Growth of ‘nones’ re­quires new look at re­li­gion in the US

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY AN­DREW FIALA Spe­cial to The Bee

There are more non­re­li­gious peo­ple now than at any time in our his­tory. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent anal­y­sis by po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Ryan Burge, about 30% of Amer­i­cans are “nones” – those who say “none of the above” or “noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar” when asked about their re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion. There are more nones now than there are Catholics, Evan­gel­i­cals or any other sin­gle faith group. The nones are grow­ing fast, while other af­fil­i­a­tions are de­clin­ing.

At the same time, con­fi­dence in or­ga­nized re­li­gion is at an all-time low. Last week, the Gallup poll re­ported that only 36% of Amer­i­cans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of con­fi­dence in “the church or or­ga­nized re­li­gion.”

The de­cline of re­li­gion is con­nected to what I called cul­tural lib­er­al­ism in this space last week. Tra­di­tion­al­ists are not happy with this. But cul­tural lib­er­al­ism is grow­ing.

Cul­tural lib­er­als tend to be per­mis­sive when it comes to abor­tion, sex­u­al­ity and other hot-but­ton is­sues. They are tuned in to science and tech­nol­ogy. They care more about sports and pop cul­ture than about re­li­gion. Cul­tural lib­er­als are ex­per­i­men­tal and en­tre­pre­neur­ial. If they don’t like their church, they’ll change re­li­gions – or leave re­li­gion en­tirely.

Re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions, on the other hand, are bas­tions of tra­di­tion. They quote an­cient texts that have very lit­tle to do with mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties. They are slow to change. Some­times they are op­posed to change en­tirely.

For young peo­ple grow­ing up in a lib­eral cul­ture, re­li­gion is quaint and old-fash­ioned. The growth of non-re­li­gion is a youth move­ment. The Pew Cen­ter re­ports that across the globe, peo­ple un­der 40 at­tend church less fre­quently and are more likely to ad­mit that they are not re­li­gious. In the U.S., the younger you are the less likely you are to be­lieve in God or view re­li­gion as im­por­tant.

One neg­a­tive re­sult of this is re­li­gious il­lit­er­acy. Knowl­edge of re­li­gion helps us un­der­stand our own his­tory. Cities in Cal­i­for­nia are named after saints. But we are of­ten clue­less about this her­itage. Knowl­edge of re­li­gion helps us un­der­stand art, lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy.

But bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion about re­li­gion won’t nec­es­sar­ily slow the de­cline of be­lief. Athe­ists and ag­nos­tics are among those who know the most about re­li­gion. Of­ten the more you know, the less you be­lieve.

The rise of the nones is con­nected with pro­found so­cial changes. Re­li­gion is a pow­er­ful me­di­at­ing in­sti­tu­tion of civil so­ci­ety. Church was tra­di­tion­ally a place for peo­ple to gather in com­mu­nity out­side of busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal life. Church is a fo­cal point for char­i­ta­ble work. It is a place for mar­riages, fu­ner­als and other rit­ual cel­e­bra­tions. The nones will lose much of this.

Burge, the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, has ar­gued that the de­cline of re­li­gion is con­nected with a grow­ing dis­con­nect­ed­ness. He says, “Those who are ‘noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar’

aren’t just cut off from or­ga­nized re­li­gion. They have dis­con­nected from many of the foun­da­tional struc­tures that hold us to­gether as com­mu­ni­ties.”

Of course, that com­plaint only makes sense if you think that re­li­gion has a le­git­i­mate role in keep­ing life or­ga­nized. The nones re­ject that idea. They are find­ing other ways to get con­nected through so­cial me­dia. And they are cre­at­ing new com­mu­ni­ties through sports, gam­ing and pop cul­ture.

Then there is po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion. One-third of Repub­li­can vot­ers are Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians. And a quar­ter of Democrats are nones. Non­re­li­gious vot­ers over­whelm­ingly sup­ported Hil­lary Clin­ton over Don­ald Trump in the last elec­tion.

At one point in our his­tory, “cer­e­mo­nial deism” may have been enough to hold us to­gether. We say “one na­tion, un­der God” and “in God we trust.” Pub­lic events be­gin with in­vo­ca­tions and prayers. But this may no longer make sense when nearly one in three Amer­i­cans are not re­li­gious.

Given the growth of the nones, the First Amend­ment may be where we need to look to find com­mon ground. Re­li­gious lib­erty is some­thing we might agree upon. The idea of re­li­gious lib­erty is cen­tral to the Amer­i­can story. The Pu­ri­tans came here to es­cape re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion. There never has been an of­fi­cial Amer­i­can state re­li­gion. And we all seem to agree that we should be free to ex­er­cise our own be­liefs – in­clud­ing the free­dom not to be­lieve.

SW PARRA Fresno Bee file

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