Religion in the Age of the “Nones”

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Current research indicates that one-fifth of the U.S. population identifies as “unaffiliated” with any religion and one-third of young adults under the age of 30 identify as religiously unaffiliated.

Sociologists have now shifted their generational studies to “After the Baby Boomers.”  One extensive study on the topic in recent years was conducted by sociologist Robert Wuthnow, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.   Wuthnow identifies a number of cultural influences have shaped this generation of adults now in their twenties and thirties and extending into their early forties.

Wands in circularThe words Wuthnow uses to describe these influences are:  uncertainty, diversity, fluidity, searching, and tinkering.   There are several developmental trends of younger generations coming after the Baby Boomers:

  • They are sexually active earlier;
  • Psychologically independent earlier;
  • Many have an extended dependence on their parents who are living longer.
  • They are marrying later;
  • Having children later;
  • Starting their careers later because of the uncertainty and fluidity of the employment options available.
  • Establishing themselves in communities more gradually.

All of these factors affect religious communities, particularly in terms of membership affiliation, extent of involvement, leadership development, and, of course, with regard to money and financial well being.

Fewer younger adults say that religion is important to their lives than any previous generational cohort.   Instead, they describe themselves as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular” in response to survey questions about their religious identification.

This group of religiously affiliated younger adults are being referred to as “Nones,” an arguably unsuitable and unnecessarily negative label.  However, they are are not without beliefs and values that matter to them.   Generally many young adults consider themselves to be “spiritual, but not religious,” and are open to spiritual deepening.  When asked if they are looking for a religious community, eighty-eight percent (88%) say they are not.  Perhaps this is due to their less-than-satisfying encounters with religious communities rather than a desire for community.

Those ten percent (10%) or so who are looking for religious communities are interested in those inclusive of theological diversity.  They generally believe in evolution and do not object to bigger government structure and services.  They are more accepting of homosexuality and a woman’s right to  reproductive freedom and access to abortion. This group is less certain about the existence and nature of God.

 Studies clearly indicate higher degrees of congregational involvement by younger adults who are married or in committed partnerships with children.  However, this is after some amount of “church shopping” and “church hopping.”  This pattern may be driven by the the fact that fewer young people were born and raised in a faith community, or that it is hard to fit a prescribed schedule or program into a busy life.  Fewer young men than women are attending alone, with increasingly mobile lifestyles and delayed partnering and child-rearing.   Essentially, these folks are piecing their spiritual and religious lives together with whatever raw materials they can find.

bricolage-bike 3The description that Wuthnow thinks best suits this generation of younger adults is that they are Tinkerers (2007, pgs 14-15)The idea came from the studies of a French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, who lifted up the important role of the bricoleur (the tinkerer) in preindustrial times.  A bricoleur uses the tools of his or her trade and any objects or materials at hand to fix things and keep them in good repair.  In doing so, the bricoleur produces a bricolage, an improvised construction made up of a variety of materials.

bricolage 1Among many contemporary adults, personal experience trumps doctrinal teachings.  Their life experiences and encounters with religion are diverse and they place high value on freedom of thought and choice.  They are improvisational and inventive, adept at piecing together seemingly disparate religious teachings and cultural components into their religious bricolage.

Internet studies show a significant number of adults are regularly looking online for religious and spiritual guidance.   Many simply don’t know where to find a place to tinker with a diverse collection of religious ideas and theological perspectives—so they go it alone.

What challenges does this new religious landscape pose for our communities? 

When I read and listen to the descriptions of the Millennials, Nones, and Tinkerers, I feel a mixture of discouragement and hopefulness

In my heart I believe these young people—and the growing segment of unaffiliated adults in general–would heartily embrace the inclusive and diverse theological environment Unitarian Universalism offers—if we could find one another on the religious landscape.  In fact, Unitarian Universalism doesn’t show up in the surveys and isn’t evident as an option in much of the research being done by Pew Research Center and Faith Communities Today.   We weren’t mentioned by Robert Wuthnow as the kind of open and accepting religious community that would appeal to this generation of younger adults.

With barely 1,000 congregations and fewer than 200,000 members world-wide, apparently we just don’t stand out enough for the researchers to include in surveys.   The ones who do often find us through Belief.net or the Church of the Larger Fellowship, our premier, world-wide virtual congregation.

An infusion of young adults and newcomers of any age would bring great energy, innovation, and talent into our congregations and our movement.  If this occurred, we would come alive in new ways as a religious movement, yet again.    And we must, so that we may flourish and grow and have any significant impact in the world.   I remain optimistic and hopeful.

In my head, I know this would require a cultural sea-change in most of our congregations.  Collectively, we would need to reach out farther and more effectively throBig surfugh electronic communication venues and social networks to enhance our visibility and attract younger adults.  We would need to redesign our programs and entry spaces to clearly and visibly reflect our diverse perspectives, principles, and values.

We would need adequate levels of professional staff in our congregations to offer the spiritual guidance and religious education opportunities to guide and accompany young people on the developmental journey, which is increasingly complex in today’s world.

We would need to expand our palette of worship and musical offerings to appeal to a wider range of ages and theological interests.  We would need to be intentional about the relational needs of our communities:  to balance the attention given to our established friendships with the needs of our newcomers.  We would need to practice authentic hospitality, helping those new to Unitarian Universalism feel truly welcome and included, within our buildings and beyond.

I am quite convinced we could grow in numbers and in our influence as a religious movement if we could imagine such a future for ourselves.  I mean, really imagine ourselves doubling, tripling, or quadrupling in numbers of people in our communities:  see their faces, hear their voices, and feel the buzz of the energy they bring.

new visionThere are seekers  looking for the kinds of relationships and activities already going in many of our congregations:  excellent professional ministry, high quality religious education for all ages, open and attractive facilities, fantastic music, and the vibrant energy that emits from people who really care about one another.  They are out there, with the tools of their trades, ready to Tinker with all the wonderful material we have to offer for their religious bricolage.

Vision—Courage—Energy—Commitment–Diversity–Generosity–Stewardship:  these are what it takes for a community to come alive and flourish.

Meeting_at_the_Oasis bricolage 2


Research and Reports on Generational Trends and Religion

  • Wuthnow, Robert.  After the Baby Boomers.  2007.  Princeton University Press

Innovative Ministries that Appeal to the Unaffiliated

2 thoughts on “Religion in the Age of the “Nones”

  1. Thank you for this post, Laura. I love the image (and word!) “bricolage.” This challenges us to offer real “bricks”, however: meditation practices, reading lists, chants, pilgrimages. In the past we have shied away from being very specific, hoping to serve everyone by finding the very few things that everyone could affirm. This will be a big change.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Christine. Thanks for all your great ministry and outreach there at the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque! Your Branches ministry is a wonderful Unitarian Universalism connection for so many people. http://www.uuabq.org/

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