everyday life. I wrote in Religion Dispatches about how both religious affiliated and unaffiliated value as specifically spiritual enjoying what I’ve called “the 4Fs of contemporary spirituality”: Family, Friends, Food, and Fido. People feel most connected to whatever they understand as God, the divine, a Higher Power when they’re deeply engaged in the fabric of everyday life, spending time with family, with friends, preparing and sharing food, enjoying their pets. This was true of both Nones and the affiliated in my test survey. Likewise, in both categories, prayer was the only traditional spiritual practice that was seen as spiritually meaningful. It ranked fifth after the “4Fs.” 

What’s your advice to churches? If they could make one change to their communities to keep people engaged, what would you recommend? 

Focusing on nurturing relationships across categories in the community is really important, and finding ways of enriching prayer practice. 

The shame of it is we have these incredibly rich spiritual traditions that many people—Nones and the religiously affiliated alike—find deeply meaningful. That is, they do once they know about things like the Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline, Centering Prayer, chanting the Psalms, and so on are and how they can become meaningful, manageable parts of everyday life. These practices can also become more central in regular worship, which is something, for example, that has made the Crossings community in the Diocese of Massachusetts so vibrant. 

St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn is another example of a ministry that connects to the spiritual value people place on sharing and preparing food. They have a full Eucharistic feast each week to which every participant actively contributes. And, though the venue and elements of the liturgy are not conventional, the theology is deeply orthodox—generously, beautifully so. 

The challenge this all seems to me to raise for the church is How can we be open and creative with the riches of our tradition? How can we honor them more deeply and share them more robustly to enrich and extend our communities? I think that’s what we all have to be about. We have to be asking, “What if we did everything differently using everything we have in new, inventive ways?” 

What do you hope the church learns from the Nones?

The way we talk about Nones right now is like a shell game: do we focus on believing, belonging, or behaving in order to “capture” them? Nones don’t want to be “captured’; no one does. And I don’t hear them much talking about believing, belonging, and behaving. The Nones with whom I’ve talked are interested in being. They have an organic sense of being in the world that is in itself a site of spiritual depth. They want to live in that space without feeling that they have to make a declaration of belief or identity or anything like that. They do not want the assumption that once they make a commitment to something that that will never change. To stay in relationship with Nones—and that really needs to be the goal rather than keeping them or getting them back—we need a deeper understanding of spiritual pluralism and of the dynamics of personal and spiritual change over the course of a much longer lifetime. That means we have to think hard about how we can sustain relationships with people who are stopping in, not seeing them as potential members, but as whole human beings.

You can learn more about Dr. Drescher at her website.

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Comments

Nones - agnostic, atheist, alumni

if my own experience is at all typical ( as Dawkins would have us believe ) it is far less dangerous and consumes far less energy to declare "none" that joust with all the baggage of the label "atheist" in the U.S. until i bumped into Unitarian Universalism the only exposure to atheism was the more combative raging version which is not strictly speeking community building. it was far easier to identify myself as an active philanthropist in the service of my university alumni organization than take up all the loose ends of going from agnostic to atheist while avoiding all the stone throwing evangelists. you appear to be missing a whole class of people that wish to avoid the politics of religious affiliation.