Much ado about ‘nones’

In his teaching and research, the Rev. Dr. Matthew Myer Boulton explores ways in which Christian worship founds and forms Christian life. This exploration draws together his interests in the history and practices of Christian liturgy; theology and public life; biblical interpretation and preaching; and the performing arts, including theater, music, and film. He recently posted an article on his blog, “Salt and Light,” discusses all the focus there has recently been on “nones” – those who do not associate themselves with any religion or denomination.

If you’re a reader of the New York Times, or a listener to National Public Radio, or a follower of the Religion News Service, you’d have good reason over the past week or so to come to the conclusion that the United States — and indeed the world — is becoming less and less religious.

The Times recently ran an article on atheism in which, almost in passing, the author cites a Pew Forum study to support the claim that “roughly 20 percent” of Americans are “secularly inclined” as opposed to religious. National Public Radio ran a series this week entitled “Losing Our Religion.” Religion News Service ran a story that The Christian Century published under the headline, “Unbelief is world’s third-largest ‘religion’”.

And yet all of this is misleading, subtly but decisively. Each of these stories, in various ways, combines and collapses three categories:  “Atheist,” “Agnostic” (these two combined currently constitute only about 5% of the U.S. population), and “Unaffiliated,” that is, those who do not claim a particular religious affiliation (the so-called “Nones,” who constitute about 15%). But if you read the Pew Forum’s report on the rise of the Unaffiliateds, you’ll find that 70% of them believe in God; 60% call themselves either “religious” or “spiritual,” and 40% of them pray. Lumping together this group with atheists and agnostics, or calling their increase a rise in “unbelief” or a case of “losing our religion,” is sloppy analysis at best.

Read how Matt describes what is REALLY going on with these so-called “nones.”

How do you interpret all these studies about “nones”? Does the leadership in your congregation ever discuss reaching out to them? If so, how?

Matt (President of Christian Theological Seminary) and his wife Liz (also a pastor in the Disciples of Christ) have teamed up to create the SALT Project, a non-profit project dedicated to reclaiming the beauty of Christian life through film, photography, music, and ideas.

Note: People say that marketing’s job is to create believers. The atheistic Anti-God ad campaign in the UK that has stirred attention at home and abroad does the opposite: it endorses the beliefs of non-believers (and maybe – stretch goal – tries to convert some believers into non-believers). “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” claim posters that appeared on 800 buses in England, Scotland, and Wales, as well as on the London Underground. The campaign was initiated by the British Humanist Association and is supported by scientist and vocal atheist Richard Dawkins. Today’s graphic comes from that 2009 campaign.

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