The “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated, now constitute the second largest faith-related group behind Christians in the United States. They make up roughly 23 percent of the U.S. adult population, 35 percent of millennials and can be seen cropping up across demographic categories.
For Kaya Oakes, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley and seasoned religion writer, the growing population of "nones" is more than a demographic trend. It's a lived reality for thousands of Americans with unique stories to share.
Oakes' new book, The Nones Are Alright, reads in between the lines of poll results and reveals a picture of what life is really like for "seekers, believers, and those in between." Huffington Post Religion spoke with Oakes about the findings of her book -- what leads people away from religion, how they are forming new communities and what faith groups need to do if they want to hold onto the younger generations.
Read the interview below:
Huffington Post: What are some of the biggest challenges and concerns for the people you interviewed? And why are they, ultimately, “alright”?
Kaya Oakes: A unifying challenge and concern for those profiled in the book is how to be good, and how to tend to a fractured and broken world without using the traditional framework of religion. I don’t mean being good in the sense of following a set of edicts, but in the sense of following one’s conscience and caring for the common good of our world, including those on its margins. In that sense, the nones are “alright” because they exhibit the best of what religion traditionally offers people -- compassion and sensitivity -- without being caught up in dogma or trying to convert others to a set of beliefs that might not make sense to them, or be alienating.
What were some of the key reasons you encountered for people leaving their faith?
For Catholics, definitely what we might call “body issues”: abortion, birth control, being LGBTQ. For mainline Christians and Evangelicals, it's a sense of disconnection, or being out of sync with church teachings on similar issues, or just feeling disinterested and burned out. Ditto for Jewish people, Muslims and Buddhists: there was some breaking point in each case, often having to do with asking too many questions and being rebuffed instead of listened to. Young people are asked to bear a lot of burdens in religion these days, because there are so few of them. They’re constantly asked what can be done to bring in more young people, but when they offer answers, they’re not listened to or they’re told “we’ve always done it this way." And they’re not feeling supported, or getting relevant messages. That is a fracturing point for many.
Your book explores not only people who lack faith but those who have found faith, changed religions or redefined their tradition in some way. In all these examples, can you pinpoint some catalysts that set off these transformations for people?
The people who converted, or left a religion and came back, or are working within a tradition but trying to make room for more doubts and questions -- what they have in common is a sense that the questions were bigger than the answers they were getting. So that sets off a period of negotiation. What is this tradition giving me, and what’s it failing to give me? Can I find room within this tradition to negotiate, or do I need to check out for a while and check back in later on? Of course, most who check out don’t come back. That should be sending a message to faith leaders.
Your book investigates some of the generational differences at work within the "nones"? Any insight into how the trend may play out in the next group, "Generation Z"?
Their interest in religion is mostly cultural. They check it out when it occurs around them, ask questions, etc. But I think that parents of younger kids are more and more often allowing the kids to make their own decisions around religion. And that’s different from even my own generation (X), where even if we got a watered-down religious tradition as our parents came out of the 60s and were asking their own questions about the role of faith, we got something. Now many people get even less, so they take a more unstructured and independent approach to belief.
What are some of the most creative or innovative ways you found that “nones” are experiencing their faith and forming community?
I’m really interested in what we might call DIY religious communities. They’re often interfaith, and often focused on service. Things like Adam Bucko’s Hab Community in New York, that blends interfaith prayer and contemplative practice with service to the marginalized. Or the New Monasticism movement that Shane Claiborne has been working on for a while, though that’s more explicitly Christian. There are also examples of urban farming collectives that function like spiritual community, or even Habitat for Humanity or Laundry Love. These are leaderless, decentralized ways of being in community and doing good work, and much like Occupy or Black Lives Matter, they reflect this greater collective impulse to come together around social issues without a strictly religious framework. Although there is plenty of religion and spirituality present in all of the above, it’s not explicit and not about proselytizing or conversion, and thus friendlier to seekers and doubters.
Many organized faith groups are wringing their hands over the growing category of "nones" and wondering how to attract young people, especially, back to the fold. What words of wisdom would you give them?
Listen, listen, listen. Listen again. Don’t think that stuff like beer nights and church meeting in a coffee shop and pastors in flannel and skinny jeans is going to be enough: it’s not, and many people see right through it. Meet people where they arrive rather than drawing a line and expecting them to cross it. Be present to people’s doubts and questions in honest ways. People want to do good for the world even if they’re not part of your faith tradition. Trust in that.
After all the research you did for this book, how do you define spirituality?
Seeking. A lifetime of seeking.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. To keep exploring this topic, check out Kaya Oakes' book The Nones Are Alright.
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