The Nones And the Nuncio

I keep reading about the Nones — the growing segment of American adults who, when asked to give their religious affiliation, check the box marked “None.” My news feed is full of links about the Nones from friends, pastors, atheists, and major news outlets. Everyone is talking about them, measuring them, surveying them, trying to predict their next move. I haven't heard this much talk about Nones since I watched Sister Act!  

Here’s the skinny, according to a May 2015 report by the Pew Research Center: 

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. Religious “nones” – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – now make up roughly twenty-three percent of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when sixteen percent of Americans were “nones.” (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from seventy-eight to seventy-one percent.)
”Nones” have made more gains through religious switching than any other group analyzed in the study.” Only about nine percent of U.S. adults say they were raised without a religious affiliation, and among this group, roughly half say that they now identify with a religion (most often Christianity). But nearly one-in-five Americans (eighteen percent) have moved in the other direction, saying that they were raised as Christians or members of another faith but that they now have no religious affiliation. That means more than four people have become “nones” for every person who has left the ranks of the unaffiliated.

So the Nones are on the rise. And, yet, so is interest in matters of faith. 

Two weeks ago, Pope Francis celebrated holy communion with 1 million people in Philadelphia, a city leading the way of Nonery where more than half of the residents are religiously unaffiliated. One recent Huffington Post article ranks Philadelphia as the nineteenth least religious city in America, even more secular than New York. The entire population of Philadelphia proper is only 1.5 million so, even adjusting for a huge influx of visitors to the city, a good chunk of the Pope’s crowd on September 27 must have been Nones. Let that sink in: religiously unaffiliated non-Catholics standing in “rib-crushing throngs” to hear a religious leader and celebrate a Christian sacrament. 

So what gives?  

Actually, I think there are a lot of lessons to learn from our current cultural moment. But the one that impressed me about the throngs of onlookers during the pope’s recent visit is this: American are much more interested in matters of faith than we think. Unaffiliated does not mean uninterested, nor even, necessarily, unbelieving. Almost 90 percent of Americans believe in some kind of God. Americans are interested in God, in spirituality, in wisdom, and even in faith. But they are rejecting traditional means of experiencing those things.  

Now, I can hear my traditionalist brethren now: the means of grace matters! Faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ is not the same as interest in new-age, feel-good spirituality. And I agree! I often quote Cyprian of Carthage: “He cannot have God as his father who will not have the church as his mother.”  

But I can also be patient with those who want the former without the latter. I realize that God can be a doorway to the church just as surely as the church can be a doorway to God.  

The Nones are on the rise, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Christian faith is in decline. In fact, a little loss of status may be just what the American church needs most. And if the crowds eager to hear the most recognizable Christian leader in the world are any indication, God is moving among the Nones. 

Ryan SandersComment