The Rise of Religious "Nones" Indicates the End of Religion As We Know It

In this Dec. 11, 2012 picture, Yoga instructer Kristen McCloskey, right, leads a class of third graders at Olivenhain Pioneer
In this Dec. 11, 2012 picture, Yoga instructer Kristen McCloskey, right, leads a class of third graders at Olivenhain Pioneer Elementary School in Encinitas, Calif. Administrators of the Encinitas Union School District are treading softly as they pioneer what is believed to be the first district-wide yoga program of its kind, while trying to avoid a legal dispute over whether yoga is just exercise or an intrinsically spiritual practice. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

I have seen the future of religion in America, and its name is "none." Yet another survey just recently published and publicized is emphasizing what is now an undeniable trend on the American religious landscape: increasing, if not historic, numbers of Americans are claiming no religious affiliation when asked to state their religious identity, and more and more are embracing "spirituality" as an alternative religious brand that is not tradition-specific, but is more in line with the democratic spirit of individual tastes.

This surge of people not willing to associate with any faith tradition when asked by surveyors will certainly garner a great deal of attention: the faithful will cry the sky is falling, and the world is clearly coming to end with this movement away from traditional, authoritative religious institutions; political pundits will pounce on the figures indicating that a majority of these "nones" are on the liberal side of the political spectrum, and therefore are likely to exacerbate the cultural wars that have become so prominent since the rise of the Religious Right in the second half of the twentieth century; and the atheists will claim the upper hand in the ongoing battles with religious leaders who they believe have been deceiving and exploiting weak-minded sheep for far too long.

It is truly a fascinating time to be a scholar of American religion and see the dynamic, shape-shifting, and profoundly significant changes taking place in the 21st century. Is this a cultural moment signaling another "Great Awakening," a period of serious social and spiritual transformation associated with outbursts of revivalism and evangelicalism in colonial New England, the early national period soon after the American Revolution, the middle of the nineteenth century in expanding and diversifying urban areas, and for some the 1960s cultural revolutions during the tumultuous Vietnam War era?

My own take on the current moment is that this is not an "awakening" -- which is after all is associated with a revival of the Christian spirit and Americans returning to the church -- but a great cultural metamorphosis. If things continue to go in this direction into the future, religion will never look the same as it once did.

The changes taking place in the religious lives of Americans can be tied to five major developments that are ingredients contributing to this metamorphosis.

First, the 1960s are coming home to roost. The rise of the "nones" confirms that the counter and hippie cultures of the 1960s have an underappreciated longevity in the cultural and spiritual lives of Americans. While many people appreciate the trajectory and influence of the Religious Right in the aftermath of cultural tumult associated with the 60s, the current trend away from religious affiliations and toward a more ill-defined spirituality suggests that the spirit of that era lives on. The roots of contemporary perspectives on spirituality are found in the experimentation with drugs, and especially LSD; the power and transformation associated with rock and roll; and the liberation found in sexual freedoms and pleasures -- all sacred sources for spiritual fulfillment and authoritative personal experiences in the 1960s.

Second, and not unrelated, popular culture in America rules our spiritual lives and is a more important source of wisdom, morality, transcendence, and meaning, than the traditional institutions like the church that used to provide these religious elements. Films, music, the internet, television, literature--these now are just as important, if not more important, than the teachings found in sacred texts and theological pronouncements for the younger generation as well as baby boomers. Reality TV and rap, Harry Potter and the Super Bowl provide Americans with moral dramas and existential ideals these days, and can make a profound impact on the lives of followers. Organized religion is clearly losing its authority and relevancy in the day-to-day worlds of Americans, and so those forces that predominate in our culture, such as new media, entertainment, and information technologies are now shaping spiritual sensibilities and sacred values.

Third, we are a nation of consumers and American desires for food and toys and clothes and healthcare and travel are finally refashioning the spiritual marketplace as well. "Have it your way," a famous jingle once used by a popular fast food joint is the mantra of the religious moment. If you don't want pickles or mustard on your burger, you can customize your order; if you don't want institutional ritual or dogma in your spiritual life, you can customize your own religious choices and activities. This is truly an expression of the democratic spirit undergirding so much of the American way of life. The individual is in this sense a spiritual entrepreneur who can be innovative, imaginative, and ingenious in her pursuit of creating a meaningful religious life.

Fourth, the contours and boundaries of religious freedom are going to be tested like never before, a challenge for society generally but also especially for lawyers and judges. When religion is no longer simply a question of church attendance, how will it be defined? Will it fall in line with the famous words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart regarding pornography: "I know it when I see it"? Or will the state define what counts as religion based on more formal criteria? Recently a lawsuit sought to restrict the teaching of yoga in public schools as a violation of the separation of church and state. In a world of "nones" where more and more people explore yoga classes, sweat lodges, natural surroundings, and other arenas as sacred spaces for sacred activities, who will define what counts as religion and what is secular?

Finally, the rise of the "nones" surely suggests it is the end of religion as we know it. Forget churches; forget priests and pastors; forget the Bible; forget organized religion generally. What is sacred are no longer conventional objects like a cross, a singular religious identity like being a Methodist, nor activities like going to church or prayer. Instead, the religious worlds in the contemporary and future United States are robust and capacious, providing an abundance of spiritual possibilities found in unexpected places like drum circles and meditation exercises, sports events and other expressions from popular culture. It is a brave new world for religious Americans who are increasingly unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions.