The “Nones” Are Here… And Have Been for Over 100 Years

church

In recent posts about religious “nones,” or individuals without a religious affiliation, Mark Silk and Chris Stedman at the Religion News Service address the potential relationship between the emergence of the “New Atheists” and the rise of the “nones.” According to Silk, it’s unlikely that the New Atheists are responsible for the growing statistical prominence of “nones” as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins hit the bestseller lists a good 10-15 years after the uptick in “nones” back in the 1990s. It’s important to recall, however, that the presence of Americans who find Saturday- or Sunday-morning solace in nature or the newspaper goes back quite a bit further, though the questions have remained eerily consistent from one era to another.

Today’s religious “nones” encompass both atheists and those who believe in God (68% of nones are believers, according to Pew). Indeed, both secular and religious unaffiliated people draw on a much longer history that reaches back into the late nineteenth century. Several scholars of American religious history, including Leigh Eric Schmidt and Catherine Albanese (whose relevant works were cited in RD’s “Five Must-Reads on the Nones”) have teased out strands of this older pattern of life on the margins of religious affiliation. A century ago, the religious “nones” were coming, and just as today, religious leaders wondered what they could do to stop the flow away from church or synagogue.

Recognizing that many were leaving religion because its doctrines no longer matched their modern views or sympathies, some like-minded leaders sought to create new traditions. One such movement was the Society for Ethical Culture, founded in 1876 by Felix Adler, a Reform Jew who created a post-Jewish religion of “deed rather than creed.”

The Sunday morning meetings of the original New York Society for Ethical Culture included music and a spoken address. Membership drew from the upper echelons of New York society, including many prominent Jewish leaders. Adler’s reason for holding such ritualistically bare services are surprisingly relevant, perhaps, to today’s religious “nones.” Said Adler: “You may have holier moods on a Tuesday than on a Sunday; you may enter into larger communion with the spirit of nature in the woods or by the sea. You may! But, as a matter of fact, actually do you?” Wouldn’t it be better to attend any kind of service—even one as secular as theirs—to increase the chances of having that kind of uplift? Adler’s implied question raises a point still relevant to unaffiliated Americans of today: does a life without religious institutions offer the same benefits as one lived in the context of a religious tradition?

Another Ethical Culture leader, Percival Chubb of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, offered even more potent commentary in 1931 which relates to the similarities between what he referred to as the “strays on the religious frontier” and today’s “nones.” He called the world of the “nones” the “territory of the unchurched,” where people “have left the churches to which they belonged—mainly by accident of birth—to join the ranks of the unattached.  Some hesitate: there are children with them.”

Like Adler, he hoped that Ethical Culture would provide a “refuge” for those considering leaving traditional religious observance. Perhaps, rather than disaffiliate or become secularized atheists, they might find a home in Ethical Culture. The types of people Chubb saw leaving the churches sound eerily similar to today’s unaffiliated believers and nonbelievers. They consisted of:

1) Educated, urban members of the middle- and upper-class: “the ‘intellectuals,’ who will frankly tell you that they have ceased to feel any religious needs. They are readers; they are actively interested in the cultural movements of their time—the arts, music, drama, philosophy, politics—and these suffice them, they believe, for the inner life.”

2) Special-occasion attendees: “They are once-or-twice-a-year worshippers—at Easter or Christmas—and cling to a family tradition.”

3) Nature lovers: “Others like ‘a book of verses underneath the bough,’ or may cherish what Wordsworth called ‘natural piety.’”

For Chubb, and for others like him, the question of the day was similar to ones being asked today: Can this flight from the churches be stopped? Chubb feared that these wayfarers on the frontier would “become individualists and isolationists so far as religion is concerned, each ‘going it alone.’”

Chubb’s words, so similar to Robert Putnam’s “bowling alone,” resonate clearly today, and they offer a warning to those who bemoan what such high numbers of “nones” means for the future of America’s churches. Chubb believed that Ethical Culture, and other like-minded groups such as the Unitarians, offered a creedless religion inoffensive to modern thought, which would therefore appeal to the progressive-minded, rational, upscale, worldly individuals statistically more likely to comprise the “nones.”

History, however, has not borne out this belief. Liberal mainline churches bleed members annually, and alternatives to traditional denominations such as Ethical Culture or Unitarian Universalism, which offer even more comfort with the mores of the age, remain a tiny statistical minority. Religious nones, whether atheist or unaffiliated believer, are simply that, people without religious affiliation. No matter how liberal or secular a congregation’s doctrine might be, they live quite well, thank-you-very-much, without it.

The longer history of religious liberalism’s failure to stem the tide of strays into the religious frontier will remain a vexing problem for today’s religious leaders, even as it was over a century ago. Ironically, it was during that same era—the late 19th century—that secularism and positivism, the New Atheists’s forebears, first enjoyed a “golden age” in American culture, as historians such as Jackson Lears have noted. The religious “nones” are coming, and while there may be little anyone can do to stop this trend, it doesn’t appear as though aggressive atheism has ever done much to accelerate it either.

  • LogicGuru

    There have of course always and
    everywhere been individuals who didn’t participate in religious or
    quasi-religious congregations. The difference is that now public religiousity,
    the myth, ceremonies, symbols and religious ambiance, has been lost. We’ve bought
    into the idea of church as a ‘community’ of the doctrinally (or at least
    ethically) committed, a semi-private special interest group, rather than a
    public facility that is part of an overall religious ambiance.

    Imagine the world of Greco-Roman
    paganism, where there were endless public cultic activities, an elaborate
    mythology that everyone knew and innumerable mystery religions. Not everyone
    believed, and not everyone participated, but it was all there for people who
    wanted it, and everyone could choose the bits they liked: a buffet of yummy
    religiousity.

    We’ve lost that yummy buffet, and
    that stinks. Religiousity is one of the fun things in life—and I don’t mean the
    ‘deep’ part about ‘Meaning’ or or ethics, but the ceremonies, the myths and the
    metaphysical playground for those who enjoy speculation. That’s the rationale
    for evangelism—promoting support for institutional religion in order to revive
    ambient religousity, so that those goodies are available for our enjoyment. It
    takes an institution to maintain the buildings and produce the ceremonies.

  • Jim Reed

    does a life without religious institutions offer the same benefits as one lived in the context of a religious tradition?

    Or does a life without religious institutions avoid some of the pitfalls of a belief structure based on myth? To me that is the key issue. Are there disadvantages to believing something that is not true, and dedicating your life to believing it more than anything and without question, and working to convince everyone else you can to also take up your system of belief, and especially doing whatever it takes to make sure your children will believe this thing so you won’t have to face the ultimate disappointment of having children who reject your traditional belief system? When put that way it is easy to see why this is a major flaw of our society. On the other hand, when a belief system has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries and millennia, it can be difficult for human beings to see it as potentially a mistake, especially when the belief is your one and only shot of living in heaven after you die and going to spend eternity with Jesus.

  • Jim Reed

    Whatever richness there was in world of Greco-Roman paganism, there is far more richness in the modern world of the internet.

  • LogicGuru

    Mebbe. But our world would be even richer if we had not only the internet but also the religious ambiance–the endless festivals and ceremonies, the mystery cults, the mythology, the cult and idols, and all the yummy stuff of religiousity to enjoy. I believe in MORE–the more the better!

  • Jim Reed

    In today’s world that is not an option. The only option is conservative religious causes tearing at society from every angle, until the world finally turns away and religion can start to fade into the distance.

  • LogicGuru

    BELIEF ISN’T THE ISSUE! I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what what you or anyone else believe about theological matters–it’s it doesn’t make me any better or worse off. And I don’t imagine for a minute that theological beliefs are of any practical import whatsoever. What matters is the CULT, the ceremonies, fancy buildings and their furnishing, the holidays and celebrations, the yummy goodies. We can do our believing on our own. We need the religious institutions to maintain the fancy stuff and put on the show. And you can enjoy the show regardless of what you believe. No one in my church gives a rat’s ass any more than I do about what church-users believe.

  • Jim Reed

    Whatever you want, belief is going to sink all the religions, and then nobody is going to pay for your church buildings.

  • LogicGuru

    Pity. Unbelievers as well as believers should recognize them a public amenities, like parks, libraries, and sports stadiums–available especially for weddings and other rites of passage. Churches to send the message that they don’t give rat’s ass what you believe–that everyone is welcome to use the facility.

  • Jim Reed

    You want believers and unbelievers to come together to support beautiful church buildings for everyone to enjoy. In today’s climate of conservative believers going to war against anything that moves, that sounds like playing with fire.

  • LogicGuru

    Conservative religion is beginning to decline in the US. The Southern Baptist church has shown declining membership for several years. other fundagelical churches are just about holding their own–declines projected. Liberal churches are just declining faster, since they cater for educated upper middle class people. ‘Nones’ now represent over 20% of the population, including 1/3 of Americans 18-30. So I don’t think you have to worry about conservative believers taking over.

    Arguably, the best way to wipe out conservative religion is to promote liberal religion! Promote those downtown brownstone churches with great music programs and snob appeal! When it comes to consuming religion, no one in their right mind would pick fundagelicalism–with it’s puritanical restrictions, idiotic doctrines, ugly buildings, sermons, Bible-worship and boring services when they could have a magical mystery tour in dim religious light.

  • Jim Reed

    Instead of promoting liberal religion I would be in favor of just dropping all religion because I don’t think we need it, and I think we as a society would do better without it.

  • Jim Reed

    The religious “nones” are coming, and while there may be little anyone can do to stop this trend, it doesn’t appear as though aggressive atheism has ever done much to accelerate it either.

    I think President Bush (junior) did more than anyone to accelerate it because it was his presidency where Christianity seemed to make the final disconnect with reality. History will tell.

  • pennyroyal

    people differ in their need or desire for ritual and ceremony. Some love it, especially those who grew up with it. Ex-catholics may still go to mass on the big holiday for the “smells and bells.” They need a ‘fix’ of ritual. Others, like me, don’t trust ritual because we find the church liturgy manipulative of our emotions. So we avoid it. But even beyond this some seek the sacred in different ways.

  • LogicGuru

    Can’t argue with that. I’d just like to see the smells and bells available for those of us who enjoy them–just as I like to see professional sports available for people who enjoy them, even though I have absolutely no interest.

    I was raised heathen, and without any ceremony–I joined to Church to get that. It isn’t a ‘need’ but a want want: something I just really, really enjoy–like bike-riding, music, good wine and smelly cheese. I suppose I’m peculiar in this. I like religiousity as an end in itself, and joined the Church so that I could go to church. (when I joined I said to myself that I’d ‘bracket the God question–and I still do)

    As far as manipulating emotions, surely we all do that: listen to music, read novels, watch movies to get our emotions manipulated. I suspect that’s why many people watch competitive sports: to get intense emotion, to feel the thrill, and to feel angry, because anger feels good. It’s hard to get intense feeling without props and machinery so it’s important to have the props and machinery available–art, music, literature, sports, religion, whatever it takes to manipulate emotion and produce intense feeling.

  • GeniusPhx

    When I was growing up if i had a question about my faith I went to my mom or the pastor, and they would always use their myths to yank me back in. Now people have the internet to get an unbiased look into both sides of any argument. People are taking advantage of that and the unchurched is growing, now that the truth is available.

    In the colonies it has been overblown how religious we were. Only 25% were christian, less than half belonged to any church, 25% were ‘deists’ or atheists back then. It was the age of reason and books by John Locke, Thomas Paine, and Spinoza were everywhere. Our founders believed in “natures god” or “the god of nature” which is the deist god, not the christian god. None of our first 7 presidents believed in the deity of jesus (required to be a christian). reference ‘Natures God’ by a christian author, Stewart Mathews.

    We only hear from the extremes on both sides. It seems like we are a very religious country because they have the pulpit, those of us who dont care about god or religion, also dont care to talk about it.

  • pennyroyal

    thanks for the reply. You make good points. I am a retired minister and studies show most people who are religious approach it in different ways. Some like kneeling (like at Mass) or as in some Buddhist practices, prostrations. Others like the music, find the the ritual and its ancient roots to be of comfort. Ritual done right is not manipulative.
    A friend who is an ex. Jehovah’s Witness, has been pagan, Catholic, Unitarian, etc. etc. is now studying Greek Orthodox and finding what she has longed for all her life, depth and understanding. She loves the ritual and it gives her great comfort such that she is calmer and more trusting, which is a good thing given her illnesses. To each his own.

  • LogicGuru

    For me it’s not comfort but stimulation. The Faustian urge, at least according to Goethe, isn’t the quest for knowledge (as it’s conventionally understood) or pleasure, but intense experience as such. That’s why I hated revised liturgy–its emotionally flat, there’s less stuff, less sensuality. And why I hate meditation–I don’t want to relax or be still: I want as much stuff going on in my head as possible, and outside. And endless carnival of sensation and intense emotion. That’s what I want church to be.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Could you please explain, specifically, in what ways our society would be better if my synagogue and its congregation disbanded? How would society — or anyone — be better off, if my daughter were unable to have her Bat-Mitzvah this year? How would society — or anyone — be better off, if my wife and I had *not* had our wedding ceremony, under the Chupa?

    And please, be specific.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I’d love to hear the argument for this.

    So, you’re telling me that the society whose popular culture consists of Reality TV shows is “richer” than the society whose popular culture consists of Sophocles?

    You really are a very confused person.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Of course. Because there aren’t a billion Hindus, who are polytheists, with extraordinarily rich rituals, practices, aesthetics, and the like. Or millions of Shinto animists.

    Oh…wait.

    You seem to mistake some miserable neighborhood in the American Bible Belt for “the world.”

  • SpiritCalls

    “Nones” may well be believers in a transcendent “GOD” (as I am) where said GOD transcends the relatively mere God, and/or gods, of religions.

    IMnsHO and E.

  • Jim Reed

    You want me to be specific in explaining what I think of your religion. I have not been specific in complaining about your religion. I have not complained about it at all. My complaints about religion have to do with things that go beyond mere traditions of some society, but beliefs that look back to divine intervention in the distant past that somehow applies to how a religion thinks society should be regulated today. All you have explained about your reform Judaism is it has no magical divine connection, it is a traditional (and non-evangelical) way of life.

  • Jim Reed

    I am telling you there is many levels of richness and value to be found on the internet. One place is here on RD. There are others. There is also incredible educational value to be found in tools on the internet, things that have globally changed the way of life in the last 15 or so years. In the past you could learn many things from man’s storehouse of knowledge in the library. Today you can learn much more, and learn it dozens of times faster, and many more people can use the tools and do use them all the time. The common man can use the internet. Scientists can also use the global connectivity, in fact they drove much of the power of that connectivity to push scientific understanding forward at faster rates. The ancients had a lot of knowledge, but imagine how much more they could have done if they had the internet. Not only is the knowledge and understanding advanced far beyond what they had, but the number of wise people at the cutting edge of different forms of knowledge is also much greater. I am impressed. I agree reality TV is dumb, but the internet is amazing.

  • SpiritCalls

    Panenthism is almost completely disregarded … out of ignorance usually.

  • Jim Reed

    I see a world where conservative forces, including conservative Christianity, are tearing at the fabric of society in every way they can. It seems like they know their time is limited, and they are not going to go quietly.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    This is what you wrote:

    “Instead of promoting liberal religion I would be in favor of just dropping all religion because I don’t think we need it, and I think we as a society would do better without it.”

    It is specifically targeted at *liberal* religion and makes no distinctions. Thus, my query is a perfectly fair one. Now, if you want to take it back and retreat to a “let’s drop crazy, fundamentalist religion” position, then that’s fine. I, however, was responding to what you wrote, and in that context, the question stands.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I would argue that “more” is not equal to “better.” I’d trade ten thousand “interesting” websites for one living playwright of the caliber of a Sophocles or Aeschylus.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Again, you are changing your tune. I was responding to a very specific comment you made, in response to LogicGuru.

    LogicGuru wrote:

    “Our world would be even richer if we had not only the internet but also the religious ambiance–the endless festivals and ceremonies, the mystery cults, the mythology, the cult and idols, and all the yummy stuff of religiosity to enjoy.”

    You, then, wrote in reply:

    “In today’s world that is not an option. The only option is conservative religious causes tearing at society from every angle.”

    I, then, pointed out religious traditions that are practiced by literally billions of people, which contradict your claim, and you then retreat — again — to conservative Christianity and other unnamed conservative “forces.”

    You are curiously disinclined to actually defend what you actually write. When someone calls you on it, you just shift gears and make some other point instead. This is not what is normally understood by “conversation.”

  • Jim Reed

    Logic Guru sees value in religions, not in the beliefs, but in the beauty of the buildings and costumes and ceremony. I disagree. I think in the US the country is ripping apart on every seam because of conservative Christianity. It can only get worse, and might even be the end of the religion. What then? I can’t see us picking a next choice religion from somewhere in the world. We are a religious disaster here, but the rest of the world is also messed up. China is using its power to crush religion. Russia is using religion as a political chip, and the people seem happy with that. India is religiously childish and nothing there of value. Africa uses religion to hate America and hate the west and hate their own people. They are also the most rapidly growing Catholic area. South America is Catholic. In Japan religion is smart enough to keep a low profile and not get in the way of the economy. The middle east is a key area to avoid or risk death, and I also wouldn’t bet on any of the religions in Israel. Regarding religion the world is in bad shape, and I can’t really see any example of a billion people anywhere worthy of a closer look.

  • Jim Reed

    If he was on the internet he probably wouldn’t get many hits because there is so much other great stuff.

  • Jim Reed

    I don’t think it is needed. If you see value in liberal religion, then fine, but I don’t. I think liberal religion is just blocking for their conservative brothers.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I can’t really see any example of a billion people anywhere worthy of a closer look.

    ————————
    Hence the problem with trying to talk with you about these subjects.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    This could win the “Most Philistine Remark Ever” award.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    We know *you* think this. The whole point is that those of us who actually belong to liberal forms of religion know better. The problem is that you are immune to being educated by others. You’d rather just repeat the same three or four mantras over and over again.

  • Jim Reed

    I am not sure there is any education to have regarding liberal religion. Liberal Judaism is fine, it is just a set of traditions, and not a system of beliefs. My question is about liberal Christianity. What is it? What does it believe? If it doesn’t believe anything, then it is secular humanism. If the “Christianity” part implies something, then what is it. That is the education I need. So far I haven’t been able to get any answers, what is liberal Christianity from a belief perspective?

  • Jim Reed

    If he was on the internet and he did get a large number of hits, then he would be a part of the internet. If not, then someone else gets the hits. It is one way to judge.

  • LogicGuru

    As I understand it the idea that there may be something supernatural or other, together with fun speculation about metaphysical issues. So, why is that any worse than speculation about the existence of Platonic Forms? We liberals recognize that absolutely nothing of practical importance hangs on it. And I can assure you that most of us liberals are in no way blocking for our conservative brothers. They’re an embarassment, they’re mostly lower class, and most of us detest them. Show me one bit of evidence that we educated upper middle class liberal Christians have any sympathy for them.

  • Jim Reed

    Liberal Christianity can be blocking for the conservatives without wanting to, or be aware that they are doing it. They are not even directly doing it. It is just a function of the greater Christian religion. It just happened. It snuck up on them over time, and the middle ground shifted to the right as the extreme right went over the edge.

    Liberal churches of 30 and 40 years ago should have been preaching about the dangers of conservative Christianity. They should have made it clear, this is really a totally different religion.

    I think the hands of liberal Christianity are tied because of the nature of the religion, and not being able to deal with exactly what it is without putting it at risk. The conservatives get hung up on ancient literal interpretations of scripture; heaven and hell, the trinity, end times and rapture. Liberal Christianity has to be more non-committal on these things. If they oppose the conservatives too much, then it becomes clear they are not the same religion, and so what religion are they and what beliefs do they have? That question would be too dangerous because revealing they don’t really have any of the ancient beliefs would risk collapsing the whole thing, so their best approach is to just kind of still be Christian and try to keep a low profile.