They are ex-missionaries and military pilots, yoga instructors and computer programmers, mothers, fathers, professors and political activists.
Some left religion on a rocky, anguished path, stung by abuse or shunned by family. Others came to the realization slowly, after a lifetime of questions they couldn’t shake.
Jay Brown was the missionary. Raised in small-town Iowa, he traveled the world spreading the Lord’s Gospel until two years ago, when he realized he was an atheist.
The epiphany almost tore apart his marriage, but the family has persevered. Now, Brown says, he finds meaning in being a good father and husband and helping others.
Zalman Newfield, a sociology professor from Hoboken, New Jersey, left his ultra-Orthodox Jewish upbringing years ago but still holds tight to the traditions of his childhood. Each week, he gathers his two young daughters to study the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
They are two travelers among many in one of the fastest-growing movements in America: the “Nones” — people whose relationship with institutionalized religion can best be described as “none” or “nothing.”
In a country founded on tales of devout worshippers willing to risk everything for religious freedom, from Puritans to Quakers to Mormons, surveys say the Nones (pronounced, ironically, “nuns”) now account for about one in every four Americans. It’s a sea change set to transform the country’s religion, culture and politics.
Just as interesting as the exodus is what’s replacing organized religion in people’s lives: a more personal, often hard-to-define spirituality and search for meaning. That can manifest as a devotion to nature, meditation, yoga or political activism, among other things.
While atheism is growing in America, many of the Nones tell pollsters they still believe in a higher power, or even the Biblical God — but on their own terms, not those of a preacher, rabbi or imam.
Ryan Burge, a Southern Baptist minister, began pastoring a small church in Mount Vernon, Illinois, in 2006 while he was completing his graduate studies in political science. Within a decade, he said, “my church went from having about 50 people in the pews to just over 20. What was happening in American religion was also happening right in front of me.”
Within 10 years, the number of people in the U.S. who affiliate with no particular faith will be larger than any individual religious denomination, predicts Burge, now a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University. His book, “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going,” was published in March.
As many as 70 million American adults now identify as Nones, he said. Their numbers rose steadily from the 1970s onward and then accelerated in the new century, leaping from 17% of the population in 2009 to 26% in 2019, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
In recent years, one study after another has sought to decipher their motivations and movements.
In late March, a Gallup poll found that 47% of U.S. adults belonged to a house of worship, the first time that group accounted for less than half of the population since the pollster began asking the question nearly a century ago.
The Nones are largely a youth movement. A landmark survey of a half-million Americans released in July found just over a third of adults under 30 were unaffiliated. In 1986, it was just 10%, according to the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute.
Raised in a culture where they were urged to think creatively and “outside the box,” today’s youth are reinventing religious practices to accommodate their own lifestyles. Many opt to be spiritually connected in a way that feels authentic to them but would likely seem strange or heretical to their Bible-toting ancestors.
Nones often strive to find spirituality from within, be it through meditation, yoga or gatherings with communities of friends. They insist on forging their own journeys in a way that feels genuine to their souls.
“What we find are young people who are trying to figure out how to put the pieces together to create a flourishing spiritual life from a variety of sources,” said Josh Packard, a sociologist and author of “The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins.”
“Many are turning to nature, online communities, meditation and other spiritual practices,“ said Packard, who is also executive director of the Springtide Research Institute in Minnesota, which studies the faith of young people.
“However we still see relatively high rates of prayer.”
Some find their way to places like One Yoga & Wellness Center in Hightstown, New Jersey, where Tracey Ulshafer, a master yoga teacher and interfaith minister, helps students find “a connection through body, mind and spirit.”
Interest has been on the rise, said Ulshafer. Those who come for physical benefits often find a deeper transformation, she added.
Finding spirituality through yoga
“Yoga is a science of self-realization,” Ulshafer said. “When you are performing the poses, you are meditating. I bring a lot of spirituality to my classes. Spirituality is a calling in everyone, whether it’s conscious or not. We are all divine beings, and we need to seek that out. You have to feel it for yourself.”
Spirituality — a “connection to a power greater than yourself” — has become the substitute for religion, said Linda Mercadante, an emeritus research professor at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and author of “Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.”
“America has a long religious heritage, so it won’t be thrown out soon. Instead, it will be replaced by a more vague spirituality,” she said. “A lot of people won’t say the word ‘God’ because that’s not popular. But they will say ‘universe.’ ”
There’s no one explanation for why people are fleeing organized faith. The Nones themselves offer a myriad of reasons, including abusive experiences with religious communities, doubts about doctrine, disagreements with church leaders or the rigorous demands of a devout lifestyle.
It’s more socially acceptable today to identify as a None, sociologists note. The growth of social media has made people less community-focused but more likely to find compatriots with shared interests. Others say a trend toward delaying marriage and having children has decreased devotion to organized religion.
While many people want to believe in something greater than themselves, they don’t want to be tied down to an institutional approach, said Charles Zech, professor emeritus of church management at Villanova University, outside Philadelphia.
“They want to relate to God in the way that they want, not by following a church’s rules,” he said.
What’s striking is not the lack of belief in organized religion, but that so many continue to yearn for a connection outside of traditional methods of worship. While many have left churches, temples and mosques, they haven’t abandoned spiritual life altogether.
“Many people in my classes say to me, `This is my temple, or my spiritual home,’ ” said Charlotte Chandler Stone, a yoga therapist and director at Stone Yoga in Teaneck, New Jersey. “They say they get more from yoga than sitting in a church pew saying prayers that they don’t believe in. It helps them to get in touch with themselves and understand their purpose on Earth.”
Muhammad Syed of Washington, D.C., says he’s found that purpose in helping others. The 42-year-old left Islam in his 20s and became an atheist, shortly after emigrating to the U.S. from Pakistan. In 2013, he formed Ex-Muslims of North America, a nonprofit dedicated to helping others leave the faith.
“I don’t believe one needs to have faith to be spiritual,” he said. “I love nature. I love staring at the night sky. I find looking at the Milky Way a very spiritual experience. We can find meaning outside of faith.”
The coronavirus pandemic may have accelerated the trend, experts say, although there’s no hard data yet to back up that theory.
“People haven’t been able to show up to church in person for much of the pandemic,” said Mercadante. “While many have attended virtually, for others the habit of church has been broken.”
Although a 2020 Pew study found that 28% of Americans reported that their faith was strengthened by the health crisis, most of the subjects interviewed were already religiously connected.
Although the number of Republican Nones has also been rising, those shifting away from organized faith tend to be liberal and more heavily Democratic, say experts.
Their increase, along with growth in some right-wing religious groups, is likely to result in a further polarization of a country already divided along political and cultural fault lines, some scientists predict.
“You will have people who are either very religious or not religious at all,” said Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, a professor specializing in Jewish law and culture at DePaul University in Chicago and author of “Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World.”
“It follows into social issues as well: Nones tend to support gay rights and abortion rights.”
America has become less religious, and “the Nones are the best indicator of that,” said John C. Green, a political scientist who has studied the impact of religion on politics. That may portend a decline in civic and political engagement by individual Americans, continuing a trend of withdrawing from public life.
A lack of religious affiliation “also seems to be an indicator on their involvement in civic activities,” said Green, who teaches at the University of Akron in Ohio. “While religious people are champions at being involved in clubs and organizations, non-religious people don’t volunteer or belong to organizations, even things like the PTA.”
As older, more religious generations are replaced by younger ones, the U.S. could eventually look as secularized as Europe, with Nones dwarfing any single religious group, he said.
Yet the rise of the Nones could have positive impacts, ensuring that religion is “neither regulated nor prohibited by government,” said Mercadante. “They are implementing better boundaries between church and state. They are also inserting spirituality into everyday life.”
The Nones represent “an entirely new way of thinking about American social society,” said Burge, the Illinois pastor and researcher. They will “create organizations and institutions we’ve never seen or considered before,” he predicted. “There are already atheist groups forming to engage in social services in their local community, and I think this is just the beginning.”
Though the pews are getting emptier at houses of worship, religion won’t become obsolete.
The search for meaning is a universal and eternal quest among human beings. In a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 90% of respondents said they still believe in some kind of higher power, with 56% professing faith in God as described in the Bible.
Sixty percent of unaffiliated young people called themselves “at least slightly spiritual” in a 2020 study by Springtide Research.
NorthJersey.com and the USA Today Network New Jersey spent months chronicling the complex stories of those who have left organized religion to try to understand who they are, the forces that drive them and what it means to be spiritual in a highly secular world.
One thing is certain: We need to get used to the Nones and their practices. They are not going anywhere, and some believe that in the coming years they may even dominate the cultural landscape.
Email: [email protected]
Source: Asbury Park