6 min read
There is a feeling of unrest in the air.
. . . even among those without a specific religious affiliation, the majority still describe themselves either as a religious person (18%) or as spiritual but not religious (37%).
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
The number of people in the U.S. who do not affiliate with any particular religion is on the rise.
Often referred to as the “nones,” these individuals include those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or not adhering to any specific religious/spiritual ideology.
As of 2012—the most recent accounting by the Pew Research Center—nones made up roughly 20% of America, up from 5 and 25 years prior when these individuals represented only 15% and 7% of the population, respectively. Similar declines in religious affiliation and church attendance have also been observed in Canada, the U.K., and other parts of Europe.
However, these numbers alone paint a rather incomplete picture. Though sometimes cited as evidence of Western society’s steady movement away from organized religion and gravitation toward modern, secular values, such a straightforward storyline doesn’t entirely fit the data.
Other data suggest a more complex and nuanced pattern in America that may be best described as a shift toward greater spiritual exploration and unrest. This alternate storyline is expressed in 6 findings:
1. Religion is not completely absent from the lives of nones, as their label would suggest.
Taking a closer look at the actual beliefs of people without a specific religious affiliation paints a far more nuanced and complex picture of how people feel about spirituality and religion.
For example, even among those without a specific religious affiliation, the majority still describe themselves either as a religious person (18%) or as spiritual but not religious (37%).
Likewise, although religious nones rarely attend church services themselves, most of them see value in organized religion. More than three-quarters (78%) say that religious organizations bring people together and strengthen community bonds. A similar number (77%) also believe that organized religion plays an important role in helping the poor and needy.
2. More Americans are also switching religions.
In their 2012 survey, Pew found that more than one-third of Americans (34%) have a religious identity different from the one in which they were raised—a 6% increase from 2007.
This increase in religion-switching, at least at a broad level, suggests an increased willingness in the U.S. to break with tradition, struggle with hard questions, and consider alternate religious beliefs and practices.
3. The mixing of different religious beliefs and practices is becoming more commonplace too.
The latest data suggest that more than one-third of Americans regularly (9%) or occasionally (26%) attend religious services at two or more places. And the majority of these individuals attend services somewhere that practices a faith different from their own.
A number of Eastern and New Age beliefs and practices have also seeped into American culture, both in Christian and non-Christian circles. For example, 24% of the American public and 22% of Christians believe in reincarnation. A similar number of Americans (23%) and Christians (18% of Protestants and 27% of Catholics) also believe in yoga as a spiritual practice.
Some of this religious mixing occurs naturally as American society grows more diverse and inter-faith marriages become more commonplace. However, other patterns appear to be at work as well.
It seems that a sizable number of Americans are choosing on their own to adopt elements of multiple religious beliefs and practices to construct a faith of their own that fits with their personal worldviews and life experiences.
4. Shifts can also be seen in attitudes toward other societal institutions that we count on for answers to big questions.
For instance, in a 2014 survey conducted by Pew, Americans were found to be somewhat less upbeat and more skeptical of science than they were 5 years before.
Compared to 2009 responses, 4% fewer people in 2014 (83% to 79%) said that science has made life easier for people. And 5% more (10% to 15%) believed that science has made life more difficult.
This finding in particular contradicts the notion that declines in religious affiliation and church attendance somehow represent a broad movement toward more modern sources of knowledge.
Science is yet another major societal institution, like religion, which aims to instruct us on how to live a better life and provide answers to significant questions of global concern.
A cooling of attitudes toward science seems to fit with a larger pattern of less reliance on societal institutions for ready-made answers and growing embrace of more personal pursuits of knowledge and meaning.
5. Religious institutions are responding and adapting to the shifting priorities of the American public.
In a 2015 study of television advertising by national religious denominations, trends were observed in the way that religions are being marketed and portrayed in the U.S.
Current ads employed more generic images (vs. religious symbols) and focused on religion’s ability to meet psychological and social needs more so than other benefits, like offering a path to eternal salvation, which have traditionally been emphasized.
And these television ads seem to reflect real changes that are occurring in religious congregations. According to a recent survey of Americans who regularly attend religious services, congregations are becoming more informal in their worship styles compared to years prior.
Though perhaps alarming to some, this new packaging and messaging suggest that religious communities are becoming more responsive to members’ needs and increasingly willing to accommodate the American public’s shifting priorities and interests.
6. Compared to prior decades, people are more likely now to have religious and spiritual experiences.
Defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening,” nearly half of Americans (49%) in 2009 reported having such an experience.
That figure has increased dramatically since 1962 when Gallup found that only 22% of Americans had experienced a moment of sudden religious insight and awakening.
Presumably, there must be something that we’re doing different as a culture that’s promoting more frequent experiences of this kind.
Perhaps the religious mixing, experimentation, and loosening of labels that has occurred in the U.S. has paved the way for a more personal kind of faith that allows for a more direct sense of connection to a higher power and easier access to spiritual and religious experiences.
The Bottom Line
Taken together, these findings paint a picture of greater spiritual openness and increased emphasis on the personal meaningfulness of religious beliefs and practices.
Religious purists would argue that these trends only serve to weaken church communities and dilute the potency of one’s religion. And there are undoubtedly growing pains associated with such unrest.
People are being challenged and altering their most fundamental beliefs about life and death. Longstanding traditions may be abandoned in the process, disrupting one’s family and larger church community.
Still, there is opportunity in these transitions, to the extent that they expose us to a diversity of perspectives, prompt greater consideration of meaning in life, and normalize a range of spiritual paths.
So, how would you describe your spiritual journey? Use our spiritual journey tool to explore the role of religion and spirituality in your past, present, and future. And let us know how it goes!