What is a None?


What is a “None?” And where did they come from?

A “none” is a person reporting no religious affiliation. Nones are not atheists, agnostics, or adherents of any kind. They may be spiritual but not religious. Or they may consider themselves secular people who choose not to participate in a religious community. They see religiosity primarily in terms of choice, and faith as a matter of preference.

You may have heard that “religious nones” are on the rise. This is not a new trend. Pew Research Center first began reporting an increase in the percentage of “nones” in 2012. Here is a 2016 study noting various factors behind this the trend, and here is a 2017 report saying that as a percentage of the human population nones are projected to decrease globally.

But where did the nones come from?

Here is a key quote from Professor Mark Silk:

Thirty years ago, if somebody calls you up and asks, “What’s your religion?” you said, “Well, my parents sent me to a Methodist Sunday School.” You would have said you were Methodist, even though you hadn’t darkened the door of a church in 30 years.

Nowadays, you’re more likely to say, “Well, my parents sent me to a Methodist Sunday School, but I haven’t darkened the door of a church in 30 years. Put me down as None.”

What this suggests is that some of this rise of the Nones is less about changes of belief and behavior religiously than it is about a different way in which the question is understood. So the question once was understood as, “Well, I’ve got to be in some religion, so I’d better pick the one that is sort of in my past,” and now it’s “What’s in my present practice?”

This quote is taken from an interview with Ed Stetzer, who blogs for The Exchange, a website hosted by Christianity Today. Stetzer asks Professor Silk about the rise of the nones, the strengths and weaknesses of evangelical Christianity, and certain fallout from the culture wars. Silk explains the changes in how religious identity is formed (and how that is changing), why traditions that appeal to choice and emphasize religious practice may better connect with younger generations, and his belief that evangelicalism can survive even while remaining connected to the religious right.

What grabbed my attention was Silk’s emphasis on choice. He goes so far to say that traditions that emphasize choice, such as Evangelicalism, are “well positioned.” Those words, “well positioned,” are ones I identify with consumerism and competition.

But, theologically speaking, what does it mean to conclude that certain cultural postures or dispositions might be more conducive to specific forms of religious expression? I don’t really know what it might mean to be “well positioned” as a theological or ecclesial tradition in a given culture, for in any human culture there will be points of alignment with Christian doctrine and teaching as well as points of departure. There may be historical moments where people are primed to receive the gospel and trust Christ, but these are normally identified in retrospect. If Christianity’s appeal could be forecasted on the basis of cultural developments, denominational mission offices would operate much differently.

Furthermore, choice is not an exclusive theological or practical feature of evangelical Christianity, but is rather expressed differently in various ecclesial streams. Silk contrasts “choice” traditions in opposition with “ascribed” religiosity, or a form of religious belief and practice passed on from one generation to the next (i.e., “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”).

Where does this leave us?

What is important to grasp is that those of younger generations will see their religious tradition as something to either be embraced or left behind, claimed or abandoned. Rather than religious identity being ascribed, it is assumed, and this will be on the basis of choosing to identify with a tradition. That choice will then be expressed through practice. Therefore, churches of all theological and denominational traditions must find a place for the call to conversion and holiness. Jesus must be proclaimed as Savior and Lord, for he is both.

To be a Christian will continue to involve believing certain things, but younger generations will only embrace Christianity if it is understood moreso as living a certain kind of life. Christian preaching and instruction will by necessity involve practical and concrete guidance on living as a follower of Jesus, not to the neglect of central Christian doctrines, but as an extension of those teachings.

Stated differently, churches in the United States who are committed to discipleship will be “well positioned” to reach younger generations of people for Jesus.

This will be so not because these churches will appeal to the tastes of a new crop of potential brand loyalists, but because of an inherent commitment to truth, truthful living, and witness to a God who we did not choose but who instead chose humankind through the person and work of Jesus.

In Christ we are not “nones,” and we never have been. We are the beloved.