October 21, 2020

Open Mic: Losing Our Religion (1)


Source: Gallup. Credit: Matt Stiles/NPR

NPR’s Morning Edition did a series last week called “Losing Our Religion.” I encourage you to click the link and listen to the six pieces. The first is an overview of the phenomenon portrayed in the chart above: the growth of the “nones” — the religiously unaffiliated. This trend has been observed especially among younger people.

Two of the pieces feature an interview session with six young people from different traditions who have drifted from the practices of organized religion. In one of the discussions, they talk about why they have moved away, and in the other they express some of their mixed feelings about where they are vis-à-vis faith and religious practice.

Two stories look at specific circumstances in which the nonreligious find themselves. One explores the subject of how nonbelievers cope with tragedy and grief. It also shows how, on some occasions, religion hindered rather than helped in times of deep personal pain. Another features an interview with a couple in which one person has a strong faith and the other lacks faith. How do they make their marriage work?

Morning Edition wraps up its look at the growing number of people who do not identify with a religion by talking to two religious leaders: Father Mike Surufka, a Franciscan priest in Chicago, and the Rev. Mike Baughman, a United Methodist minister who runs a Christian coffee shop in Dallas. They discuss their perspectives on what is happening in American culture, especially with regard to young people. Despite the trends, they express hope for the future of religious practice in the U.S..

* * *

Today, we will begin discussing this NPR series. However, I don’t want to influence our discussions by writing my own response and then having us converse about that. This will be more “Open Mic” format, and I will be trusting you to do your homework so that you will be familiar with the NPR programs. I’d rather have us start fresh so that we can respond to what we hear in the voices of these young people and the others who speak in the series rather than my particular take on them.

We are going to take several days to do this. Each day, I will introduce one or two of the posts, encourage you to listen to the recorded broadcast or read the transcript, and moderate the discussion.

Here are links to the transcripts, so you can read ahead if you like:

  1. Losing Our Religion: The Growth of the “Nones”
  2. More Young People Are Moving Away from Religion, but Why?
  3. After Tragedy, Nonbelievers Find Other Ways to Cope
  4. On Religion, Some Young People Show Both Doubt and Respect
  5. Making Marriage Work When Only One Spouse Believes in God
  6. As Social Issues Drive Young from Church, Leaders Try to Keep Them

For today, I invite you to discuss the first piece on the growth of the “nones.” Go listen to the show or read the transcript. Here are a few quotes for reference in our discussion:

nprlogo_138x46“As deeply religious as this country may be, many Americans are not religious at all. One-fifth of Americans in fact do not identify with any religion. This week we’re asking who they are and what they do believe.” (Host)

“They call them nones – that’s N-O-N-E-S – because when asked to identify their religion they say none. But not necessarily atheists. Many of these people believe in God, many describe themselves as spiritual.” (D. Greene)

“Young people are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders, they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been, as far back as we can tell. So this is really something new.” (G. Smith)

“…this same younger generation is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were.” (R. Putnam)

“And so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the nones is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.” (R. Putnam)

“As we’ve seen the religiously unaffiliated’s share of the population grow, the group that’s really seen its share of the population decline is Protestants. In fact, in our most recent analysis, we found 48 percent of American adults identifying as Protestant. And that’s the first time in our polling that we’ve seen the Protestant share of the population dip significantly below 50 percent.” (G. Smith)

“Race and ethnicity though is one exception to that pattern. The growth of the nones really does seem to be restricted to whites. We haven’t seen much growth in terms of African-Americans or Hispanics who say they’re religiously unaffiliated.” (G. Smith)

“I think probably both of us would agree even with these recent changes, the American religious commitments are incredibly stronger than in most other advanced countries in the world. The average American is slightly more religious than the average Iranian. So we’re a very religious country, even today.” (R. Putnam)


  1. So let’s see….80% of the country is still “religious”, the NONES are overwhelmingly white, under age 30, politically liberal, and not prone to joining any sort of an organization.(I read the first transcript and these are the points that lept out to me.)

    Oh…..and not all of them are atheists……many are in the “spiritual but not religous” camp.

    My mental picture is of nilhistic and lonely young white people with an inability to trust or respect anything outside of themselves. I suspect that many consider themselves uber-cool, cutting edge, and hip; not having fallen for the silly drivel about some old man in the sky~a fairy tail for children. They worship at the altar of ‘you do your thing, and I’ll do mine, and its all ok”, where the ONLY valid rule is following what YOU think is right—but only for YOU. Some may smile sadly and indulgently at Christians and others of strong faith, other can hardly rein in the distain and sense of superiority.

    A few questions are floating around in my head, and maybe they will be answered as the series and our discussions procede……First, what is it that keeps minority young adults in their faith? Is there a greater need to “stick together” against the outside world? And, why is this group so young?? Do they “find God” as they move toward forty and fifty and face the harsh and disturbing nature of aging??

    • While I don’t consider myself a “none,” I have quite a few friends who would identify as such. I think part of the problem is the attitude evident in your post–your rampant assumptions about their reasons for unbelief or their lack of affiliation with organized religion. You ignore the deep pain that has so often by caused by religion; you ignore it, and you tear them apart in the same breath. Attitudes like yours push people away from Christianity. I would ask you, in the future, to not be so damn judgmental about this stuff…or at the very least hold your tongue.-

      • Let’s see…what part of “my mental picture” didn’t you follow easily?

        …and I gave no “reasons” for anything. Yet you feel judged? Hmmmm….very interesting!

        • Pattie
          – Grant never said he felt “judged”…. hmm interesting
          – The “reason” that you didn’t “give” for “anything” is exactly how grant described it “rampant assumption”… hmm very interesting.
          – “mental pictures” of groups of people that are based on “rampant assumptions” are ‘judgments’… hmm very interesting.

        • Eric’s right, Pattie. I never said I felt judged by you. And it’s not so much what I felt as it is what I read: your judgments on a group of people you have no experience with. I had no trouble following your “mental picture.” What I have a hard time seeing is how in any way you picked up that “mental picture” from what you read or heard on the NPR series.

        • Because what I’ve experienced and what I heard on the NPR series is a group of people whose pain has eclipsed any sense they might have had of uber-coolness or being on the cutting edge. I didn’t hear people with no respect; I heard people who desperately want to believe in God but cannot find it within themselves to do so. So again, I can’t see how you got your sweeping dismissal of “the nones” from the articles. And I can’t understand why–if you actually read or listened to them–you would want to cause more pain.

    • I know a lot of young nones. They’re not nihilistic, if anything, they’re idealistic. I’ve seen them deal with grief and trauma of losing family members without turning to faith (in fact, evangelistic funerals tick them off more than anything) etc.. so I don’t think the trauma of aging is going to do the trick. I also don’t think they’re necessarily lonely. They may not join the Kiwanas, but they might join a spontaneous meetup. Mostly the only time I see them hostile to religion is when they perceive the religion in question is hurting them or their society.

    • Your post leaves me wondering if you’ve actually talked to and interacted with any of the younger “nones” because it certainly doesn’t reflect my experience. I’ve found them to be very concerned with issues of justice and fairness, and seeking and admiring people who are genuine and can make matters of faith intersect with real life, and admit that they don’t have all the answers. One of their greatest criticisms of the church in my experience is the hypicrisy — people who don’t act much like Jesus. Are they prone to pride? Sure, but no more than those in the church, I think.

      I do know that simply dismissing them and blaming them for being what they are not only won’t bring them back, but won’t help those in the church look at ourselves and discover how we may have contributed to the rise of the nones.

      • No, I haven’t interacted with many NONES. What I AM interacting with is an article on NPR and the people addressing the issue.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      I agree with a lot of these respondents. You are making a lot of sweeping disparaging assumptions about the “nones,” but can you explain where in the NPR articles exists the evidence to support those conclusions?

      I’m leaning more towards John on this one. The image of Jesus that they have encountered, as presented by the Church, has been condescending, vindictive, and hypocritical. Yet there is still a strong sense of social justice and fairness, an untapped resource which the Church has dismissed as immature liberalism.

      Slow your roll, Pattie, and let us know where in the article you found the evidence for these assumptions.

    • Pattie, I’m not a “none” and I may be older than you (my children are nearing the upper end of the age bracket you’ve pointed towards), but, as others have indicated, I don’t find your comment very insightful. I’m a Canadian, which gives me a different perspective, but, given my observations of American evangelicalism (I’ve spent five years living in the US), I’m surprised that the number of nones isn’t much higher. Actually, I suspect that, in terms of how people really live their lives, it is higher than the report suggests.

  2. MelissatheRagamuffin says

    Answering from what I’ve found out from my son (age 24) is besides the social issues the prosperity gospel and perpetual youth culture actually helped drive him away. I had no idea how much they were pushing the prosperity gospel down in children’s church. They were promising those kids that life would be hearts and flowers and sunshine and rainbows if they would just pray the magic prayer and then God would always be looking out for them because they’d be His. Of course, that’s not how life turned out, and it turned my son bitter. I can remember him once saying to me, “Why should I care about a God who clearly doesn’t care about me?” Then, another time we watched a film on Bonhoeffer. They said how long it took for him to die, and my son said, “Gee, I bet he was glad God was looking out for him….” At which point I asked him where he got this silly idea that God was supposed to spare us from all suffering.

    If I had it to do over again, my son would never go to children’s church or youth group. He would sit in the sanctuary right beside me, and anyone who didn’t like it could kiss my foot.

    • What an interesting comment, Melissa!

      Does this resonate with others? Are religious people — evangelicals in particular — creating a false view of life and unrealistic expectations in our children?

      • It certainly resonates with me. I believe Merton called this “the moral theology of the devil.” Growing up with that crap has made it more difficult on me to hang on to the faith.

      • sarahmorgan says

        Yes it does…and not just for/in they children, but adults, too…I’m still stunned at how deep in denial the evangelicals I’ve encountered in the last 8 years are about how judgmental they are, and how insistent they are that God is supposed to keep you from all harm…unless of course, you have “some secret unconfessed sin” in your life (in which case, all of your problems/trials/tribulations are your own fault, and no one wants to help you). 🙁

      • Absolutely. The Prosperity Gospel, and especially its watered down iterations, were central parts of my evangelical experience. I certainly didn’t know a lot of people who would say that if you have enough faith (and of course prove your faith with that $1,000, that $2,000, that $3,000 check to Anointed Ministry X), God will make you filthy bleeding rich. But the ideas of “name it and claim it,” were absolutely there. Maybe not for wealth, but certainly for physical healing, for the provision of “needs” (which were somehow always at an American middle class level), and for happiness. Believe hard enough and you’ll get it was the rule, and the only possible exceptions were something in your life (hello unconfessed sin!) you needed to deal with, or maybe God was trying to teach you something. But once you did your repenting and learned God’s lesson, THEN you would get what you wanted.

        I don’t think I have enough room to post it in this comment, but I should also say: in the unrealistic expectations department, with regards to marriage, evangelicalism is as bad as Walt Disney. I hope someone else will address that, because I don’t know if I can limit my thoughts to a single blog comment.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Believe hard enough and you’ll get it was the rule…

          “Just like The Secret, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”?

          But of course the master sorcerer has to have an explanation for why the magick doesn’t work when you put him to the test…

      • What Sarah said.

        To add: My experience was not so much that people didn’t want to help, but the help they offered was just more pat answers, with no theology that was addressing real suffering (my own or others’) except that of “the better place” variety that so irked the atheist lady in part 3.

        The last incident of several that underlay my finally leaving Evangelicalism in 2000 (then went to a “conservative” mainline church for a while) was that a young District Superintendent (who supposedly had some kind of spiritual insight, else he would not be a District Superintendent, you know?) said something in my adult Sunday School class, to the effect that if you’re a Christian and you’re living a moral life, nothing bad will ever happen to you. Wanting to clarify, I in my mid-40s and having had a few bad things happen to me, not to mention the bad things I knew had happened to people sitting in that room, asked point-blank: “Are you saying that if a person is a Christian and is trying to live a moral life, that nothing bad will happen to them?” And he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Yes.” That was October. I was out of there at the end of the following January. The good relationships I had with some of the people there were not enough to override the bad theology.


        • Because, nothing bad ever happened to Christ Himself, or the early followers noted in Scripture?

          At least Catholics are expecting suffering…

      • YES. Modern evangelical youth ministry as I experienced it set up crazily unrealistic expectations about the life of faith. The speakers at the youth gatherings I attended as a teen blatantly tried to manipulate our emotions to get a crowd around the altar. “If you stay in your seat, you’re a coward and God can’t cure you of your pride/anger/sexual transgressions/inability to hear Jesus speak to you audibly/whatever other problem I just invented and have subliminally suggested you have.” Every word they spoke implied that God was speaking directly to them about kids in the audience who needed to hear what they had to say, and if we would just get serious about getting spiritual and come to the altar, we would hear Him speak to us, too, and those problems would never bother us again. The worship teams played us like violins, working us up and easing us down to perfection. Our conversations with our own youth groups afterward involved all kinds of oversharing and peer pressure to say that you, too, had felt the Spirit move. Then we went home and nothing changed. Nobody acted any different, and those “bad” feelings were still there. God did not open the heavens and speak to us. Just business as usual.
        This disparity between the promised bliss and reality very nearly pushed me out of the church once I got out of college. I was tired of being told that I should FEEL something and feeling nothing. God just does not seem to operate that way with me. But one thing kept me in the faith, and this is one of very few things in my life that I am willing to say God directly brought about. A random acquaintance posted a link to iMonk on his blog, where I discovered that faith is not about feelings and change comes over time. I don’t say it enough, but without this place I would have lost my religion long ago. Thank you.

        • Glad you’re here, and glad it’s helping.

        • I relate to this. It was the difference between Sunday night and Monday morning. Sunday night, all my problems were supposedly erased at church services where we’d go to the altar, do ‘spiritual warfare’ – ie, shout at evil things to GO AWAY!!! (which only works if you add ‘…in the name of Jesus’, of course, otherwise you’re just wasting your time!), and feel elated because god had moved and everything had changed. Then Monday morning came and it wa business as usual, the same struggles as usual. This is the point where some smarta** says ‘Oh, so things didn’t go your way so you just abandoned church?’. Well, no. I left because of the way we were taught to deal with those things, the way we were taught we could shout or feel our problems away on Sundays.

      • Marcus Johnson says

        I’ve experienced this as well. In their defense (don’t worry; I’m not going to defend them for long), I think it’s done with the best of intentions, but with a misguided understanding of who God is and what His role is in the world. I had to go through poverty, near homelessness, and Iraq before I could realize that God was there when I was the most miserable. He’s not Santa Claus, though, and the portrayal of Him as such only works until someone doesn’t get what they want, even though they’ve been “doing Christianity” the right way.

    • I had no idea how much they were pushing the prosperity gospel down in children’s church.

      When I was in middle school, at a PCA church (though one with a decidedly contemporary, evangelical flavor), we went through The Prayer of Jabez in Sunday school. A theologically conservative, Presbyterian church.

      …and perpetual youth culture actually helped drive him away.

      But I thought that’s how you kept the young people! Seriously, that is one of the things that got me looking elsewhere. And it’s something that evangelical churches need to stop. (Although, I say this as someone who ended up joining Catholicism, so I suppose you can take it or leave it, since it’s an outsider’s opinion.) Perpetual youth culture can only result in two things: churches filled with perpetual youths, and people who aren’t perpetual youths leaving those churches, because they find it insulting to their intelligence and maturity to not be treated like an adult. (Not to mention, everyone assuming they are a fun-sucking Pharisee when they ask that they be treated like an adult!)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Perpetual youth culture can only result in two things: churches filled with perpetual youths, and people who aren’t perpetual youths leaving those churches, because they find it insulting to their intelligence and maturity to not be treated like an adult.

        And (says the Baby Boomer who hates Baby Boomers) we’ve got far too many “perpetual youths”, perpetual adolescents, and other arrested development cases out there already. A lot of them in positions of power or influence.

    • Thank you for saying this. I was beginning to wonder this in the back of my mind. I’m afraid of sending my future children through the Sunday school system. Martin Luther wrote the Small Catechism for FATHERS to teach their children IN THE HOME, and that is precisely what I intend to do.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        Mainline Sunday schools run to pablum (which is appropriate for the very young) but not as a rule prosperity gospel. Or rather, if the prosperity gospel has sneaked into the Sunday school curriculum, this is either with the approval of the powers that be, or due to their inattention. If the former, this will most likely be readily apparent in any number of other ways. If the latter, they should be grateful for having the problem brought to their attention.

        My five-year-old is in Sunday school at the local United Methodist church, for reasons that are complicated. What she gets is strictly pablum. This is fine for her age: she hears Bible stories and loves the song about Zaccheaus in the sycamore tree. I think it has about run its course, as I’m not seeing much potential for future substance. Related to this is the absence of any theology of the eucharist, which leads them to handing it out (I suspect using grape juice, but I haven’t asked) to children no older than she, with no expectation that they understand what is going on.

      • Marcus Johnson says

        I’m not a parent, but I would like to hear from some more parents like Richard Hershberger. I think that, in terms of child development, some of these deeper truths might be over their head, so it might not be a bad idea to engage them with some VeggieTales and kid stuff. However, that kind of instruction is still happening when they are in the K-12 years, and children are left in this state of arrested development.

        I’m not sure if the answer is to teach exclusively within the home. Granted, I’m all for having parents being the primary source of spiritual formation for their children, but is there a danger of denying them the sense of learning within community?

        • I’ve got young children, and let me tell you, their questions demonstrate that the deeper truths are way over my head!

          • Kenny Johnson says

            I’m theologically and philosophically unequipped to answer my 5-year olds questions and objections to a loving God:

            Here are some:

            “God doesn’t love us, because he created tigers — and tigers can hurt and kill us… so God doesn’t love us. ”

            “I wish hurting never existed. Why did God create hurting?”

            Yeah.. trying to explain sin and consequences of sin fall short — even for me who doesn’t believe that there were ever vegetarian tigers. 🙂

    • I grew up in a conservative evangelical church and while what Melissa references wasn’t the case in my church, there was a culture that did its best to minimize the painful and difficult aspects of existence. Basically, turn to Jesus and he will support you through any time: you can talk about pain but always to say how much Jesus has helped you get through it. Now in a mainline evangelical church, I find the painful and difficult aspects of life acknowledged as significant and a much richer picture of how we encounter God through them.

      I would say that a very difficult time that i experienced in college (about 7 years ago) moved me to an understanding that led me to different kinds of churches and soured me on what I saw as evangelicalism’s often shallow approach to suffering.

      • …there was a culture that did its best to minimize the painful and difficult aspects of existence. Basically, turn to Jesus and he will support you through any time: you can talk about pain but always to say how much Jesus has helped you get through it.

        I call it the Emotional Prosperity Gospel. Believe hard enough and you won’t feel bad; at least, not too bad, and at least, not for too long.

    • From my neck of the woods I don’t see it as content. What I do see in my tradition is parents of kids not making faith any kind of priority i.e. not even taking them to Church… and just going thorugh the motions of receiving catechesis so that they can receive the required Sacraments after which they give the child a “choice” on whether to opt out of church (not a hard decision if the parents aren’t even going).

      From my view I think there doesn’t seem to be a real reason to believe among the youth (at least in my faith tradition). Part of this is narcissism (ok… I know many of you within the trees will lash out at that – but I have been teaching religious education for twenty years and I have seen the changing attitudes) – and yes some of that is normal for the age group, but lately in seems excessively so. I have two sons entering their 20’s. They don’t make faith a priority when on their own right now. But I think part of the issue is that most have grown up never struggling (yes – there are events where theyt are forced to grow) but many have spent much time on a pedestal.

      All this talk of prosperity gospel and the like… personally I am not seeing that… I don’t think they are thinking that deeply on it… I just believe that since many have a luke warm faith or a wobbly foundation at best, from parents who are on equal footing, they just do not consider faith important.

    • Melissa,

      Your comment is interesting to me. I didn’t grow up going to children’s church (although I was heavily involved in youth group as a teen convert). But your son’s reasons are leading reasons I stepped out of the evangelical movement. There was so little honest discussion of pain, doubt, and evil, both as they are experienced externally (i.e. “bad things happen to good people”) and internally (I’m a Christian, and apparently still evil or at least myopic). Likewise, there was little discussion of how one might not be confident or powerful (intellectually, politically, emotionally, etc) yet still “strong” in, or at least in possession of, faith. That is to say, there was little space in the rhetoric I heard that recognized that human experience is messy or that came off as brutally honest. I don’t think too many people thought they thought that faith was a straightline to happiness and success. But we certainly acted like we thought that was true, because there wasn’t a lot of space to admit weakeness without someone becoming “concerned,” and people seemed very invested in demonstrating that they were overcoming (or at least felt like an overcomer). We liked to talk about how bad we used to be, but with the significant claim to have been delivered already. And of course, there were a LOT of workbooks and inspirational literature promising success in exchange for prayers and good old fashioned work.

      “God wants you to have a better marriage. Here’s how. Pastor Bob has a great marriage! Well, it used to have problems but now it’s all better and how inspirational he is—you should listen to his CD. Oh, and Jeff has a terrible marriage. We should all pray for him. He should really be more faithful.”

      Then there’s my other favorite, related rant: “This or that group of unbelievers are so lost, and its so sad, it breaks my heart. I just wish they could have what I have! Its my life mission to make them better by making them like me.” After a while, you kind of want to knock the speaker on the head and suggest that the people they are talking about are actually beautiful, complicated people and that not everything they has light beams emanating from it.

      I didn’t leave Christianity, but I do try to stay a long way away from this kind of thing.

  3. I follow the Daily Lectionary in the 1928 BCP which has had us in Ephesians. I’ve been intrigued by the phrase; “son’s of disobedience” who according to Ephesians, live in the passions of the flesh and are sexually immoral idolators, whom the wrath of God is coming upon.

    Didn’t Jesus say that the way is narrow? That not many would enter in? People of the world live in darkness and THEY LOVE IT! Coming to the light means they have to change and walking daily with Christ means daily dying!

    I frequent various forums online from Christian to computers to firearms. Every once in a while someone will post a topic like. “How many sexual partners have you had?” The answers are shocking. Mine is 2 and I wish it was just one but I didn’t know Christ during the 1st. I made the commitment that I would be pure until my wedding night when I came to Christ and by his grace and my cooperation with that grace, that is what happened. Back to the forum question; it’s not uncommon for answers in the 20’s and 40’s. Think about that for a moment.

    So why would we expect these people to want to get religious all the sudden. One reason why I’ve personally turned towards woman’s ordination is that it’s a MESS out there! You think some 20 or 30 something woman who has come to Christ is going to want to talk about that to a male pastor?

    So what do we expect from a generation like Nineveh of Jonah’s day; who do not know their right hand from their left.

    • But I’ve got to wonder when did Christianity become all about the genitals? Aren’t generosity and charity as important as one’s sexual history?

      One of the things that my atheist/agnostic (as opposed to the nones) talk about is how religion is all about controlling its adherents. And they do it either via food codes or via sexual codes (or both). Things that are vitally important to the survival of the species (food & sex).

      • My personal guess is that hetreosexual sex can create innocent human beings, and therefore shouldn’t be condoned if there is not a couple committed to the child and each other for life.

        And we all know that non-hetrosexual sex has been a no-no since Moses brought the tablest down from the mountain.

        • I don’t see why the for life should be needed. Perhaps for the first 18 years, but life? Also, we’ve cracked that particular scientific problem and sex can be enjoyed with a low risk (implantable contraceptives or a combination of contraceptive methods) or no risk (sterilization with appropriate followup) of creating offspring. Also, there are other ways of having intimacy with no risk of pregnancy (see Clinton, Bill).

          As for non-heterosexual sex, that’s entirely religious based as there is little reason otherwise to stigmatize it other than wanting a high reproductive potential out of the tribe.

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

        Every society/culture has food codes and sexual codes, whether they’re explicitly enforced in laws and rules or whether they’re things that are “just not done around here.” Those aren’t just survival aspects, but they’re incredibly social aspects. The vast majority of human socialization occurs around food. And as sexuality is a vital aspect of creating families, it is vital to societies. All social groups control their members via food and sexuality practices, not just religious ones. The reason religious ones stand out is that they sometimes look different from the surrounding society’s norms.

        • But does our modern society? I guess for food codes I might think of concern about bad carbs, trans fats, etc. Sexuality? Other than an insistence on safer sex for the uncommitted, and fidelity for those in committed relationships, I don’t see a lot of codes here. And they seem pretty health based in the case of food and safer sex and a desire to protect the innocent party(ies) in the case of fidelity among those in committed relationships.

          • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

            In addition to what you said about food codes, there are also lots of things we don’t eat here. E.g. horse, cat, dog…

            And while what you mentioned about sexual codes are pretty limited, they’re still social codes, especially the fidelity bit. There are some cultures where sexual fidelity isn’t as big of a deal as it is in ours. In others it’s significantly stricter than ours. Plus, our societal restrictions on age of consent are significantly more strict than those of the ancient world.

            We often don’t notice these kinds of things because we’re in the midst of ’em. But they’re still there.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            Food codes: We have the minutely graded degrees of vegetarianism. OK, those aren’t universally followed within our culture. When was the last time you saw monkey meat on a menu? Dog? Horse?

            Sexual codes: We have complicated unwritten rules about “committed relationships”: what consitutes a committed relationship, how one enters into one, how one is terminated, how one’s friends and relatives interact with this relationship, etc. Many a sitcom episode has been centered on this code. Even outside the context of such a relationship, there clearly is some sort of sexual code. Otherwise the word “slut” would carry no baggage.

          • I guess you’re both right, and I’m just too much a part of the culture to see it.

  4. I (40-something) was discussing this series last week with a coworker (20-something) in a far-reaching conversation. We’re both believers and both currently happen attend Anglican-affiliated churches, which we didn’t as young people. Despite such similarities, I told her that I felt that, solely due to our difference in ages, we’d had vastly different experiences that Putnam & Co. mentioned more than once.

    Specifically, when I was, say, 12, the idea of conservative Christians engaging in politics was, if not brand-new, still something of a fresh idea. Salt and light and all things bright and political. I distinctly remember reading a book entitled “The Christian and Politics” during the ’84 Olympics and being excited by the possibilities.

    By contrast, my coworker turned 12 shortly before GWB was elected. The Christian world she’d grown up in had long since absorbed this particular meme into its, er, memome. It was just part of the landscape.

    Regardless of whether one feels that conservative Christian intercourse with politics has been a good or bad thing, the indisputible fact is that its presence is felt differently by those for whom it’s all they’ve ever known than it is for those of us slightly longer in the tooth.

  5. Don’t forget that neo-atheists are well- (over-?) represented in the media, and are very virulent. That their philosophy is very ‘in phase’ with the reigning materialist culture. That Generation X and following are (purportedly) disaffected with all things institutional. That the immediate future for most of the younger generation is not particularly rosy. That even those who have not personally experienced suffering are bombarded from a young age with news of suffering elsewhere, so as Melissa said, the ‘be good and I’ll look out for you’ God isn’t very credible.

    All of these things, and more, contribute to these statistics.

  6. Canada has gone from 1% to 23% over the same time period. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but if you looked at the under 30s, “none” would certainly be in the majority.

    • Mike, what factors do you see in Canadian culture that might be contributing to this?

      • Mike,

        This is a tough one to answer, and I hesitate to do so without stats in front of me. Having said that, I think that the close relationship that the church has to the Republican party in the U.S. is a factor along with the whole culture war that goes along with it. Politically the vast majority of Canadians would be the equivalent of Democrat or left of Democrat.

        • Klasie Kraalogies says

          Quite true. When young Canadians think about Church, they generally think of the big show next door. You know, below the 49th.

          • I think Canadian churches and Christians may have to deliberately turn their back on many of the traditional American influences (even some of the generally positive ones) if there is to be any hope of interacting meaningfully with younger Canadians in the future. My daughter is a high school teacher in the greater Toronto area and most of her students are first- or recent second-generation Canadians from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. She has mentioned more than once that it is the “in thing” to “hate” America – even though most of the students likely can’t give articulate reasons. I suspect that the America they “hate” is best typified by Republican-evangelical Christianity. I find it hard to stomach myself.

  7. It is an thought-provoking graph. It is relatively flat until the late sixties, then grows steadily through the seventies, levels off in the eighties and the nineties, then began a new steady rise through the 2000’s. Both the 70’s and early 2000’s were marked by growing affluence and materialism. It would be difficult to blame the trend on cultural war; if that were the case, the graph should have spiked during the eighties.

    One other way to look at it is that the first spike occurred as the baby-boomers grew up and started their own lives apart from the religion they grew up with in the 50’s and 60’s. The second spike may have occurred as x/y gens. grew up and abandoned the “Bullfrogs and Butterflies” religion of evangelicalism of the 80’s. So, the problem could still be cultural war, but with a delayed reaction as the children who grew up in that evangelical sub-culture abandon it as soon as they are able.

    • I don’t know if that jives with the huge numbers of former Catholics. The Catholics weren’t involved in the culture war prior to the 2010s.

      • Is it just me, or is there a high number of former Catholics that return to the faith? The “boomer-rang” phenomenon of megachurch evangelicalism may be winding down, but I still see older Catholics returning to the church after a time of settling. Heck, I see lots of younger ones going back too.

        • There are more Catholics who just leave. But there is definitely a noteworthy trend of cradle Catholics who leave, then come back later in life. Usually they check out during late adolescence/early adulthood, then start thinking about faith more seriously as they mature and calm down–usually when they have kids.

          • Although, the crater in Catholic weddings has got to be concerning to the Bishops. That used to be an entry back in, now with marriage either delayed or a civil wedding chosen, that could be changing.

            Also, from my experience with Catholics, when a Catholic is just not observing the religion for a time, they still tend to identify as Catholic. Which is why the mass attendance rate is only something like 25% of self-identified Catholics. When a Catholic stops claiming the label Catholic, they’re, in my experience, much less likely ever to return to Catholicism because they have taken a strong step away, unlike the non-observant but still identifying as Catholic person who is simply lax in their observance.

  8. Speaking as a former campus pastor (it’s been over four years now since I left that position), I do sort of wonder how much of this is related to the fact that many of the people who this applies grew up with their parents, teachers, and other authority figures telling them how great they are, and then once they get out in the world they realize that those people may have been blowing smoke up their ass. I realize as I say that I sound like a typical older person complaining about the younger generation, but I’m not meaning it as a complaint.

    For one thing, I’m not all that much older than them, but I did notice a distinct difference between the way the kids in my ministry interacted with their parents and the way people in my age group did. It seemed like the kids I went to college with started to pull away more from their parents while they were in college. These kids however often talked to their parents everyday and/or texted them all the time. Then after they graduate, they find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to depend on their parents because of the crappy economy. So I do wonder if some of rejection of religion isn’t related to some of that. Maybe younger adults are simply progressing to where they are pushing back against what they see as their parents’ religion. I’m not saying that’s the only reason, but it seems like some of it. I will say that when I was in the African American church, I did not see the same sort of dynamics at play.

    • I love that about the younger generation (that they have good relations with their parents). They really do make me feel like I’ve been an ingrate to my family.

  9. Christian Smith has done a lot of research into the “emerging adults” of today and I would highly recommend his work. One of his main conclusions is that kids are basically reflecting what their parents believe. So to really understand what’s happening today you have to go back a generation and see what happened there first.

  10. Communications and how we receive information in our formative year has changed a lot in the time frame we’re discussing. Very personalized media means that most young people live in an echo chamber of the channels on TV they like, their facebook wall, etc. This affects older folks too, but it is the sole experience of many people born late enough to have a PC in their home for as long as they can remember. These days, we have to consciously seek opposing viewpoints on many subjects. But to do that, we have to know to do so, that there is even a rational opposing view to be had on the subject.

    Last year, Eagle asked despairingly, -paraphrased- “Why don’t christians ever do anything good?” and we rightly answered that of course we do, that each of us could name a dozen good things people in our circles had done recently, but that those things simply didn’t make the news. But why did we appreciate Eagle so much when he came? Because he spoke from a view outside our echo chamber, from an experience we all need to remember that many have but that few of us get to see.

    • Eagle and HUG both keep us honest and focused…..

      AND you are smack on with the “personalized worldview”…..forty years ago we ALL read the same newspapers and magazines, and the music that was on the radio, and the shows that were on three networks.

  11. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    From the transcript:

    We also find that one defining characteristic of the religiously unaffiliated is their social liberalism. Three-quarters of this group say they favor allowing same-sex couples to marry legally. Three-quarters say they favor legal abortion.

    These kinds of things are the hallmark of many mainline Protestant churches, but the mainlines’ numbers seem to have been the quickest to tank. You’d think that their social policies would be attractive to this demographic. Why do you think it isn’t?

    • I think I’ve seen research indicating that the mainline tanked due almost exclusively to birth rates declining quickest among them. By and large, these churches are not evangelistic, and even if they were, as someone who did consider the Episcopal church for a while, they’re still stuck with their scriptures. If a preacher was preaching how wives ought to be submissive and I was attending, I would walk out, well, why in heck would I accept a Scripture with that actually written in it? I mean, if Pastor Mark offends me, why not Apostle Paul?

      • Surely you are aware of the wide diversity of interpretations and applications used with such texts. Could it be that maybe Pastor Mark is truly an offensive person and simply reads the Apostle Paul through Mark’s own cultural lenses? I’d be pretty shocked to hear an Episcopalian preaching to wives to submit to their husbands. I know it can seem as if loose interpretations are making excuses for the text, but shouldn’t any text from 2k+ years ago in drastically different cultures be automatically read with a pinch of salt if it’s true message is to be rightly discerned?

        • You’re right about the never hearing an Episcopal priest preaching on wives being submissive but I found the ignoring of the passages to be just putting a nicer face on the fact that they have the same scriptures as the other less attractive Christians.

          The problem I have with the idea that any text from 2k+ years ago should be read with a pinch of salt is that that’s not how it’s done with other ancient texts. When scholars try to understand Beowulf, they actually do want to try to understand what the author meant and how it would have been understood at the time. Heck, that’s what the scholars trying to understand the Gospels do. So it’s all right to determine what was meant by the Gospel of Luke, but not OK to take what Paul very likely meant in his writings?

          • try to understand what the author meant and how it would have been understood at the time. Heck, that’s what the scholars trying to understand the Gospels do

            That’s all I meant by “a pinch of salt.” Read it like you would Beowulf or the Gospels. No special treatment for Paul 😛
            …and further, I agree that the original meaning is most certainly discernable. But where you have 5 protestant ministers you will have 10 opinions about what Paul means in particular passages, especially those related to “gender roles.” But isn’t it anachronistic anyways to expect an egalitarian perspective from patriarchal cultures? I’m not saying God was incomplete in his inspiration of Paul’s letter, but maybe that he was more interested in going after sin generally than specific worldviews (patriarchy) that are based on the sins (prejudice)? While Pauls comments are within the framework of his patriarchal culture, when read fully, he does write specifically against the prejudicial treatment of one another between believers on the basis of gender, race, or social status.

      • “I think I’ve seen research indicating that the mainline tanked due almost exclusively to birth rates declining quickest among them.” – That was certainly a large part of it.

        • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

          But wasn’t part of the move toward social liberalism part of an attempt to reach the “nones”?

          • You raise a very good point Isaac, and one for which I do not have an answer off hand. I did hear someone say once that “if church just looks like my local service club, then why don’t I just join the service club.” I wonder if that is a factor in what we saw happen?

          • To tag on to Michael Bell’s comment, I think that is true. Years ago, Issues, Etc. discussed on a broadcast that many church youth groups were gateways to secularism. If youth group was just like a nightclub, why not just go to a nightclub?

  12. Everyone is a believer.

    It’s just a matter of what their ‘god’ is.

    Whatever we entrust ourselves to in good times and bad, invest ourselves in, give ourselves to…that is our god.

    There are NO “nones”, in reality.

    • I think that’s simplistic. It starts with a believer’s template, that everyone is a believer in something.

      I don’t think that’s true. I know a lot of atheists (my husband is one). They simply fail to find any evidence to support the existence of a deity. They don’t entrust themselves to any deity and they seem to make as good of spouses and community members as any other folk, the only difference being, they don’t believe in a deity.

      I mean, what are people supposed to do? Have faith in something they can’t intellectually accept? I mean, my partner has 4 years of Catholic university theology (Loyola) and 12 years of K-12. He has read and found the holes in the proofs of God that have been formulated through the centuries.

      • But even an atheist has at least a functional epistemology, which is based on core beliefs. It may or may not include any transcendent deity, but it seems that many atheists do presume their senses to be the highest indicator of reality and source of truth. I think that is why many of them tend to argue against religion with science.

        I’d love to have a conversation with your husband about the holes he has found. I don’t believe any of the classic “proofs” genuinely prove anything (or that God is generally subject to the realm of proof or scientific inquiry), but I’d certainly be open to learning the shortcomings in classic Christian apologetic reasoning.

        • He’d probably enjoy conversing with you, too. We have a lot of religious discussions in our house (my being a Jew by choice and he being an atheist even though we both started as Catholics).

        • I think we are seeing multiple examples that prove the old, often repeated saw about “no one stands against God, but millions against who they THINK God is….”

  13. Perhaps the growth of the nones is related to the disconnect between Jesus’ message and His followers message.

  14. This is a fascinating series and conversation, and the reasons for the rise of the nones are probably complex and varied. But it seems to me that one component has been the way evangelicals have framed the reason for beliving in God/Jesus over the past 30-40 years. The reason given in most cases has boiled down to this: believing in Jesus makes your life better and makes you a better person. And then the nones have seen that this isn’t always true, and probably isn’t even true in the majority of cases. It becomes a deal-breaker I think.

    When people come to believe, or think that they should come to believe, chiefly because of what they might become or gain rather than because of the character and person and life of Jesus, it eventually becomes less attractive. If we are to draw the nones back, I think an unrelenting focus on the person of Jesus must be a central component.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      John, ask yourself why? Why should Young None focus on Jesus? Their is no logical proof of God’s existence, so you can’t compel them with reason. It is not going to make him/her a nicer / better /richer person. Even a happier one, necessarily. Reality is not going to make more sense. Theologically, just as many questions will be raised than answered.

      Join a community? Please. The majority of churches are exclusive clubs for the long timers, and newcomers are just hindrances. Spoken from bitter experience. And the ones who have stronger community are more like cults, often. Been there done that, walked away with the scars.

      Anyway, there can be just as nice a sense of community down at the pub……

      Seriously, what can you offer them?

      • The Truth.

      • We called them “The Holy Huddle”

      • Have you ever read any of Anne Lammott’s books? She was essentially an agnostic, but she converted because she knew she had an encounter with Jesus. It’s here, if you’re interested: http://pen-of-the-wayfarer.blogspot.com/2008/01/stories-of-conversion-anne-lamott.html

        I think that’s the thing that prevents Christianity from being something that can fully be logically explained. I think that’s what prevents the church from simply dying. Christ refuses to let it.

        • I love Anne Lamotte’s books, but I still have trouble with her conversion being an “encounter with Jesus”. I’ve never had one, so what does that mean? I’m not chosen?

          I think much of the decline in church going is precisely that someone who has tried and struggled and yearned for the deep faith that someone like Anne Lamotte writes about, but finds themselves not finding it ever, well, why should that person keep chasing rainbows? Why not just give it a rest and try to enjoy life? I think that is precisely what people do.

      • The none’s I’ve encountered are much more interested in and respectful of Jesus than of institutional Christianity. I happen to believe that Jesus is pretty compelling, and I’ve seen that it is for others as well. At the very least offering them Jesus lets them consider and choose based on what is central to the Christian faith rather than peripheral issues that get pushed to the center.

        I never used the word “community” so I’m not sure where your criticism along those lines comes from.

        • Klasie Kraalogies says

          Church-going crowd.

          I was making a general point leading from my reaction to you. The NT make much of the Believers as a group. Individualist Christianity is not a First Century option. And anyway, there are lots of instructions about groups/churches in the NT. But in reality, here and now, it is a ruddy wasteland. Oh, and the best community that can be offered either has to do with raising money for the church, keeping the youth engaged with some fluff, and eating badly made suppers with people that are all pretending to be interested in each other (but are really not – they attend out of a sense of obligation, or because this is what they do, but they don’t really know why). If one could turn the hypocrisy into energy, no fundraising would be necessary, ever.

          No wonder churches are fertile grounds for folks to play power politics. Ever been savaged and tread underfoot by the little old ladies? Because who wants to have a newcomer for a leader anyway? He is not one of us……

  15. Richard McNeeley says

    As i look at the chart I can’t help but notice the upward trend begins around 1968. 1968 gave us the Tet offensive, My Lai massacre, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, The graph climbs again in 1970 the year of troops entering Cambodia and the Kent State massacre. The graph continues its climb through the economic uncertainties of the 1970s and levels off under Ronald Reagan (a time mostly of peace and prosperity). It goes up under George (read my lips) Bush and then declines under Clinton (again a time of peace and prosperity). The current trend begins in 2001 or 2002 around the time 9/11. I believe it has continued to rise due to the ongoing wars and economic uncertainty that we have experienced over the last decade.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Many years ago at an old blog called “Eject Eject Eject,” the blogger there described 1968 as “the year Sauron got the Ring.” And a lot of things just seemed to go south all at once in that year.

  16. As a 27 year old that was raised in the evangelical church, I can relate to almost all of these posts. Obviously the rise of the “nones” is multifaceted. Here’s another dimension: the church we primarily attended was a split of a split. It split again during my teens in a very ugly and selfish series of events. It became apparent to me that going to that church was more about following a personality than being a part of the Church (the universal one). How does a church that is so willing to splinter and fraction expect to retain members? When leaving is in vogue, how do they expect people to not leave?

  17. Randy Thompson says

    In the past, the dirty secret of the mainline churches was bogus membership statistics. Specifically, there was a huge gap between membership and average Sunday attendance. Sunday attendance often was a third to a half of membership. Most of the membership was complete dead wood. From my experience, they were often people who still valued the “status” of church membership or who wanted the membership discount for their daughter’s wedding. If we call the mainline’s dead wood “nominals,” then I’m inclined to think that the “nones” are what used to be nominals–people who now see no point in going through the religious motions. In a sense, I respect them for their honesty and lack of pretense.

    An old joke told me by a Catholic priest friend years ago illustrates this point, and maybe a bit more besides. The story goes like this: The local church had bats in the belfry. They tried everything to get rid of them, but nothing worked. After countless meetings and discussions as to what to do, the priest came up with a suggestion as to how to get rid of the bats. “Let’s confirm them,” he said. “That way, we’ll never see them again .”

    • Is that true of the Methodists though? I thought they had a system where each church was assessed a $$ amt per member to go to the headquarters. Meaning they had an interest in keeping their books relatively clean.

      • Randy Thompson says

        I can’t speak to the situation in the Methodist Church, although I’m suspicious of all church membership statistics. In a lot of churches, it takes a lot to be dropped from the membership roles, and, certainly, the larger the membership, the more impressive the church is, which is incentive for a church to appear larger than it really is. Having pastored (past tense!) UCC churches, I’m more familiar with the UCC statistics, and what I said definitely reflects that reality. If the denominational annual report gives the yearly statistics, and they usually do, it’s interesting to compare what’s on paper–the supposed membership–and who’s actually there every week.

        • Richard Hershberger says

          I’m not so much suspicious of church membership numbers as I think there needs to be clarity about what we consider “membership” to be. You point out that “Sunday attendance often was a third to a half of membership.” This to me is unremarkable. Consider the Christmas-and-Easter member. Would we prefer he attend more often? Of course. But striking him from the membership roll is more likely to ensure that he does not. A responsible church will cull the roll from time to time, but the standard need not be “he wasn’t here last week”, or even “last month”.

          When I consider the size of a church, I want several numbers: total membership, average attendance, average attendance in August, average attendance on Christmas Eve, how many people can they get into one room for something like a congregational meeting, and how many people can they get into one room for something fun? I would expect these numbers to vary wildly, and indeed would be concerned if they did not.

          • Randy Thompson says

            There still, though, is a sizable gap between “membership,” the official size of a church, and who’s there on average every Sunday (and who’s there in the middle of August). I’m not sure Christmas Eve would be helpful, though, in this context, as a Christmas Eve service for many can be just an extension of the family Christmas celebration. (Anecdote: One of the “members” of a church I pastored in Connecticut once told me that the late Christmas Eve service was a way to chill out after a huge family gathering! Anecdotes are not statistics, I know, but I think this person’s comment was telling.) .

  18. I feel like I directly relate to this article. I have spent the majority of my life waffling between being a Christian and being a None. I find Christianity, especially institutional Christianity, to be more damaging than beneficial to public discourse. As described in the NPR article, I grew up in 1990s and was a teenager during the early 2000’s. I witnessed the rise of religious politics in this country reach a fervor that identifiying as a political democrat was tantamount to being an atheist. I watched the politically religious right wing infiltrate my church and sat through sermon after sermon of politics from the pulpit. Growing up in the southern baptist dominated deep south, it felt to me that all of the sudden that abortion, school prayer, homosexual rights, teaching creationism in public schools, and viewing violent environmental disasters as Gods judgment on certain American cities (like New Orleans) who were full of sinners rather than believers as more important than teaching the grace and love of Christ.

    To say that my experiences drove me away from the Church would be an understatement. The moment I started college I quit going to church almost immediately and spent four years outside of institutional religion. During this time period I studied intently philosophical solutions to relgious problems such as the problem of hell, the idea of an omnisicient creator, etc. Finding very few logicial solutions I struggled internally with doubts regarding Gods existence, a dislike for institutional Christianity, and yet a nagging belief that there has to be something more.

    After marriage, my wife and i tried several churches but again we were unable to find one that didn’t feel almost overwhelmingly politically and socially judgmental (and the ones that aren’t generally preach the prosperity gospel every week–which is the same idea except in a positive tone: “Devote your life to God and he will do everything for you from finding your car keys to becoming a millionaire!”). Again, we chose to drop out of the church. Now we study the Bible together in a nightly devotion and engage each other in critical discussions. It has been two years, and we still have not returned to the church.

    I feel like I understand the Nones. The majority of these individuals aren’t trying to be cool or hip. They aren’t taking a step away from religious affiliation just so they can party hard without guilt. In fact, most of them are extremely critical and studious of religious belief. To decide that you no longer wish to participat in the religion of your parents requires an introspective thought process that goes beyond the a radical hippie liberal notion of living ones life without responsibility.Rather, the majority of these people (many of whom are still my friends) have seen the damage done to public sphere when religion forces its values in the door and the subsequent damage done to religion by making change in the political realm its goal rather than preaching the gospel of grace.

    • Great point at the end about the damage caused by mixing the two kingdoms. It hurts both government and the church.

      • I appreciate your input…especially since I know your struggle, or at least the bits you have shared.

        The focus of the first NPR article did not, however, make me think of those who are earnestly struggling (like you) but instead called to mind the smug and self-satisified young adults I have encountered, who are hostile to theists of all stripes but especially of the Jude0 -Christian belief system. Some have shown up here, already. I simply pray that they mature, like you have, and/or heal enough to look into God, and not just His fallen or alledged followers.


  19. Our oldest son is on the verge of being a “none.” I can speak to some of the causes.

    He is 16 and asking tons of questions. The pat fundamentalist Baptist answers of his grandparents. “What about the universal flood? What about fish? Salt mixing with fresh water would kill both.” Crickets; then anger and changing the subject. Lots of information is out there and folks are asking questions. However, many Christians aren’t engaging with a wider science, they are only interested in a ghetto approach to science. This is a hugh reason for his path out of Christianity.

    Shoving him further is all the discussion that Jesus is love – yet the contempt and disgust his grandparents heap on their spouses, the guy in the car in front of them, or at anyone who doesn’t meet their world view perceptions. (My in-laws won’t get a divorce yet she can’t speak kindly of her husband and forces him to live in a travel camper in the side yard.) “If Christians don’t really believe marriage is sacred, how do they get to talk so much about gay people.” Yea seriously. He has a point.

    When you combine this with general Christendom’s behavior toward fellow humanity in the way some pastors use their “bully” pulpit to actually bully others and demean them in ways that if a student did in school they would be told to listen to others opinions and discuss ideas and then be sent to the guidance office and then sent to the resource officer to have a discussion of bulling behavior. He doesn’t get it. What is expected of him as a teen seems far more adult (as far as listening, empathizing and trying to find a middle ground forward in conflict) than many of the preachers he sees.

    The sorry state of conflict within the Episcopal church with which we are affiliated has made his disillusionment easier. This has veered him toward not choosing confirmation.

    Yeah I’m worried. We have centered much of his Christian formation far from the box curriculums. We have encouraged questions. My husband has worked hard to love me as Christ loves the church and we live our marriage with honor and respect. We work hard to show multiple sides to issues and to see a primary goal of our faith in this world and bringing God’s Kingdom to come on Earth as it is in Heaven through following justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

    You can muffle but not drown out the drum beat that American Christian Culture(TM) has created. He’s said it.

    • This is a very insightful personal experience. Thanks for sharing.

    • The issue of hypocrisy I think is a growing contributing factor to “the Nones”.

      I had an interesting weekend which I will write about later. It included talking to a pastor at an evangelical church in Fairfax, VA who asked me to stay and work out my doubts there. This place has been healthy.

      THEN….on Sunday night I went to a Sovereign Grace service because I keep getting asked to visit by a friend. So here’s this church…Sovereign Grace Ministries engulfed in a growing lawsuit involving child sex abuse, domestic abuse, pedophilia, etc… Here in the DC area the Washington Post has been covering it as the lawsuit grows.

      So at this SGM service they are talking about the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade and how precious children are to them. And in my mind I’m thinking of all the child abuse, the cover-up, etc… going on. ALL against a back drop of family values. I leaned over to my friend and asked him, “Is pedophilia a family value?”

  20. Note to self….avoid topics that attract Twitter feeds. Please let me know when we return to regular our regular program.

    I don’t currently have the will or desire to fight those who are so far removed from my world view. I already raised and argued with young folks, and lack the fire to do it again when the stakes are so low.

    Apparently opinions are anethma to NONES~not the hill I wish to die on.

  21. I agree with you, Pattie; I’ll have “none” of it.

  22. After reading many of the comments here and taking in the stats, I think the reason people are losing their religion is because we (Christians) are doing a crappy job of LIVING OUT our two greatest commandments; Love God and Love Others. People would naturally drift TOWARD Christianity if it displayed the hope, love and grace of Jesus. Instead, we give them reasons to not want to develop a relationship with God.

  23. I listened to this report on my way to work last week. Didn’t find anything surprising in it. Maybe because I’ve been reading about these statistics since last summer in books like “Quitting Church” & “Christianity After Religion”. After teaching Sunday School for many years as well as substitute teaching, & being the parent of 3 kids from middle school to high school, I’ve observed how many young people see themselves as their own authority. Perhaps as a well-meaning parent I offered too much choice to them at too young an age planting the seeds for this kind of self-authority. Whatever the source, when push comes to shove, many kids will not follow an external authority (church) & will not join or support community institutions such as Rotary. Linking this with some of the comments here about how poorly the church has responded to many of their deep questions (which are often based on information that wasn’t even available 5, 10, 15 years ago) & you have the recipe for mass exodus aka the “nones”. Church makes itself a meaningless institution when it’s no longer willing to listen to those with the greatest doubts/questions.

    What’s more, the overwhelming focus on needing proof or evidence in order to believe, (which comes up in the next segment of the series in the interviews with some young people) is irrelevant in relationship to faith. The more anyone, young or old, thinks that there’s proof of God, the less they will find God or the path to faith. God is not provable, but God IS believable. But does anyone IN church offer this message? I haven’t heard it & neither have my children.

    • “Church makes itself a meaningless institution when it’s no longer willing to listen to those with the greatest doubts/questions.”

      That’s a great sentence, Fran, that rings true to me. I know if I were a young person, with all the information available to me that these young people can access, and churches offered me little more than Sunday School faith, pat answers, moral certainty, and programs that try to compete with the world’s entertainment, I’d be running, not walking away.

      • This very point is what is causing me to strongly consider becoming involved and meeting with a pastor from an evangelical church in Fairfax, VA. In a meeting with one pastor I threw out the issues that tore me apart:

        1. The Problem of Evil
        2. What happens to those who never heard the Gospel
        3. Problems with Prayer
        4. Genocide in the Bible
        5. Problems with Reformed Theology and trying to get it out of my system

        As I threw these issues at this evangelical church they not only listened. They have offered to help. But the people there are not frightened by these issues. And time will tell if this will work…but it was different than a few other places where a pastor will say that I will either get it or I won’t. (Which I heard after him talking about evangelism to the lost)

      • I’d be running, not walking away.

        And they are.

  24. Despite my earlier reluctance to comment on this issue, I do want to wonder out loud about a couple of things: 1) I wonder if the downward trend in religious institutional affiliation among young, mostly white Americans correlates with the well-documented downward trend in their civic institutional affiliation; 2) I wonder if the trend is more closely related to class as a determinative factor than it is to race or ethnicity–in fact, the sociological factor of class is often masked behind categories of race and ethnicity unless the study is designed well enough to make adjustments for this.

    • Help this Canadian out. What are some examples of civic institutions? I’m not sure the term means the same thing to me as it does to you.

      • Well, Warren, an example would be the willingness of people to help at polling places on elections day; or to be involved in local politics, making phone calls and canvassing; or volunteerism at hospitals and similar institutions. I probably would have been more accurate to designate it as civic activity. In all the areas I mentioned and many others, the participation of young Americans has declined precipitously in the last decades, and I wonder if the decrease of those who are religiously affiliated among the young is part of a larger trend of disengagement and possibly disenchantment with many of the civic activities that earlier generations performed as an unquestioned matter of meeting social obligations. For many in earlier generations, religious affiliation was not so much a matter of theological commitment as a kind of civic duty along with voting and belonging to the Rotary Club.

        • The election/polling station stuff I can’t relate to at all, but the hospital example makes sense – kind of. I wasn’t expecting either example actually. Can I assume that Occupy Wall Street doesn’t count as a form of civic duty in your eyes? Although I think the movement is misguided in many respects, I would disagree with such a perspective.

          • Occupy Wall Street up until now has been a protest movement rather than a civic organization; but even if were a civic organization, the numbers of those involved are miniscule compared to the need that exists for civic volunteerism (the subject of my opinion about the value of Occupy Wall Street is not germane to this discussion). Another example that might make sense to you would be volunteer first aid squads and fire departments, both of which draw very few young volunteers anymore. But think about it, Warren: if citizens don’t volunteer for election/polling stations stuff, as you put it, who will do it? You could hire people to do it, but the money for that has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere means increased taxes. In fact civil society, at least in the U.S. (and probably in Canada, too?) has depended on a lot of volunteerism to keep running; but that volunteerism is drying up, right along with church affiliation, among young Americans (sorry, Warren, I know that as a Canadian you are a young American, too, but “young United Statian” just doesn’t cut it).

          • Your right – I was talking more about civic duty than civic institutions. You’ve raised an interesting dichotomy between the US and Canada. Most (although not all) of the examples you’ve raised are things that Canadians expect their tax dollars to pay for. We don’t have the same aversion to government and are willing to pay higher taxes. I don’t know if this would count in your eyes, but many high schools require students to perform a significant number of hours of volunteer time to graduate.

            I have no idea what you meant in your last sentence.

        • My last comment ended up in moderation – so I assume I stepped over a line. Apologies for any offence I’ve caused. I read some very rough and tumble blogs and don’t always remember to tone it down when in polite company.

          • No moderation on this blog, Warren, unless it is announced. Comments are sometimes sidetracked by the filters randomly. I free them as soon as I see them.

          • Warren,
            The last sentence was just a stupid quip; I have some sense that it displays a bit of hubris when citizens of the U.S. refer to themselves as Americans, as if they have a right to exclusive ownership of that title, even though there are many different nations in the Americas. Sorry for being opaque.

      • After WWII there was a large growth in things like the Rotary Club, Elks Club, VFW, Shriners, Womens Club, Jr. Womens Club, Junior League, etc… All of these groups had (IMO) two basic things in common. A way for groups of people with similar “likes” to get together and in general a mission to do “good things in the community”.

        Lot’s of variations in the details, levels of religious overtones, alcohol consumption, etc… but these institutions created bonds that lasted a lifetime. TV, especially cable TV gave us all something to do without the hassle of the crowd and now the internet let’s us for virtual communities and these physical institutions are dying.

        The problem is with the Internet we now tend to clump with groups of like thinkers. Which leads to US vs. THEM. The old club system had people with different politics, religions, etc… getting together and realizing those that disagreed with them were not monsters.

        Simplistic summary.

    • I would posit that one reason for the downward trend in civic institutional affiliation is the suburbanization of America. Lose communities, and you lose community institutions.

      Likewise, churches were stronger and people felt more a part of them when they were organically related to the “web of life” around them. As much as megachurches try to provide a whole world for their members, a church cannot replace family, neighborhood, and community support structures when they are meant to work in conjunction with them. Why shouldn’t we expect kids from broken families, who live in places where they have little contact with their neighbors and are uninvolved in their communities, to turn their backs on churches that claim to be able to heal all that but cannot?

      • And yet, there has been a massive movement to the cities again by young people and by and large these young people don’t bother with church. In fact, the megachurches are probably hurt by the fact that they tend to be in suburbs that may be inaccessible to urban folks who don’t own cars.

        The thing you need is not only the neighborhood but the subtle and not so subtle peer pressure from the neighbors to get people to religious institutions. I think that horse has wondered off, though.

        • “I think that horse has wandered off, though.”

          I think it has too, friend, and I don’t know what will replace it. We are in a time of remarkable change. Where you have virtually unlimited freedom, advanced technology, and a certain level of affluence, the temptation to go your own way is pretty much irresistible.

          The young people who move to the city that I know are not forming “communities” but are creating gentrified, suburban-like enclaves of individualism, narcissism, and hedonism.

          • “….that horse has wandered off, though.” Is this an altogether bad thing, Chaplain Mike? To the degree that the horse exerted pressure on people to get them into religious institutions as part of a package of socially expected civic obligations, like saluting the flag and saying the pledge and joining the Masons, isn’t it really a blessing that it’s wandered off? Wasn’t there a kind of idolatry involved in it, the not so subtle implication being that the purpose of the church, along with the multitude of other civic organizations, was to serve the welfare of the nation by helping the civic machinery to run smoothly? In fact, that horse has needed a rest for a long time, because it has drawn the cart of the Constantinian church/state compromise since the fourth century C. E.

            • Good and bad in everything, Robert. I have sympathy for what you are saying, and have often taken that perspective myself. On the other hand, when we are talking about raising our children, it does indeed “take a village” and the old wisdom of roots, community, and accountability forms habits in people that are unquestionably healthier than the rootless, individualistic, and autonomous personalities we seem to be creating these days.

              Spoken by a baby boomer who bears much responsibility for rebelling against that old stable order.

          • Love the stable pun!

            Your line about “gentrified, suburban-like enclaves of individualism, narcissism, and hedonism.” I’m not sure that is all that different from the old ethnic neighborhoods except for the gentrified bit. I mean, these are folk that will protest vehemently against development they don’t like or work diligently to get a new school for their community or meet to clean up their local park. They are engaged and certainly they mingle around their neighborhoods (spoken as someone who dodges groups of them with baby buggies and strollers in the parks).

            • Yes, I was generalizing way too much. Actually, the renewal in city neighborhoods is probably one of the hopeful signs of a renewed civic spirit among young people. Whether or not it translates into church or religious affiliation remains to be seen.

              The old ethnic neighborhoods of which you speak usually had a common religion as one of their strongest bonds. I do a lot of visiting on the east side of Indianapolis and it is remarkable to me how strong the Catholic influence remains because of those old neighborhoods. They are rapidly aging, however.

              The situation is not the same today with regard to common religion, except perhaps in similar immigrant enclaves.

  25. This is an extraordinarily sad and poignant series. Most of the “nones” (horrible term) refer to personal and primarily emotional experiences that turned them away from God, and for the most part place the blame entirely on others. Their feelings are certainly legitimate, but the concept of truth does not appear to enter into the discussion at all.

    It’s true that part of this is the fault of the churches, which have desperately tried to appear trendy in their attempts to make themselves relevant and have failed to hold themselves accountable for moral, ethical and financial scandals. Part of it is their own responsibility; they worship their own emotional responses and assume them to be sources of wisdom. When they feel an unpleasant feeling, they obey it without questioning.

    Truth is eternal; the idea of making it ‘relevant’ is simply absurd. Those who are yearning for the living water of God – whether they know it or not – will not be filled by the uncertain and timid pop culture of so many church services, and an evangelical culture that is filled with self-doubt and shallow thinking.

    But the “nones” also cannot be satisfied by a decaying culture that offers nothing at all.

    I became a Christian in my early 20s, out of a rather militant atheism. If any Christian had attempted to be ‘relevant’ by using slang or making pop-culture references or sounding ashamed of their faith, I would have run a mile. I was in the frat world in the early 1980s. I didn’t leave that all behind, but I dramatically changed my behavior – through my own choice. I was in the evangelical subculture for many years but eventually returned to the Catholic Church of my ancestors.

    Christianity is a faith worth living and dying for. People are yearning for that. But it really is painful and demanding, and that is seen as upsetting and repellent. There is no way around that – for the “nones” or the churches or for any of us.

    The collapse of the evangelical subculture is part of the larger collapse of the West. There is no chance of going back to the early church. I do think we will return to a period similar to the early conversion of Europe, where individuals and small groups transformed lives through faith and the love of God – NOT through conferences, seminars. events, stadium meetings, buzz words, mission trips, church plants, twelve step groups; in other words, NOT through the vast apparatus of popular materialism combined with a Christianized religiosity.

    Pastors dress like they are going to a hardware store on a Saturday morning and the congregation ostentatiously dresses down to appear more humble. The result seems like a wearing of costumes, and the self-doubt and even self-hatred are obvious – the message is clear: “Please like us! You see! We are just like you!” Churches today assume that people have the attention span of parakeets. Reverences, awe and submission to God in quiet and respect have disappeared. For those reasons i can well understand why the “nones” would stay away.

    But they have a responsibility to pursue truth, not give up and wait be taken care of.

    Christians have a very long history of sacrifice for God that often takes the form of a long dark night, isolation and a meeting with God in a deep darkness. The result is a transformed life. I am thinking of the work of Patrick and Brigid in Ireland. They went through long years of preparation and transformation in order to be used by God.

    It will be very painful and require enormous sacrifices. Our emotions and hurt feelings and meeting our unmet needs will not play a significant role. Whether we like or do not like or ‘feel comfortable’ with the truths of Christ doesn’t matter, and will never matter.

    The extreme emphasis on emotions and comfort have softened us to the point where we demand to be coddled. We will have to get over that – the “nones” and all of us.

    • Like.

      My personal experience with “nones” is that the two main things that have driven them away from Christianity is encounters with hypocritical Christianity and encounters with real Christianity.

      It’s true that culture war, politics, hypocrisy and general idiocy in the Church have offended some nones. But I also have seen evolving nones refuse to dethrone their own values, feelings, opinions when they encounter genuine Christian faith and practice – and eventually choose “none of the above” over Christianity.

      >Christianity is a faith worth living and dying for. People are yearning for that. But it really is painful and demanding, and that is seen as upsetting and repellent. There is no way around that – for the “nones” or the churches or for any of us.

      I wish Churches would be willing to say this.

      • Lester Pangs says

        “Christianity is a faith worth living and dying for.”


        • Because it is reality. There is a God who is there – and we can encounter him through his word, his Son, and embodied in his people. Christianity is worth living and dying for me because I believe it is true, can observe its reality, value and impact in the lives of saints for 2000 years, and have experienced it to be real in my own life.

  26. There is one issue that I also want to add to this discussion. Do any of you guys see the rise of “The Nones” as being linked to the rise of “Reformed Theology”? I see Reformed Theology as basically being Fundamentalism 2.0. In it one encounters the following:

    1. Strict gender roles
    2. Harsh and brutal Bible teaching that is legalistic
    3. Over the top church discipline
    4. People being taught that God ordains evil.
    5. Membership covenants which are legalistic and lock a person into a church.
    6. Restrict and eliminate questions due to authoritarianism.
    7. Legalistic tithing

    Over the past 15+ years we have watched the American evangelical stage be dominated by people like John Piper, Mark Driscoll, etc… Now my poison was John Piper but its my theory and one that I have had for years is the following. The next wave of people who will follow the New Atheist Wave will be those who were burned out on Reformed Theology. I might even call it the “Reformed Atheist” movement.

    • I agree and disagree. The rise of the YRR that you speak of does a lot to make folks run from the church. But as big as it is to some of us, it’s still a minority of the Christian faith in the US.

      • David….when I was a Christian I was involved in organizations like Campus Crusade, then the Evangelical Free Church, for a brief time a Baptist, several non-denom, etc…. In the circles I moved in this was an issue that many had to contend with John Piper’s influence. I think one of the problems is that many evangelicals lack discernment and the rise of “The Nones” may be a case of reaping what you sow.

    • Actually Eagle I think the YRR movement and the “nones” are 2 waves of reaction against evangelicalism and institutional religion. They are 2 forms of post-evangelicalism. The YRR reacts by embracing what they perceive to be a more rigorous commitment to truth. The nones react by walking away.

      • I would tempted to combine what you both are saying. YRR is a post-evangelical reaction. And it is a movement in which some of the fundamentalist impulses are retained, esp by new “converts”. I knew a lot of young evangelicals in Christian college who sensed some of evangelicalism’s weakness and fled straight to Reformed theology. They seemed to detect in Reformed theology a richer and more complex tradition (which is true). They also seemed to detect in Reformed theology the promise of a perfect theological system: one that was Biblical and able to answer nearly any question perfectly. So it was a path to much-coveted certainty in theology, intellectual life, gender roles, you name it – as well as a way to fense against evangelical silliness. These cohorts really wanted to nail everything down, and Reformed theology allowed them to feel they could do that.

        As a result I spent many long hours arguing about the meaning of “free will” and “providence” with friends who couldn’t quite fathom why I didn’t see the self-evident truth in their arguments. I, in turn, tried to appreciate how a belief in providence seemed to solve all their problems (it used to make the problem of evil unsolvable to me, which drove me batty). On a bad day, my pals would shower me with gifts of Piper (ugh) and Sproul (UGH!). On good days, they quoted Jonathan Edwards.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        AKA the Nones bail out and the YRRs double down and yell LOUDER.

  27. Various thoughts. No time to organize into a thesis. Much of this relates back to what others have said.

    For reference my kids are in the first 1/2 of their 20s and my driver’s license says I’m way closer to 60 then my ego can comprehend.

    After WWII the youth were much better educated than the adults who were raising them. At least in “book” learning. So the simplistic answers that didn’t make sense created some serious internal conflicts with many of the youth. Not all but many. YEC being the poster child for this.

    New became open. Find pictures of FDR showing his braces. Hard to do. As to movies there’s appears to be just one 5 second clip. The press went along with hiding the deficiencies of our “leaders”. Look at JFK’s private life, even as president. Does anyone think he’s not get run out of town on a rail these days. Clinton’s issues would be trivial in comparison. All of this led to the youth of the 50s and onward seeing a huge discrepancy between our ideals and reality. In their (and mine many times in the 60s onward) mind the Emperor had no clothes. And many were not going to go along with the pretense.

    Why are more and more young people socially liberal? Maybe it’s because our entertainment choices didn’t match our supposedly spiritual statements. We watched Cheers, Fraizer, whatever, and we laughed. And with our kids in the room many got the idea that the lifestyle portrayed was OK.

    Some of the chart can be explained by generational lag. Many folks continue what they started in their 20s even if they no longer believed. Their kids never got the start in their own 20s.

    The cult of personality that so many churches have become is just so obviously fake to many younger people. Many of the older people at such churches attend, again, out of habit. It wasn’t like that while they were growing up so they keep going not realizing what their kids see.

    There’s a real split in some of the churches. They drive out the better educated (STEM) kids and push hard for the ones left to attend Liberty College or similar and marry young. And the STEM and other kids who left by the time they were 20 wind up not recognizing their friends when they stop back for a visit a few years later.

    One last thing. About 20 years ago NPR was doing a story about Christian musicians who were going mainstream in their appeal. Amy Grant was in the process of doing this. One Baptist preacher they interviewed made the statement that it just wasn’t right. If music made you want to tap your toe then it was the work of Satan. And the sad part many of the people in the faith older than me felt the same way. How many people did they chase into the None section.

    • Some Baptists have been flakey about dancing and music for a long time. I remember the joke, why are Baptists against pre-marital sex? Because it might lead to dancing.

      I’m wondering, what did Cheers show that was morally objectionable? I never saw Frazier (I usually have other things on my agenda than to watch my crowded DVR). I seem to remember it as a rather sweet show about a collection of lovable screwed up characters who met regularly n a bar.

      • I seem to remember it as a rather sweet show about a collection of lovable screwed up characters who met regularly n a bar.

        Yes With the sexual morals of rabbits in small cages.

        Frazier was similar.

  28. Mayor McGuinness says

    Long time reader, first time poster (I think). This is a long thread that I haven’t had an opportunity to read in its entirety so my comment may have already been addressed. Speaking to the issue of this post I see the influence of the internet as a large contributor to the movement on the part of younger people (and older as well) away from traditional mainstream and evangelical churches. This unprecedented wealth of information has open up the average young American christian to a wealth of divergent view points that simply weren’t available in past generations without taking the effort to hit the local library or being situated in an urban area were differing view points might be expressed via public access radio. Growing up in the midst of the “evangelical charismatic circus” in the 1980’s version of west Houston I vividly remember walking into the library of the school appended to my church and pulling a copy of National Geographic off the shelf, flipping through it and discovering that every instance of the word “evolution” marked out in black Sharpie ink in an article on ancient ancestors or some such thing. I think it much harder for churches and their associated institutions to get away with that now with that virtual fount of knowledge (and BS) at every child’s finger tips. Of course, there are exceptions in “divers places.”

    I have been a reader of this blog since 2005 when I was exploring the christian faith after having left it in my late teens for reasons that I’ll only say are very similar to Eagle’s. I found Michael Spencer to be the type of christian voice I wanted to hear, one that was passionate yet well reasoned and accepting of various view points. The last church I attended was a PCA in my home town that was pastored by a young and enthusiastic man who I thought did a great job of balancing the needs of both the young and old(er) in the church body. I left the church and the traditional christian faith in 2007 in favor of a more secular humanist view of the world. The book however, is not closed on my searching, and won’t close until I draw my final breath. I appreciate the contributions of the writers and contributors to this blog as I still see value in hearing voices of the faithful. After being a passive reader for so long I just wanted to throw my voice into the mix. Peace to you all.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Growing up in the midst of the “evangelical charismatic circus” in the 1980?s version of west Houston I vividly remember walking into the library of the school appended to my church and pulling a copy of National Geographic off the shelf, flipping through it and discovering that every instance of the word “evolution” marked out in black Sharpie ink in an article on ancient ancestors or some such thing.

      Imagine all the time and energy needed to go through and screen and censor a school library like that.

      Ca you say “obsessive”?

      • Mayor McGuinness says

        Yes on the obsessive call. I seem to recall that this library was staffed by a rotating cohort of jobless housewives who took it upon themselves to often times forego the “black out” strategy in favor of simply ripping out any content deemed “a lie of the devil” from the procured periodicals and books donated to them by well-meaning congregants.