Difference in the religious and non-religious? Not when both hold the same questions.
According to a survey released a month ago by the Pew Research Center, 29% of all Americans when asked about their religious identity describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” This group, commonly referred to as “nones” in that they claim no religious affiliation, has increased from 23% in 2016 and 19% in 2011.
“If the unaffiliated were a religion,” writes adjunct professor Elizabeth Drescher from Santa Clara University, “they’d be the largest religious group in the United States.”
According to The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, nearly 60% of those who identify themselves as a none say religion was at least somewhat important to their families when they were in their younger, faith forming years. 30% of nones say they feel some connection to God or a higher power, and 19% say religion has some importance to them, even though they have no religious affiliation.
Nones represent a wide variety of Americans. While once concentrated in urban, coastal areas, nones currently reside all over the United States.
Despite what some may think, nones aren’t just those under the age of 30. Every age group has a percentage of people who have either drifted away from religion, or were never a part of what many nones refer to as the intuitionalism of religion.
70-year-old Zayne Marston attended a Congregational Church as a child. Marston, who lives in Shelburne, Massachusetts, drifted away from Bible studies and church-sponsored events like dances in high school and college. He remains what he calls spiritual, however. In his 30s, he began a serious, decades-long journey into spirituality that remains today.
“Spirituality is a soul-based journey into the heart,” he says. When speaking about his self-guided spiritual pursuit, the New Englander speaks for a great number of nones when he adds, “We’re looking for our own answers, beyond the programming we received growing up.”
As a product of the Congregational Church myself, I wonder about this programming Marston mentions. I was a member of the Congregationally-based United Church of Christ Church in Harford almost twenty five years before I became its fulltime minister. Like Marston, I also pulled away from religion in my teens and early twenties, even though I attended Presbyterian-based Grove City College for four years. Along with taking a required religion course as a first-year student, chapel attendance was mandatory each semester. Religion was “sort of there” for me when I graduated at the age of 22.
At no point in the first 30 years of my life did I ever think I’d have the job I’d have. Having six years of study as a masters of divinity student at Boston University and later as a doctoral student at Lancaster Theological Seminary would have been preposterous, absurd. “Me? A pastor?” I would have laughed at the idea.
But I loved Boston University. I always will. And Lancaster Theological Seminary? I refer to my hallowed professors and the halls themselves as a heaven on earth. To say I passionately loved studying there would be an understatement.
So, I am unique? Am I one of the ones that is not a none?
But maybe not. I align with Marston on a point he makes. I imagine you align here, too. We are all looking for answers.
Looking for answers is what makes theology exciting. Let me take it this way. If you’ve had a bad biology teacher, your thoughts on biology? Yeah, they are bleak or uninformed. The same can be for any teacher of any subject, but theology gets us all, regardless of our teacher/s because one of theology’s universal questions is Who Am I? The second question is just as important and exciting to answer. What Am I Doing Here?
Run from religion all you want to, but these two questions reside within you. You may keep them quiet, but they do roar from time to time.
It takes twice the amount of energy to walk away from God as it does to walk toward God. And once you start walking, you realize this self-guided business Marston speaks of gets repetitive, even boring. Imagine going to a museum without a guide. Now take that same tour with a guide. Yep. The difference is amazing. The self-guided tour is flat. The guided tour never stops exciting you.
Here’s a truth. We all have holes in our theologies. We all have soft spots, places that just cannot connect to other places solidly. With very few exceptions, nearly every Christian has a question that has a one sentence answer, not an entire essay booklet on the subject. The answers to the question are always similar. “I don’t know yet.” “This is why I have faith.” “Through a mirror I do see dimly.” (That one is from the Apostle Paul.) “I don’t need to know now, but I do need to love like Christ now.”
Like most or nearly all of the nones out there, I find institutionalism boring. Know what? So did Jesus.
This is all the more reason to listen to—and learn from—him.