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A Liminal Religiosity

The Rise of the “Nones”

by Andrew Kille

“There’s something about selecting one religion, one path, in the narrow way that I was brought up that seems so wrong, so unhelpful. The world is filled with wisdom. Human history is filled with wisdom. Why would I close myself off to that?”  - Elizabeth Drescher


A religiously unaffiliated 33-year old from Waimea, Hawaii, said that to Elizabeth Drescher, who has been studying the growing number of such people in America. Drescher, who earned her Ph.D. in Christian Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union and is Adjunct Associate Professor of Religion & Pastoral Ministry at Santa Clara University, shares some of her observations on the shifting demographics of American religion in a recent issue of America.

Those who describe themselves as unaffiliated with a religious tradition, dubbed “nones,” have increased from 7% of the population in 1990 to 23%, according to the recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The numbers are even higher among younger generations.

America will likely remain a “Christian nation” for some time, in the sense that many of the “nones” came from some at least nominally Christian background, and Christianity continues to shape cultural expressions and “civil religion.” However, the role and influence of Christianity in the culture is shifting significantly. “It is here that what might be called the none-ing of the United States will likely have its most pervasive and enduring effects on ways of perceiving, interpreting, and expressing our experiences of reality, which have for centuries been shaped extensively by Christian ideas and practices.”

Elizabeth Drescher

Elizabeth Drescher

Drescher describes “nones,” like the Hawaiian quoted above, as “free-range faithful,” living out a “liminal religiosity” that is “relational and experiential, oriented toward being present to the spiritual based in the self, the other, and the world instead of in structures of belief, belonging, and behaving associated with traditional religions.”

While unwilling to identify with a religious tradition, they often still find truth there. Drescher writes:

“When you let go of the idea that all of the so-called facts of the Bible have to be quote-unquote true with a capital T – when you just treat them like important ancient teachings like, I don’t know, The Odyssey,” a 55-year-old secular humanist from Boston told me, “then you can really get to understand why Jesus has been such an enduring spiritual figure. I mean, there is real truth in a lot of these stories – as there is in other ancient myths. I don’t have to either dismiss all of that because I’m a humanist or believe in Catholic doctrine on the virgin birth to have it make sense.”

Many of the “nones” that Drescher interviewed spoke about Jesus and the Bible as spiritual influences in their lives, but the aspects they emphasized were different:

Nones who engage Scripture tend to do so by way of inspiring cosmopolitan rather than communitarian action. The starting point for engagement is a recognition of otherness rather than a reinforcement of commonalities. It is about receptivity to difference rather than reinforcing community on the basis of similarity.

The Pew Study notes declining numbers for Evangelical Protestants (-.9%), Mainline Protestants (-3.4%), and Catholics (-3.1%). On the other hand, non-Christian traditions, including Muslim, Hindu, and several smaller groups, when added together show a modest increase (1.2%). One cannot help but wonder what such shifts in self-identification, openness to many religious paths and acceptance of difference will mean for interreligious encounters and dialogue in the future. Will there be a way to engage “nones” in interfaith conversation and cooperation?

Elizabeth Drescher’s new book, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones, will be released by Oxford University Press later this year.