The rise of the Nones: religious changes in America. It sounds ominous. Maybe momentous. But I wonder, since religions are about God, what does God think about the rise of the Nones? In other words, is the rise of the Nones a religious change in Heaven? For that matter, what is a None?
Consider the adjacent image. It’s one of several generated by Bing AI when I asked it to make me an image of a cross overlayed with the word “None”.
I have no idea why it chose to put the colors in the cross. But don’t be afraid. It’s not a computer’s idea of what a cross looks like. It’s just something done because it’s one of the options some human programmers gave it.
I also don’t know specifically why it chose to capitalize all the letters when I only capped the first letter. But then it did the same thing on all the images it made for me. Again, the result is dictated by some human programmer.
At its core, we have a cross, symbolizing the one on which Jesus was crucified.
And we have the word “NONE”, symbolizing the object of our attention today.
What is a None?
We need to start off with the question: What is a None?
Dictionary.com doesn’t have the common-usage definition of today, so let’s turn to an article on msn.com: Choice is the future of religion in America.
What’s the future of religion in America?
The big story of the past couple of decades is, of course, the rise of the nones — the burgeoning proportion of Americans who, when asked, “What is your religion, if any?” answer, “None.”
Thirty years ago less than 10% of respondents in surveys gave that answer. Today nearly one-third do.
Let’s be honest. That’s kind of a non-answer answer, isn’t it? It says what a non isn’t – it’s not a religion. As we’ll find out, it’s an attempt to not commit. By not answering, someone thinks they can avoid the issue.
Can someone really be a None?
Sure, we can answer a survey and say our choice of religion is “none”. But does that say anything about our belief, or non-belief, in God? No, of course not.
What do Nones believe about God?
Just by the name – Nones – four conclusions can be reached about Nones and their beliefs about God.
- They don’t believe in God, but don’t want to say they’re atheist or agnostic.
- They put themselves into what’s often called spiritual but not religious.
- They do believe in some kind of god, but a god they define, and don’t want to say anything about that god.
- They still believe in the God of some religion, but don’t want to state which one.
Of course, for each person, it could be any one of the four. Or even something else. However, as a group, it may not be possible to say anything truly meaningful about the Nones, other than that they choose not to say what religion they are. For instance, as the article points out:
It’s often pointed out that many nones believe in God, pray and even attend worship services. So being a none doesn’t necessarily mean you’re irreligious. That’s why some survey researchers eschew the term “nones” in favor of “unaffiliated.”
So no, it doesn’t mean someone is irreligious. But it also doesn’t mean they aren’t irreligious. For all practical purposes, it means whatever it means to the individual claiming to be a None.
What are the religious changes in America?
The article goes on:
Regardless of terminology, a critical but little recognized explanation for the growth of this segment of the population is a shift in how we understand religious identity.
A generation ago, if you asked the religion of an American who didn’t go to church, a typical response would be something like, “Well, my parents raised me Methodist so put me down as Methodist.” Today the response is more likely to be, “My parents raised me Methodist but I don’t go to church. Put me down as none.”
In other words, Americans used to consider their religious identity as ascribed to them by their family of origin. Now, increasingly, it’s what they choose to be or not to be at the present time.
No doubt America has seen a decline in religious participation in recent years. To be sure, the increase in the proportion of nones overstates the extent of the decline because of the shift in our understanding of religious identity from ascribed to chosen. Nevertheless, the shift has degraded the residual religious identification that, for example, leads nonchurchgoing parents to send their children to “their” religion’s Sunday school.
Again, there’s still no usable overall conclusion here.
Is religious identity ascribed or chosen?
There is one thing that needs to be expanded on, maybe even corrected, to some extent. That’s the concept of the shift in our understanding of religious identity from ascribed to chosen.
In general, “ascribed” means the identity is given by God. “Chosen” means the individual chooses God. This is very much the opposite meaning of “chosen” for Christians.
In Christian churches, there’s the issue of whether people choose to follow God or if God chooses who’s saved. Free will is the term used by those who believe that each individual chooses whether or not to follow Jesus. Predestiny is the term used by those who believe God chose, before time began, who would be saved and who wouldn’t.
The concepts of Free will and predestiny are too complex to cover here. Therefore, I point you to my series on Predestiny Versus Free Will to learn more about both. For now, I do want to point out that the traditional Christian view of “chosen” isn’t necessarily reflective of the way this article uses the word in the following portion of the excerpts.
Most importantly, the valorization of choice has favored those religious traditions that make choice a criterion for membership. In evangelical Protestantism, for example, you’ve got to make a choice for Jesus no matter how many evangelical forebears you have.
By contrast, Judaism is preeminently a religion of ascribed identity — for the past 2,000 years determined by matrilineal descent. God may have chosen the Jews, but “Jews by choice” is a phrase reserved for converts.
In any case, as you can see, someone calling themselves a None, by no means, means they don’t believe in the God of the Bible. And by the God of the Bible, I mean the Jewish God (of their scriptures) in what we Christians call the Old Testament, or the God of Catholicism, or the God of various Protestant denominations.
And if you didn’t make the connection, just the reality that I had to make all those distinctions shows that even among those of us who do state a religion in a survey, we also have differences in what we believe about God. That reality seems to get lost in these kinds of discussions.
I think it’s important to point that out, because a failure to recognize that whether we’re Nones or some stated religion, neither of us agrees with everyone else in whatever designation we give for ourselves. In that regard, None is almost, if not actually, becoming a “religion”. Just like atheism is a religion. Just like agnostic is a “religion”. After all, the definition of religion is probably much broader than most of us realize.
- a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing amoral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
- a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects:
the Christian religion;
the Buddhist religion.
- the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices:
a world council of religions.
- the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.:
to enter religion.
- the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
- something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience:
to make a religion of fighting prejudice.
- religions, Archaic. religious rites:
painted priests performing religions deep into the night.
- Archaic. strict faithfulness; devotion:
a religion to one’s vow.
So, you see that Nones, in a very real sense, do have a religion. It just doesn’t say anything. But, as we saw, people who do state a religious preference also don’t really describe their beliefs either. Many Americans, many people around the world, just choose what to believe and what to not believe based on nothing other than their own preferences.
Conclusion – The rise of the Nones: religious changes in America
Ultimately, the conclusion in the article is the following:
Like it or not, the regime of choice is here to stay, posing distinct challenges to all American religious communities. How well they adapt will determine the future of religion in America.
However, I believe that conclusion is as meaningless as the selection of Nones as an answer to what religion someone is.
The simple reality is that God doesn’t want us to choose a “religion”. God does want us to choose Him. To choose to love Him. To believe that Jesus is His Son, to follow Him, to live like Him, and to want to spend eternity with Him. Outside of that, what religion we label ourselves with is irrelevant.
It’s all summed up, very briefly in the passage where Jesus spoke with Nicodemus. You know, the one with the famous John 3:16 verse in it?
Jn 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
The problem comes with the fact that most of us don’t really begin to grasp what even the single verse, 16, means. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. And the problem in that verse is that we don’t understand the depth of the one word – believe.
You see, that word means that we believe so strongly that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that it will change the way we live. That we will be transformed to become more like Jesus. However, as Jesus says in that same passage, many will choose to not believe. That’s not believe, as in not believe strongly enough to be transformed.
So it’s not the name of our religion. It’s not the label we choose to select when asked what our religion is. It’s simply, do we believe the way Jesus said we must in the John 3:16 passage?
God isn’t going to change His views on what’s right and wrong. On what’s good and what’s not good. On what’s evil or not evil. And God doesn’t care what we name our religion. God cares about whether or not we choose to accept His offer of salvation through Jesus.
“Religions” may have to use different methods to attract people to listen to God’s message. But God’s message hasn’t changed in thousands of years. It’s not changing now either. It’s us who have to change. Labels don’t matter.
Hearts do matter. Our hearts pointed to God, following His Son, accepting His method of our salvation, those are the things that matter, And that’s not going to change.
Ultimately, will religion in America change? Sadly, yes. It’s already changing. It’s been changing for a long time. There have been disagreements about how to follow Jesus since the days of the authors of the New Testament.
But will God change, based on our changes in America, or in any other country? No. It’s not God who needs to, or will be, transformed by us. It’s us who need to be transformed by God.
Image by Bing AI