Hardly a week goes by when I don’t see a new think-piece on the rise of the so-called religious ‘Nones’, our neighbours who claim no affiliation to any religious tradition. Their numbers have been steadily rising in North America: According to a study by Pew released in 2013, religious Nones increased in Canada from 4% of the population in 1971 to 24% in 2011. Their numbers in the United States over the same period rose from 5% to 20%. Moreover, the trend seems to be increasing dramatically: The most recent American survey, released in 2017, found that 27% of Americans now considered themselves, not just ‘religiously unaffiliated’ but more specifically as ‘spiritual-but-not-religious.’ In the five years between American surveys, respondents who identified as ‘spiritual-and-religious’ declined by 11%. While both surveys found religiosity decreasing among all demographics, the change was most pronounced among the youngest generation, with 29% of respondents born in 1987 or later in both counties being religiously unaffiliated.
Needless to say, our society is in a period of significant change when it comes to faith and religiosity. This is not in question. What is in question is how Christians are going to respond. And I have to say that my own anecdotal experiences have not filled me with hope. Last Spring, I heard sermons three weeks in a row in which the preachers openly ridiculed people who identify as spiritual-but-not-religious, as though the very idea of it was a joke. And I heard a priest in a different part of the city talk about how the demographic of the parish’s neighborhood was “the most resistant demographic to being churched.” Not only did I cringe at this choice of language, which is equally entitled and institutionalist (as though getting people in the doors of the church is the point), but there was a definite hint of bitterness whenever they brought this up. Now, I don’t mean to disparage any of these clergy. They are all wonderful people with good hearts that are in the right place. But I can’t help but think that this approach to such a large — and growing — group of people in our culture is self-defeating.
Generally speaking, I find that Christians’ posture towards the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd is that there is something wrong with them, and that these people should be in the Church if only it weren’t for their arrogant refusal to accept the Church as their obvious home. As I see it, the hubris is on the Christians’ side, not the nones’. It’s a posture that is self-righteous, self-justifying, dismissive, and disrespectful, which are exactly the kinds of attitudes that push so many people away from organized religion in the first place. It’s nothing less than throwing salt on the very fields we’re being called to work.
This is important to me, not just because I care about the church, but also because these spiritual-but-not-religious folk are the people I work with, hang out with, and rub shoulders with every day. They are our brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, and neighbours. And, in my experience, they are people who have had profound experiences of the transcendent, or who have a deeply spiritual intuition about the interconnectedness of all things. They are people with a strongly moral vision of how society and the world can and should be, and actively engaged in work to bring about positive change. They simply don’t see these experiences, intuitions, and values reflected in the religious traditions to which they are exposed, or at least not more in any one of them more than the others. According to the research, these are people who feel they have outgrown the faith of their youth, people who have had crises of faith, and people who rail against the hypocrisies they see in communities of faith.
I really don’t see anything ridiculous or dismissable about any of this. In fact, it makes a lot of sense.
Of course, as a Christian, I do believe there are problems with the spiritual-but-not-religious paradigm. As with any different belief system we might have some legitimate critiques. And my point isn’t to champion this worldview. My point is just to say that we need to check our attitudes, to engage with our spiritual-but-not-religious neighbours with respect and curiosity, rather than disdain and ridicule. Because, as much as I recognize the limitations of spiritual-but-not-religious worldviews, there is much about them that is right.
I have a lot to say about all this, and so I will follow up this post with what I hope will be some positive lessons we Christians can learn from this growing group of our neighbours. I know this post has been more negative in tone than what I normally write. But I do feel this is an area where the Church — traditionalist and progressive alike — needs some genuine repentance and recognition of our sin in order to create better relationships in the future.