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Looking at the ‘nones’

Posted: January 17, 2013 5:05 p.m.
Updated: January 18, 2013 5:00 a.m.

National Public Radio (NPR) recently reported that a growing number of American citizens are losing their religion.

The multimedia news outlet is doing a series of stories centered on a Pew Research Center study released last October that found one-fifth of Americans over the age of 18 are “religiously unaffiliated.” The “nones,” people who were asked to identify their religion and said they had none, are a growing group that currently stands at about 46 million U.S. citizens.

The study found that one-third of people under 30 claim no religious affiliation, the highest number in the history of America. Overall, the nones are comprised of both atheists and agnostics; people who say that they are “spiritual or religious in some way and pray every day;” people that have no desire to find an established organization to join; and social liberals. Harvard professor Robert Putnam told NPR that the group of religiously unaffiliated youngsters are a part of the same group who aren’t joining the once popular Elk and Rotary clubs.

A 2007 Pew survey says about 78.4 percent of American adults claim some sort of Christian affiliation, however.  Another 4.7 percent claim an “other religion,” including Judaism, Buddhism and Native American religion, or New Age. The same study notes that of 16 percent of unaffiliated Americans, 12.1 percent of those are “nothing in particular.” Of those 12 percent, 6.3 said religion wasn’t important and 5.8 said religion was important.

What exactly does the loss of religion mean in public and personal terms? Who is being affected and what is triggering the increase is important dialogue as America continues to change and carve out its place among the nations.

As of Wednesday, many of the interviews consisted of people who grew up in homes where two religions were practiced, atheists who have always been atheists, people who lost their religion due to a tragedy and some 20- to 30-year-olds who claim no affiliation because something in their life has made them decide that they do not believe in the God and/or religion they were taught.

A first attempt at a round table of 20- and 30-somethings on Tuesday fell short because NPR didn’t give enough information about the person’s background to really get a sense of where they are coming from and how exactly they’ve come to cope without the religion they’ve grown up with. Albeit, it would probably turn into a century-long project trying to answer all of the fundamental questions. Still, questions as to how these people live their day-to-day lives bucking or still incorporating customs that are based in their previous religion and how they might describe the process of psychological change that would take place after leaving a religion, as most “religions” are more so a way of life, have gone unanswered. How can one come to maintain a healthy sense of faith and hope without their former religion to believe in? Those are the kind of questions that might be helpful to others who have lost their religion and are looking to cope and people sincerely looking to understand how people determine different truths throughout their life.

NPR featured one 27-year-old man who was raised Christian and got a tattoo at 18 that would help him remember his faith in times where he was struggling with it, which is working, he said. At the time of the interview the man didn’t believe in God, “but really want[ed] to.” Science and its “fact” create confusion he said, but ideas about love, purpose and forgiveness are important.

“I think having a God would create a meaning for our lives, like we’re working toward a purpose -- and it’s all worthwhile because at the end of the day we will maybe move on to another life where everything is beautiful,” he said. “I love that idea.”

For many, religion is a cultural thing: something that’s traditional, a custom. It can be the center of many family events and it provides a community of people who live, relatively, by the same set of standards. It’s noted that a growing number of people say that spirituality can be found and celebrated outside of a historically recognized religion; that, with or without spirituality, people can acknowledge and uphold the oneness of humanity and be thankful for life without a formal set of rules or supernatural or metaphysical beliefs. It’s still a matter of choice in belief. Since many of the interviews said they lost belief in God, it would be interesting to know if some of the interviewees had come to believe in a general higher power or common cause to believe in? One woman, a scientist and daughter of two atheists, said she believed that when someone dies, her father for example who died in a plane crash, that their energy returns to the earth. Her mother on the other hand, said she is having a more difficult time because she doesn’t believe her late husband is in a better place, as she has been told; she simply believes he’s rotting in his grave. It would also be interesting to know if the 78 percent of Christians in America pick and choose their faith in God and Jesus: belief that the two exist, but endure uncertainty and even rebellion in regard to today’s big subjects such as gay marriage, birth control and public versus private worship.

Religion has provided a framework for multiple generations throughout the world and there have been consequences for not choosing to believe what was in place, but people have become increasingly aware that they have a choice and what once was fact for some is not truth for others. Either way, it will grow increasingly important for political groups, organizations and companies to understand the needs and motivations of this growing group of nones.

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