I recently read Christel Manning’s book, “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children.” I highly recommend it for anyone interested in better understanding the nuance, diversity, and experiences of Nones when it comes to religious beliefs and practices.
The premise of this sociology work (academic, yet readable–especially if you skim through the sociology of religion methods sections) is straightforward:
“The fastest growing religion in America is—none! One fifth of Americans now list their religion as “none,” up from only 7 percent two decades ago. Among adults under 30, those poised to be the parents of the next generation, fully one third are religiously unaffiliated. Yet these “Nones,” especially parents, still face prejudice in a culture where religion is widely seen as good for your kids. What do Nones believe, and how do they negotiate tensions with those convinced that they ought to provide their children with a religious upbringing?”
Key Point #1: Nones are Diverse
As Sherry Weddell often notes, “never accept a label without a story.” This is always good advice, and as relevant for “Nones” as anyone else we interact with personally! Manning makes a key contribution to our understanding of Nones by offering a framework of “sub-labels” to show the diversity within the broad label of “None.” Her study revealed four general sub-currents (Table 2.1 “Parent Worldviews”) among parents who identify as None, namely:
|Unchurched Believer||Seeker Spirituality||Philosophical Secularist||Indifferent|
|Self-chosen label (if used)||Christian, Jew, etc. (generally reject a denomination label)||Pluralist label (e.g., Buddhist, Jew)||Humanist, freethinker, skeptic, atheist||None|
|Religious or spiritual?||Both||Spiritual but not religious||Neither||Neither|
|Beliefs||Personal god who listens and can intervene in human affairs||Energy or life force that influences nature and human life (reject personal theism)||Our lives are shaped by natural and/or material forces and by human decisions (not God or supernatural power)||Don’t know and don’t care|
|Practices||Prayer or attendance at services||Prayer, meditation, yoga, reading||Meditation, reading, and social justice work as expression of secular philosophy||None|
How common is each? Manning concludes that roughly half of American Nones fit into the “Unchurched Believer” sub-category. A third are “Spiritual Seekers” and a fifth are “Philosophical Secularists.” If you’re thinking, um, that’s already 100%–what about “Indifferents”? You’re right. As Manning notes, those who are truly Indifferent are more difficult to identify by survey because they are often “forced” to opt into another category or sub-category (p. 34).
For those in ministry, especially those interacting with Nones who are parents, Manning’s research on these sub-categories reminds us:
- never accept the label “None” as devoid of interest in religion/spirituality
- a significant proportion of Nones have “trust” feelers with religion, i.e. Unchurched Believers often attend services, think of God of active in human affairs, and are okay with identifying as “religious”–that’s a lot to work with!
- many Nones are familiar with religion/spirituality–let’s not “talk down” to them (or anyone else, for that matter!) or criticize them for showing interest in a way that’s different than a faithful believer
- different approaches are relevant for different Nones, i.e. an Indifferent person would need to have interest piqued, whereas a Spiritual Seeker would be drawn to many Christian practices, etc. –> when children’s ministries can offer different ways to potentially connect, this casts a wider net for diverse “None” parents
- children in our ministries (especially in the teen years) may take on characteristics of these various None sub-categories –> being aware and on the lookout from this can help these students avoid feeling alienated
Stay tuned in the coming days for more key points and applications from this study! And, feel free to offer your own insights, observations, and applications in the Comment box.