Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions

Are people more interested in religion? Or less? Or both? (COMMENTARY)

Redeemer Presbyterian Church, one of the most influential evangelical churches in the country, is led by author and speaker Tim Keller. Photo courtesy of Godwell Andrew Chan

(RNS) The two big religion news stories of 2015: The “nones” are up! And, religious orthodoxy is up!

“Nones” refers to those who either are unaffiliated with a religious tradition or who say they have no religious beliefs — none. Together, the upticks in nones and in orthodoxy appear incompatible: Why should people be getting both less and more interested in religion? Yet the reason for the first is the same as for the second.

An increase in nones doesn’t mark a disinterest in religion as much as an interest in interesting religions.

At first, the story of religion in the U.S. looks bleak.

Nones are now 23 percent of the U.S. adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007, with increases across racial, ethnic, educational, geographic and income groups, according to a sweeping Pew survey.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church, one of the most influential evangelical churches in the country, is led by author and speaker Tim Keller. Photo courtesy of Godwell Andrew Chan

Redeemer Presbyterian Church, one of the most influential evangelical churches in the country, is led by author and speaker Tim Keller. Photo courtesy of Godwell Andrew Chan

The nation’s mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics were both down.

But not all religions are losing equally, or losing at all. In spite of the much-touted rise in nones, a decades-old pattern persists: Mainline faiths are down, while numbers in more orthodox faiths rise.

Take two cases:

  • Evangelical Christians, numbering 60 million in 2007, are up at 62 million today, or 35 percent of the adult population. Moreover, 10 percent of adults identify with evangelicalism today after having been raised in other traditions, more than offsetting those who left the faith. Evangelicals now account for 55 percent of Protestants, up from 51 percent in 2007.
  • Since the 1970s, the numbers of observant Jews “have grown greatly in numbers, self-confidence, and public profile.” As Pew notes, the Orthodox Jewish population is younger than the population of less observant Jews, and retention among the Orthodox is also up, suggesting “that their share of the Jewish population will grow.”

Parsing the data, historian Jonathan Sarna writes, “a religion that believes in strict adherence to rules and rituals thrives at a time when personal choice seems to reign as the cultural norm. But traditional religious values can be said to be the great success story of many major religious groups since the 1970s; witness the phenomenal rise of evangelical Christianity and Mormonism as examples.”

READ: Religion news in 2015: Terror, fear and forgiveness

Sarna did not note the elephant in the room: The appeal of extreme religious ideologies, such as those the so-called Islamic State advocates, is also the provision of “values” and sense of framework and purpose (and not only relief from socio-economic duress).

Neither Sarna nor I confuse evangelical Christianity, Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism with ideologies such as those ISIS promotes. The point is that having a sense of purpose and values beyond one’s lifestyle is powerfully part of the human condition.

The search for values shows up as well in those curious statistics about the nones. The 23 percent of the population that make up the nones consists of two groups: those who are atheist or agnostic (7 percent) and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” (16 percent).

That is, more than double the 7 percent take the time to distinguish themselves from atheists and agnostics and note that they have religious or spiritual beliefs or feelings, but not of an established sort.

READ: Trump ties Pope Francis as second ‘most admired,’ behind Obama

Of these, 8.8 percent say religion is not very important in their lives, but neither are they atheist or agnostic. It’s an interesting self-understanding. And 7 percent say that religion is important or very important, up from 5.8 percent in 2007.

In short, with the exception of atheists and agnostics, nones appear to be people who are moved by some kind of faith. They may not have found it in the organized religions they know. But where they are seems to be where those moving to orthodoxy are — interested in a substantial spiritual framework that speaks to them — yet unwilling to sign up until they find it. As many of the nones are young, they may yet find it.

Here’s the takeaway: The nones are up because they’re searching, and the orthodox are up because they’ve found.

What interests them is robust worldviews that offer consistent, “thick” grounds for values, ethics and ways of living. This doesn’t mean “mainstream” religions don’t offer those things, but if the numbers are in any way useful, it might mean they have some work ahead showing people that they do.

Those interested in religions that engage heart and mind and offer a compelling guide to one’s relations with world and others (as opposed to the violent ideologies of ISIS and its ilk) may yet present a promising prognosis for the new year.

(Marcia Pally teaches multilingual multicultural studies at New York University. Her new book, “Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality,” will be out in early 2016.)

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Marcia Pally


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  • The article is very interesting. One fact is always true, we humans ALWAYS
    SEEK MEANING to our existence. Traditional religions have always provided
    that. Now, in a world of instant access to alternate “meaning” for existence we
    can and do “pick and choose” for all sorts of reasons. I would question that
    “younger Jews, for instance are becoming more “orthodox” (even in Israel) as
    I worked with Jews for over 25 yrs. and I found this not to be the case. As to
    some younger Christians I agree the “evangelicals” sometimes offer a simple,
    and clearer path then the traditional Christian churches of of parents, etc.
    Most of us who are now here will not be around to see the results.

  • More people are less interested in religion, and it’s an encouraging trend.

    It suggests more people will be less interested in decapitating apostates and shooting/blowing up women’s healthcare clinics.

    We should all be in favor of that, I’d hope…

  • Christians can be violent.
    2 teenagers beat until one died in New York this year. KKK and White Supremacists hold meetings at churches.

  • Noreen, many thanks for your comments. The research reveals not that younger Jews are becoming more orthodox (though there is a substantial rise in participation in orthodox Jewry among younger Jews in comparison with one or two generations ago). Rather, the median and average ages of Orthodox Jewry is younger than these ages in other traditions of Judaism. Thanks for opportunity to clarify.
    Marcia Pally

  • Some believers are violent. Most aren’t.
    Some nonbelievers are violent. Most aren’t.

    Many believers are respectful of others’ beliefs. Many aren’t.
    Many nonbelievers are respectful of others’ beliefs. Many aren’t.

    Isn’t it amazing how much we have in common?

  • G Kay, I agree with you. Life is made of positive and negative – up and down, left and right, back and front, loose and tight, this and that… And it is all about choice. Human has been created to make choice between the two.

  • Many of the people who have lost their interest in religion are still open to the appeal of faith. I think there’s a growing understanding that to live a full life, one doesn’t have to pay to belong to an organization whose main products are intolerance and bigotry. On the other hand, churches that live their faith are gaining. Here’s something I wrote on what’s going on:

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