Last year, the president of the largest atheist organization in the United States spoke to a group of students organized for the 2011 Secular Student Alliance leadership conference. A focal point of his talk on the future of atheism was the idea of a "sleeping giant," or what he called the "30 percent under 30" -- the nonreligious Americans who would shape the future of our national discourse on religion.
Though that figure was slightly off -- under the most recent survey figures available last year, 25 percent of Americans under 30 were religiously unaffiliated, and only about 7 percent of them identified as atheist or agnostic -- the statement was oddly prescient. This week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released their most recent figures, revealing that the number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated is growing rapidly -- particularly among people born in the 1980s and 1990s. So the nonreligious do indeed seem poised to assist in shaping the future of religious discourse, but perhaps not in the way some might have predicted.
People who monitor trends regarding religious affiliation in the United States have noted for several years now that the percentage of the American public that doesn't affiliate with a religious tradition is growing at an astonishing rate, but even they may be surprised by Pew's latest findings. The percentage of Americans with no religious preference, often referred to as the "nones," has grown nearly 5 percentage points in the last five years to include about 1 in 5 Americans. For Americans under 30, the growth has been even more pronounced -- to nearly 1 in 3.
There are many possible reasons people might disaffiliate from religion. Some simply stop believing in religious claims -- sure enough, 12 percent of the "nones" identify as atheist and 17 percent identify as agnostic. But for many, their lack of religious affiliation may have more to do with identity politics than belief. In fact, the majority of the religiously unaffiliated seem to carry some beliefs associated with religious thinking. Sixty-eight percent of nonreligious Americans claim to believe in a god or universal spirit (strangely, this includes 38 percent of atheists and agnostics), and 40 percent pray at least once a month. Still, if we hope to understand this notable shift away from religion in American life, and where this growing demographic stands, we need to start including them in the conversation about religion and values. And that means believers and nonbelievers need to start paying attention.
In a time when debates about same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, capital punishment, epidemic hunger and even Big Bird dominate American discourse -- frequently bolstered by the language of "morality" and "values" -- it is of paramount importance that we understand the values held by the religiously unaffiliated. With an astonishing degree of ignorance about religious diversity in the United States, and a quickly emerging group with an ambiguous standing toward religion, the need for dialogue and education is only growing. As the number of religiously unaffiliated people climbs, and a younger generation becomes a more influential voice in society, it will become necessary to include and understand these voices in our broader national discourse.
Though the Pew study is certainly insightful, another way -- perhaps one of the best ways -- to better understand the "nones" is by directly engaging them in dialogue on the grassroots level. Over the last several years, the number of nonreligious people participating in interfaith dialogue has grown significantly; the Secular Student Alliance reported that 1 in 5 of their college and university affiliate groups participated in interfaith programs in 2011, and Interfaith Youth Core consistently works with atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated. This trend must continue. Religious individuals and communities should be proactive about reaching out to the religiously unaffiliated, and inviting them to share their perspectives in a way that doesn't patronize them or discount their experiences and ideas. The Pew study is perhaps one of the strongest indicators we've seen that moving toward a more constructive dialogue between the religious and nonreligious is urgent. The religious and the religiously unaffiliated (including atheists and agnostics) surely share many common values, and now is the time to begin to identify them.
How will the nonreligious respond to interfaith outreach? The picture put forward by the Pew survey isn't entirely clear, and the "nones" seem to have a complicated relationship with organized religion. Though about 70 percent of them think religious organizations are too involved with money and politics, about 80 percent think that religious organizations help bring people together, build communities, and play an important role in helping the poor and those in need. To quote from Pew's report: "a majority of the religiously unaffiliated clearly think that religion can be a force for good in society."
These "nones" aren't likely to think that we're a Christian nation, but they also aren't likely to think that churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and the like are obsolete. They recognize that religious communities and individuals are an active, relevant force in our society -- and often, an extremely positive one -- even if they don't align themselves with a particular tradition. Because they seem unlikely to identify with the values or behaviors of religious fundamentalists -- or with rigid anti-theists, for that matter -- their voice feels like a new one. And in an age seemingly defined by polarization and tribalism, a potentially transformative one.
So let's start listening to it.
For more on the religiously unaffiliated, watch Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly's "None of the Above: The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated" miniseries this month on PBS.
Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the author of 'Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious' (Beacon Press, Nov. 6). Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University and the former president of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. Both contribute to the atheist-interfaith blog NonProphet Status.
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