The spiritual lives of America’s “Nones,” with Elizabeth Drescher
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. If you surveyed Americans asking them to identify themselves as (a) Catholic (b) Muslim (c) Evangelical, and so on, an increasing number will select the very last option—none of the above. Study after study has shown a steady decline in religious affiliation, with one in five Americans identifying as “none.” Traditional religious believers watch these numbers with a bit of uneasiness, wondering why fewer people are connecting with institutional religion. In this episode, Elizabeth Drescher joins us to talk about her new book on this subject, Choosing our Religion. The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. Drescher surveyed thousands and directly interviewed around one hundred Nones to find out about their backgrounds, their hopes, morals, and spiritual sensibilities. Her work allows us to become familiar with some Nones in this episode of the Maxwell Institute podcast. Send questions or comments about this and other episodes to firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t forget to rate and review us in iTunes.
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HODGES: Elizabeth Drescher is an adjunct associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University and today she’s speaking with us about her new book Choosing Our Religion. The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. Do you mind if I call you Elizabeth?
ELIZABETH DRESCHER: Not at all.
HODGES: Okay, well, welcome to the show, Elizabeth. It’s a pleasure to have you on.
DRESCHER: Thank you.
PEW RELEASES REPORTS ON RELIGIOUS “NONES”
HODGES: So in 2012, the Pew Research Center released this report called “Nones on the Rise.” It got a lot of play in the media and it proffered that more and more Americans aren’t claiming any religious affiliation. So if they had a list of “are you Catholic,” “are you Protestant,” none of the above would be the answer, “Nones.” Not “nuns” N-U-N-S like Catholic nuns, but Nones. And the numbers had increased in 2012 to about twenty percent of Americans. That’s one in five. What sort of claims do you remember seeing in the news when this report came out?
DRESCHER: Well, that report was really big because it was timed to coincide with the presidential election. So it came out in October, the election was in November of course, and it presaged this increase in people who are religiously unaffiliated and politically liberal, generally skewing more liberal, and they were identified as a big voting block for President Obama in that election. And that immediately set off this frenzy around, first of all understating who these people were, and then understanding how they vote and how they could be mobilized for voting. That became a bit of a big challenge. In January, after the election, a group of secular humanists and atheists and other organizations for people who might identify as None—although not always—tried to had a conference to try to develop Nones as a constituency but of course that’s sort of the point, Nones are none. Their none-ness is sort of their ontological spiritual identity. It’s who they are.
In fact, just the other day I wrote a piece for Huff Po on Nones and the evolutionary roots of religion, possibly. A none commented, “Stop trying to figure us out! We’re Nones, that’s our thing. We’re Nones, leave us alone!” So the news that first came out—actually it was in 2008 that the first Nones report came out, then in 2012 “Nones on the Rise” came out after the election—was just all this trying to categorize a cohort that by definition doesn’t want to be categorized.
HODGES: It’s really interesting too then you start to have to get into specifics about demographics, right, so what the numbers show—even though this category itself is being imposed upon a group of people—is that to a greater degree, youth are Nones, but numerically, strictly numerically, more people over 40 are Nones. There’s this really line in here [laughs] where you say “Why? Because numbers.” I thought that was really funny.
DRESCHER: [Laughs] Yeah, so the Pew data—and this has gone up even a little bit since then. So in 2012, twenty percent of the adult population identified as religiously unaffiliated. By last year, the numbers were up to twenty-three percent. And among people under age 30, it was thirty percent, in the 2012 study it had gone up to about thirty-two percent by last year. So it’s ticking up. And that under 30 group of course throws religious organizations and lots religious folks into a panic. “The kids are slipping away. What are we going to do and they’re not coming back.” That’s another big thing that Pew found is that they’re not going to wait until they have kids and then come back. It’s not like in the 70s and 80s.
So that’s certainly true, that’s a thing. And as a trend, it’s not insignificant but the thing that I think people tend to forget or not pay attention to as all that’s happening, is that just because there are more people in the population who are over the age of 30, it means that mathematically the larger population of the unaffiliated is over age 30. And so in the book I really wanted to move beyond, and I talk about the book, this sort of stereotypical None as this hipster dude in some latte-slinging corner of the United States, generally on the coasts, so in Brooklyn, or Adams Morgan or—
HODGES: Portland [laughs]—
DRESCHER: —Yeah, Portland, San Francisco, in the Silicon Valley where I live, hanging out. That’s happening, that’s certainly a thing. But I think I also saw among the people that I interviewed across the country, the Pew data says everywhere in the country, in every sector in the country, every geographical region and every sector demographically, unaffiliation is rising. So yeah, the Deep South is still more religious than the rest of the country, but unaffiliation is actually increasing at a faster rate there. And yes, among young people unaffiliation is increasing at a rapid clip but among people over 30, it is as well. So we don’t get a complete picture when we just look for you know dudes in skinny jeans with a goatee. So I try to look at a little more broad spectrum than that.
HODGES: There’s a part where you say if all the Nones were grouped together in one group, that they would be bigger than any Protestant denomination numerically?
DRESCHER: Yeah, bigger than all of the mainline denominations combined. And so they would be a huge denomination. There’s lots of energy around “what does this mean?” The focus my research has tended to take is not to ask the question “well how do we find one definitive pattern of belief and practice that we say is characteristic or stereotypical of the Nones” or to say “how do we identify them as a social or market cohort” so that they can be either mobilized for political action or captured as religious people like to say—somebody just said to me last week, “Well, how do you lure them in?” And I was just, wow. That sounds just like incredibly compelling, [laughs] as a strategy for engaging human beings.
HODGES: [Laughs] Well, and you know there are some books that do that, right, that approach Nones in terms of “how do we get Nones back to church?”
DRESCHER: Yeah right, and they sort of vacillate between the shame-based “What’s wrong with us? Why don’t they like us? What did we do wrong?” and the “How do we get them? How do get them to come back?” which, somewhere in that story there is a van without windows. It just gets a little creepy. So people have looked at that.
I was really interested in what are Nones telling us about what religion and spirituality mean and how they function—what they are and what they do in contemporary culture. Because I think, for me, that’s a thing that you can say with some confidence that whatever else Nones might doing socially and politically, and however else they might be engaged by religious communities or not, it is certainly true that they’re marking a different understanding of what it means to be religious and spiritual and that’s not insignificant.
HODGES: Yeah. That’s what I find most compelling about the book, actually. I actually see it as almost—I hesitate to use the word “apologetic” because it’s so loaded and when I’m using it especially in terms of this kind of scholarship, but it’s sort of trying to debunk some of the myths about Nones and it’s also doing a different project with regard to Nones than a lot of the other books. I found that really interesting. This is where I think religious people could still very much benefit from this book, is to learn about the surprising spiritual or even religious lives of some of these Nones that you speak with in the book.
DRESCHER: That was actually a learning process for me as I was doing the research. I personally am a religion-ish person. By denomination I’m Episcopalian, I don’t know if I’m a real good one, but you know, there you go, but that’s where I identify-ish. And as I—
HODGES: But doesn’t that make you a good Episcopalian, like that [laughs]—
DRESCHER: Yes, I think so! I think that makes me very orthodox in that tradition. So I started the project having had a long, deep, complex, and fraught relationship with my own tradition. I actually was teaching at an Episcopal seminary when I first started the research on Nones back in 2008 when the first big Pew study came out on the American religious landscape, the study that said “wow, there’s a big jump since the 1990s in the number of unaffiliated.” I was really, of course, interested in that because that was when—because of the economic downturn and other kinds of pressure—seminaries everywhere were just really, really struggling and it’s not like it was new that people weren’t entering seminary or fewer people were going to church or all of those kinds of things. But it was big in a new way in 2008 because of all kinds of different things going on. And yet when I would talk about, like “This is a thing. we ought to pay attention to,” the way I think a lot of church leaders I saw responded to it like “Eh, they’ll come back in ten years. They’ll have kids and then they’ll pop back in and we’ll be okay. We’ve been through this before.” But it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t anything like that.
As I started talking with Nones I knew, in my own life and in the community around me, I realized it was hard for me to not take a Christian-ish apologetic perspective. So when I was first doing interviews, I get that “What’s wrong with us? You could go to a different church.” Like “yeah, there’s other options! You can do it differently.” And I had to really discipline myself to be a listener, not just as an academic ethnographic interviewer, that’s certainly an important skill set. But to really, in my own head, be not wanting to fix the Christian tradition or fix religion for the people I was talking to, but to really absorb what they were experiencing—the truth of it for them—and to hear it as best I could through their voices and not through my experience.
And I think through the course of this research which spanned almost three years, that became something of an intellectual and spiritual practice for me, a kind of really uninvested listening practice. I think now, by the end of the project I had a little bit of Stockholm Syndrome. I was increasingly None-ish myself, both in my religious practice and kind of the way of looking at the world. I thought that was kind of a good thing. But now that I’m at the end of that process, I’m really thinking about what does that practice of listening mean in terms of how we engage, and what does it mean to my faith such as it is to be really attentive to others in the world in that way.
WHAT COUNTS AS “RELIGIOUS”?
HODGES: It’s interesting how much you can be affected by the research that you do. Now, as far as these Nones are concerned, as we mentioned they’re not part of a proper group or anything and surprisingly I think people will discover throughout the interview that many of them identify as being spiritual or even religious. Many of them have a religious background, many of them borrow religious practices from the past or from other religious people. What happens is some surveys about religiosity tend to privileged certain Christian identifiers as what counts as being religious. So it will find out how often people attend church, how often they read scripture, and how often they pray, and things like that. What you found is these things don’t rank as high on what people themselves report as being spiritually significant, even for people who are religiously affiliated. And this is where you began to discover religiosity amongst Nones.
DRESCHER: Yeah. And that kind of went way back, even when I was teaching in a seminary and I would say to people, “What’s spiritually significant to you?” And we’d put it all on the blackboard, whatever, among seminary students, you know? Eventually, prayer would come up, never…Sometimes things about liturgy would come up, but really nobody ever said “going to church” or “doing committee meetings with people” or whatever, the institutional religious kinds of things really did not come up. And so I was aware of that. And when I started teaching at Saint Clara five years ago, teaching undergraduates in a Catholic university—a Jesuit university, about half of our students come from a Catholic background, but they’re increasingly none-ish themselves. In our religious studies classes, probably seventy percent of our students identify as some kind of None. And so when you ask those kids what’s spiritually significant, it’s nothing like anything religious that you’ve seen. So I was aware that the measures that traditional demographic research was tracking really weren’t tracking to people’s experience very closely.
So I talk about it in the book, I had initially started to want to look at that, what does that mean about what religion is, what if we’re looking at the wrong thing and not paying attention to how people were really living their spiritual lives? And I so I did a test survey over a weekend, because am not a demographer, I’m just a chick with a SurveyMonkey account. So I talked with a colleague and said, “Why don’t I do this?” And she said, “Just test it on—if you get 100 people, it will tell you something about whether you’re asking the right questions or asking in the right way.” And so I put it up over a weekend and sent it to a bunch of contacts and said, “Could you please send this out to people you know that I don’t know probably? If some of them are religiously unaffiliated that would be awesome.” And I crossed my fingers and hoped that I got 100, maybe 200 responses. And over the course of that weekend, I literally had upgraded my SurveyMonkey account because I couldn’t read the data I was getting. [Laughs] I got more than 1,000 responses and they tracked pretty closely to the breakdown of the Pew data with the 20%, 80%. And what I found was that among that whole cohort, 80% of which identified as religiously unaffiliated and because of the circles I travel and even among people I don’t know, a big chunk of that were clergy, among the affiliated.
So among the whole group, the top five practices were spending time or enjoying time with family, enjoying time with friends, preparing and sharing food, and enjoying time with pets and other animals. I refer to them as the Four F’s of contemporary spirituality: family, friends, Fido and food. And the only traditional practice in there was prayer, which is of course the mobile technology of religion. One of the guys I interviewed was spiritual-but-not-religious, “Jesus Follower,” says it’s the one thing the church can’t get its hand on. So it was really clear that the shift in the articulating of spirituality outside of institutional constructs was not just happening for Nones, but that Nones were marking it in the culture in a really big way.
A VARIETY OF CATEGORIES
HODGES: We’ll touch on all four of those aspects in more detail as we go along. Today we’re speaking with Elizabeth Drescher. She is at the Santa Clara University in California, and her new book is called Choosing Our Religion. The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones.
A minute ago you mentioned different kinds of Nones, different types of Nones, so let’s talk about those for a minute to set up the rest of the discussion because a lot of the people that you’ll talk about identify differently and few of them identify as None. So what type of types did you discover through your research of people that qualified as a None according to your research. What were they calling themselves?
DRESCHER: So, the common thing when I think of the popular culture is to associate Nones with the “spiritual but not religious.” Pew tracked a substantive group of people who do identify as spiritual but not religious—actually both among the Nones and the people that I come to call Somes.” the religiously affiliated who still have some religion. So among Nones, a substantial portion identify as spiritual but not religious, but Nones also include atheists, agnostics—both hard and soft agnostics—
HODGES: —Distinguish atheists and hard and soft agnosticism real quick, this is interesting.
DRESCHER: So with atheists, the question is settled. There is no super natural being or power. They are opposed to theism, so there’s no theistic god or being. It’s a settled question for them, it’s just not a thing.
For agnostics, there’s still a possibility, the question is not as resolved. Hard agnostics tend to say “nobody can ultimately prove that there is or is not a god or a supernatural being or force. Nobody can ever really prove it, but I don’t really think it’s an important question either. I don’t spend a lot of time stressing over that.”
Soft agnostics tend to be more engaged with the question of whether there is a supernatural being or power and what that might be and how that might function. So they’re a little more open to the question.
Along with that, there are a variety of kinds of humanists—so humanist people come out of the Enlightenment tradition of understanding life as oriented around human experience and human reason. Some of them—of course humanism is a Christian tradition, so they’re inflected by that to some degree. Some of them identify as secular humanists, which really try to distinguish themselves from the Christian roots of humanism, seeing themselves more in that worldly tradition of Enlightenment humanists. Some just identify as secular but don’t even want the taint of humanism on there.
So those are all in the sort of non-believer categories: atheists, agnostic, humanist, secular categories, non-theistic, not really belief-based.
Then there are the “spiritual but not religious.” Lots of people who identify just as spiritual. I talk about in the book that the history of the terminology of “spiritual but not religious” comes from the Twelve Step movement largely and it’s really a lot associated with baby boomers. So among younger adults, that has that “No, that’s my mother” kind of thing associated with that and they tend to identify more as spiritual.
Some identify just as None. They don’t want to have any kind of label at all. But I will say and I talk about this in the book, the idea of labeling is part of that baggage of how we do religion and how we mark it demographically. So for people across that spectrum, first of all, the labels changed all the time. So they would start out saying “well, I’m agnostic but I’m really spiritual,” that there wasn’t really language for describing who they were in the culture but also that the labels themselves were heuristics. They were provisional. They were marking where they were in a moment, and people were really frustrated with this sense of having to have a durable label that would extend throughout a life and that was almost like an ethnicity or an ontological category. Across the board, people were really pretty uncomfortable with that.
HODGES: That was one of the key distinguishing features, I think, that your book points out is this disaffiliation. They don’t want to feel locked into this particular category. Because they feel that’s not particularly true to their own experience, whether it be spiritual or whatever, and they don’t want to feel locked into those categories. They seem to be very, very concerned about how other people view them. Did you pick that up in the course of your research? It seemed to be a lot about “I don’t want other people to think of me in this way.”
DRESCHER: Yeah. That happened in lots of ways. Among some people I interviewed…and this was like a big surprise. I was a speaker at a really big worship leader conference where I thought I’d find lots of Christian-y people, and I just happened upon lots of people who said, “Oh, no. I don’t identify as Christian at all. I see myself at best as a Jesus follower.” And these Jesus followers, whatever we might call them now, think of themselves as people who don’t want to be tainted by the negative aspects of Christianity—that they’re politically conservative, that they’re homophobic, sexist, anti-evolutionary, anti-environmentalist, all of those kinds of things, close-minded, judgmental, actually the whole “why don’t they like us” list. They don’t want to be associated with that.
So there was that variety but there were also people on the other end of the spectrum who traditionally would have been identified as atheists who don’t want to be involved in that argument either. So I think for people who feel like “if you put an identity on me that that makes me seem to be on the strident extremes of religiosity, then I don’t get to be human with you and what I want is for us to be having a human experience together.”
DRESCHER’S METHODOLOGY AND CAVEATS
HODGES: “Don’t pin me down” kind of a thing. Before we get into some of the specific stories of people that you feature in the book, let’s talk a little bit more about your methodology of the project. Let’s talk about how you went about identifying the Nones, the categories that you came up with and finding them, the types of surveys you set up, and then maybe a little bit about some of the drawbacks of that research approach which you address in the book as well. And I think it’s important to set it up that way so the people don’t get the sense that this is the definitive book on all Nones or anything like that. So let’s talk about your method and some of the caveats that you include.
DRESCHER: Well, first of all, as I mentioned before, I started out by trying to get my hands around the idea of what spirituality means today and what’s spiritually significant for people. So early on, I did a bunch of focus groups here in California among some of my graduate students but also in different religious groups. I did some in Pennsylvania and I did some online as well to try to get a sense of what are those categories of things that people find spiritually significant. So that was one set of background research that I did.
And then I developed that into the survey that I discussed earlier. I had planned initially to repeat that survey but I got so much data that was useful that I didn’t really feel like I needed to. And more importantly, from that survey, I was able to identify a pool of people who identified as unaffiliated in various ways and I was really interested in moving away from the coastal traditional None zones to a wider view of the country. And so I’d made a commitment to interview people in all of the US census regions. And so I pulled from that initial study to contact people who were in different census regions across the country and ask if they’d like to participate in the study.
And then I did a follow-up survey in which I—the “Nones Beyond the Numbers” survey, that was a narrative survey, with a few hundred people in which I ask people—it was kind of like an online journaling experience for people to respond to questions about their spiritual lives. And from that I drew the participants that I had.
Where I didn’t have a lot of people I would…in the deep South for example, I had hard time finding people in Georgia and Alabama, not because there aren’t Nones there but because I don’t know the people there. So I had to kind of shop around to find people to participate there. But I identified a pool of interview candidates and I tracked them to where I did a lot of speaking around the country where I was traveling around the country for a couple of years. So that gave me access to people in different spaces.
But one of the qualifications I make in the book is—there are a couple things, but one is, so there are lots of people who identify as unaffiliated who are just religiously indifferent. In fact, Pew came out with another slice of its 2014–2015 data last week in which they said, increasingly people just don’t even like to talk about religion. It’s not just that they’re not religious, they don’t even want to have it be part of the conversation. So there’s certainly not just a rise in unaffiliation but a rising indifference to religion and those people had no interest in talking with me, either. So the people who were talking with me were interested in identifying themselves as having a spiritual life. The people who just don’t care and think that’s a stupid conversation—lots of them did email me to tell me how stupid that conversation was—stoopid with two O’s. And they’re not part of the survey. So that’s a whole other interesting pot of research to be done, to look at what religious indifference looks like. That’s sort of upping the ante on that, so they’re not in there.
The other limitation on the survey was that I did focus on whatever people would call the spiritual life. I didn’t define that for them. I didn’t define spirituality for them. I let them define it. But it did mean that people were looking back over their lives and possibly identifying things as having spiritual meaning that they would not have seen at the time. And that always means that you’re running the risk of kind of inventing spirituality. And that’s certainly true. I was inviting people to construct their lives as spiritual and construct a narrative around it. So the benefit of that is, yeah, we all look back on our lives and we see things that if we identify as spiritual people we might identify in hindsight as spiritual, and that allows people to lift that up in, I think, interesting ways. But it is arguably the case, and I talk about this in the prayer chapter in particular, that there were some people who just said, “Nope. I don’t pray, nothing like it, nothing approximates it, don’t even use that category,” and other people who did not initially call something prayer but when I asked them if they prayed reflected on their lives and said, “Well, you when I’m running, it’s a kind of prayerful activity,” but they wouldn’t have lifted that up.
HODGES: Yeah. So those caveats that you introduce—the way that the researcher impacts the thing being researched, you talk about the cohorts that are overlooked including people who are irreligious or just even anti-religious or even anti-spiritual in any way, and also demographically people tended to be white middle class, people with access to the sort of channels where you were asking the questions, going to a university event or using the internet in communities that would be connected to communities you’re connected with. I thought you did a good job of laying all those cards out on the table.
That’s Elizabeth Drescher and we’re speaking with her today about her new book about the Nones, Choosing Our Religion.
THREE BROAD WAYS PEOPLE CAME TO IDENTIFY AS NONE
HODGES: Now that we’ve kind of laid the groundwork about the type of people that you’re working with for this book, we’ll get a little bit more specific and it gets more and more interesting as we go. Many of the Nones that you spoke with at least had some sort of religious background, often they had been raised in a family with a primary religious tradition or one of the parents had a primary religious tradition. How they came to be Nones, their past experiences and so forth, was a really interesting part of the book. So let’s talk about this. You separate it into kind of three broad categories and I wanted to talk about those.
Let’s start with Mainline Protestant. They had a different experience about how they became a None and what being a None was like than some of these others. So let’s start there, mainline Protestant.
DRESCHER: I think of Mainline Protestantism as sort of the center of the None factory, in that we know that Mainline Protestants are producing Nones. People who are raised in a Mainline Protestant tradition are much more likely to become unaffiliated than people in other religious traditions. I found, too, that whereas there’s sort of this stereotype that has developed that Nones are angry, resentful, bitter, anti-religious zealots who had some kind of horrible experience in their church, that was not largely the case with Mainline Protestants. I mean if I had a dollar for every Mainline Protestant who told me how wonderful their youth group experience was and how they really enjoyed this that or the other of their mission trip experience, I’d have a lovely vacation home on Carmel right now.
So there was just a lot of remembered enthusiasm for the church. But Mainline Protestants—I talk about—just sort of got bored with it. They really outgrow it. They graduate from church. So it seems like, for many Mainline Protestants who become unaffiliated, they had a warm and loving experience in their church. They learned that they had to be thoughtful, loving, and ethical people. They’re down with the golden rule. They don’t need to hear it every week now. “Got it, check, I’m done.” Some of the work that Chris Smith has done on moral therapeutic deism, this idea that we just have to be good people and we need to feel good about ourselves and God is there if we need God but we don’t need to really get hung up on that. You know, that, and just the sort of sense of where there was critique, it was more about I want to be more engaged in the world and doing spiritual work in the world. That’s not happening in church, “but gosh they’re nice people and I have a great time!” You know.
HODGES: And it’s interesting because you talk about how many of them express a fondness for their religious tradition that they grew up with, there’s not much of a sense of bitterness, and that the idea of graduation is sort of a way that they would talk about their experiences. And as far as Mainline Protestant, just to be clear for people, we’re speaking about people who are sort of Episcopal, I think would be one, what other religious traditions do you put under that umbrella?
DRESCHER: Yeah, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC United Church of Christ, Congregationalist, so what tends to be read in the culture now generally as the more progressive Protestant traditions.
HODGES: And this is interesting because some of the more conservative religious elements would look at this pattern of disaffiliation among people from these types of traditions and say “this is what happens when you water down the gospel, this is the fruits of being liberal, is that you’re going to trend irreligious.” But what you found with these people, and we’ll talk about this more, is that they often would maintain a spiritual ethic and an engagement that was a product of their earlier Christian affiliation and it wasn’t a sense of saying, “Well, I’m liberal now and I don’t want Christianity.” So it wasn’t quite the same.
Now the next group that you talk about actually is people from those more conservative backgrounds and their experiences are quite different.
DRESCHER: Yeah, people who came from a broad band of Protestant Evangelical, more fundamentalist and more conservative traditions that would include Pentecostals, some Mormons, and non-denominational Protestants, as well as American Baptists or Southern Baptists. So people in that broad category—which is a big, big group of people. First of all, they were the only people in the book who regularly cussed. [Laughs] They were my cussing interviewees! They were often really angry, really, really angry and had felt tricked and betrayed by their traditions.
Sometimes there were particular crises that happened in their religious communities. In one case there was financial fraud by a clergy person that really, for one of the people I interviewed, created an incredible sense of disillusionment and he remained connected to what seemed like pretty traditional Evangelical Christian beliefs. He just was completely done with that experience and angry to the extent that he could see no way to identify with Christianity and with a church community ever again.
For another of the people I identified, a young man who was a part of a Holiness Pentecostal tradition—a really smart guy, had been home schooled, really great with tech, and on his way to college, he encountered new information about evolution and Darwin who had been demonized in his tradition. And that opened up a whole world of exploration for him about things he had been taught about science, and you know, climate change and evolution, and all of these kinds of things. He just felt he had been lied to and that there was a distortion of the truth. He was humiliated when he got to college and he believed the Earth was six thousand years old and there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark and all those kinds of things and he just felt like he was made to look like an idiot and his religion was used to blind him intellectually.
There’s a lot of anger that comes out of that. One of the guys that I interviewed who was raised as a Mormon just felt like he couldn’t ask questions about the world or ask questions about the tradition and get good answers from people. So there was this sort of frustration, deep, deep frustration among those Nones that often came out as extended anger in the tradition.
One of the women I interviewed went through a horrible experience with her mother’s church after she came out as a lesbian and she wanted to be supportive of—”look, this is your tradition I get it, it might help you,” and agreed to talk to the pastor who went through this sort of odd—for her—ritual, a hostile ritual of praying over her and then slapping the devil out of her.
DRESCHER: Physically, yeah, open handed slap. So there was just a lot of anger in that cohort among my interviewees.
HODGES: It’s a really stark excerpt of the book when you describe that woman’s experience and it actually gave her—it’s almost like a PTSD with regard to prayer, if she was in situations where prayer would be occurring her mind would switch back to that. And I don’t know if this is crass but what it reminded me of is when you’ve eaten a meal and became ill afterwards and you just don’t want to eat that food anymore, even if other people eat that food and feel fine, but for you, you associate that experience going forward and that’s hard to come back from.
DRESCHER: Yeah. I talk about it in the book as a haunting. She talked about, Darniece is what I call her in the book, she talked about prayer like sneaking up on her, so it’s just a predatory language of that. This happened quite a lot in doing this research where I would just go back to my hotel room and just burst into tears, that the tradition had done this to a person. Just really harm someone in this way.
But she just really had the sense of, “sometimes I have the impulse to pray and then I go back to”—I think the PTSD analogy is proactive, they go back to this place. So yeah, just a lot of experiences that really create a sense of an inability to ever go back. In Darniece’s case because her partner was involved in yoga and other kinds of things that felt spiritual to her, she could reclaim a little bit of that, but in a very different way.
HODGES: It couldn’t be the same. The man that you mentioned, in the book you call him Ethan Quinn, the Mormon, he’s a 45-year-old in Washington DC, I think this really speaks to some of the anger that people that leave the LDS tradition manifest. And it’s similar to Evangelical who had been told that the Earth was six thousand years old and these types of things and wasn’t encouraged to look into that. And when that Evangelical fellow ended up leaving his faith, it wasn’t just that he was embarrassed, that was a part of it. He felt like, “Wow I look like a real stooge believing the Earth is six thousand years old,” but because the science that he learned was compelling to him. It wasn’t just that he felt like “oh boy, people think I’m dumb.” It was “oh, and look at all this amazing stuff that I missed out on.”
But I want to talk about Ethan as well. So here is a quote from Ethan from the book. He said, “Religion dictated so much of my life as a child, not just what we believed but really who we were against the rest of the world.” He’s describing an oppositional position vis-à-vis the world and he said, “We were Mormons first. We’re from five generations of Mormons but I was always asking questions. Why do we do it this way? Why can’t I drink a Coke? And my mom or dad would say, ‘Well, you just have to have faith.’ So I knew enough to shut up and you know as a kid I didn’t really disagree exactly, I just wanted to know why. And I was always like that so I asked questions about everything. But ask too much about the church though, that seemed to be the worst sin you could do.”
So that sort of shut-down conversation later manifested itself as anger in him when he ended up disaffiliating. His reaction was much different than some of the Mainline Protestants that you spoke with.
DRESCHER: Yeah. I think for Ethan and other folks on that part of the spectrum, there’s just a sort of sense of, “it’s just not that I got new information”—he does talk about, and a lot of people talk about this, like I got to the library, or I got the internet and wow! There’s all kinds of information there. It’s not just the information, it’s what certain perspectives on religious belief and practice do to relationships. With the anger is a deep sense of interpersonal betrayal among the people who are meant to care the very most about us.
So it’s not a casual—I think for mainliners there is a sense of, you know, “ehhh church doesn’t work for me but gosh those people loved me. They were really supportive.” I think one of the woman who now identifies as a neo-pagan, sort of/kind of a None, a spiritual None, said “I really love the prayer book and they supported me as an artist. They didn’t get me, but they’re really nice!” Among people from more conservative Christian backgrounds that felt shut out, it breaks relationships. I think that’s a big thing for religious communities to be thinking about.
HODGES: Yeah, the more stark the boundaries and the more pressure there is to conform, the more anger can be manifested on the other side of the border, the boundary so to speak. That is kind of your conservative background.
But Roman Catholicism is the third example, and I kind of expected it to go the same way as the conservative folks, because it’s a fairly conservative tradition as well and has that sense of personhood, like you’re a Catholic is an identity. But a lot of the Catholics that you talked about had a little bit different of an experience. And I’ve also seen parallel to the Catholic experience in the Mormon tradition as well. So talk about the Catholic—
DRESCHER: Yeah. I mean I think that—again, I do offer a really strong caution against over-generalizing this. I talked to a hundred people so that is a lot of people to interview but it’s not a big demographic sample, so we have to take some caution with that. But among Catholics, what I saw a lot was heartbreak. Even where there was anger, people tended to come from a place of having, as you said, a deep almost ethnic identification with the tradition.
For Ethan the Mormon guy, when you identify as coming from five generations of Mormons, that’s not just your religion, right? That’s your history, that’s who you are, right? And for Catholics, there was the same…we know the tradition of Catholics in America has a lot to do with “we came from a place of deep religious turmoil in some cases, and to a place where we going to be discriminated against for many generations as Catholics.”
HODGES: Yeah, anti-Catholicism was very strong.
DRESCHER: Yeah, really a central kind of thing. So bonding around that identity was really important. But for people…that being part of their community and their history, yeah, that mattered, but also the sacramental life of the church was really important to many people. One of the people that I interviewed—Natalie Darling—still goes to a Taize service regularly, has friends in the church, had considered becoming an N-U-N nun at one point. But felt just, again, betrayed and heartbroken when her bishops came out so strongly against marriage equality and the full inclusion of LGBT people in the church and the role of women. She felt it undermined the role of women in the church. There was a sense of “I love this, but there is no place for me here.” She talks about having being cast out, but she didn’t leave. She was cast out of the tradition. Judith—the woman I talked about at the beginning of the chapter—turned to the church in the time of a horrible marriage crisis and got no support at all and was—
HODGES: Divorce is pretty taboo in some Catholic circles.
DRESCHER: Right. And just really found that she could not find any support, in the face of a very abusive relationship, in that community. Another guy that I interview, Frank, talks about his church community not being able support his whole family that had a big identification with Catholicism.
So all of these things, yeah, they have some of the elements of anger that I saw in more conservative traditions, Nones who came from more conservative traditions, but there was a sense of real loss, real sorrow. In some cases a sense of “I wish I could find a place there, but I’m just not going to. There’s not going to be a place for me.” And it was sad. It was a really sad kind of thing.
HODGES: There was a “wounding” that you talked about. And one other element that you talked about with Catholicism—and like you said, this can spread throughout any of these broad generalizations—is that some of them would still carry aspects of the tradition out with them and I’m thinking in particular of the woman [laughs] who you were speaking with who would put out pictures on her kitchen table. And she did not see the Catholicism in that until you kind of said said, “Ehh that kind of looks a little Catholic.”
DRESCHER: Yeah. And even then she was like, “No. I’m not having that.”
HODGES: Yes, what was she doing?
DRESCHER: She had this wonderful practice of, in the morning she had on her kitchen table a basket with pictures of her daughters and granddaughters and she would sit down with a cup of tea, get the basket and just sat out the pictures of her daughters and granddaughters and think about them, just bring them to mind. “I’m going to call this prayer; a priest wouldn’t call it prayer because I’m not asking for God to do something for them. I don’t want somebody else to not be helped because somebody didn’t pray for them. I’m calling this prayer.”
And I said, “Wow. That looks like Catholic prayer cards.”
And she said, “No. It’s nothing like that. Those are just things that nuns would give you in school like trading cards and they didn’t really mean anything. This means something to me because these are real people in my life.”
And so yeah, I would see that as certainly a pretty distinctly Catholic religious echo. But just because of the trauma of her experience in the church and that wounding that she experienced, she just couldn’t own that as coming from a Catholic tradition.
HODGES: Yeah. And those prayer cards never operated that way for her. So even though she could—as far as we know anyway, otherwise she would see the connection there.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS, NONES AND RELATIONSHIPS
HODGES: So a lot of these examples that we are only kind of touching on, there are a lot of them in the book that I think make the book an especially interesting read even though as you said it only focuses on a relatively small group of people. So that kind of gives us a broad overview of some of the different types of disaffiliation patterns or the ways that people become None.
As we talked about earlier, the Pew survey privileges as religious practice things like church attendance , scripture study, and things like this. You identified four common themes that you mentioned, family, friends, Fido, and food. I wanted to talk about family and friends in particular because one of the biggest stereotypes about the None experience—and this is one that I brought to the book myself—is that Nones must be very insular, maybe narcissistic, highly individualistic. And you discovered this didn’t actually describe the lives and experiences of a lot of the Nones you spoke to. This quote really stuck out to me. You say, “The unaffiliated indeed do affiliate. Just not in the ways that would click a demographer’s counter.” Let’s talk about relationships and the Nones.
DRESCHER: The early development of the idea of Nones as narcissistic and spiritually thin and all of those kinds of things comes from Robert Bellah’s work in Habits of the Heart and this idea of Sheila-ism, which was this woman who was a nurse actually, incredibly relationally engaged, who when Bellah and his colleagues ask her what her religion was she said, “Well, I’m kind of have my own thing. It’s Sheila-ism.” And that became through the 1980s and 90s a way of making fun of what was then largely “spiritual but not religion,” that everybody was doing their own idiosyncratic make up my own religion kind of thing. And more recently Lillian Daniel, who is a UCC pastor, wrote a thing for Huff Po that got a lot of traction on “You’re Spiritual but Not Religious? Don’t Bore Me.” Her thing was “yeah, I like a sunset to, I like walking on the beach, my community is complex and it demands things of us, and what you’re doing is self-absorbed and narcissistic.” You know, I’d had my own experiences with people who had fairly idiosyncratic cobbled together spiritualties so I brought a little bit of that into the book with me. I didn’t know how much Deepak Chopra I was going to encounter and how much I’d be able to take.
But what I found was that people really centered what they found spiritually meaningful around relationships, and those relationships were mediated in lots of different ways. Sometimes that was through specific communities that gathered—either formally or informally at different times. Sometimes it was around networks of authors or thinkers or teachers that people would engage informally. Sometimes through the internet in different ways.
One of the guys, Neil, who is an atheist, connected with lots of other atheists through online sources. And that makes sense. You know, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, more than that, twenty-five years ago I guess, before we were all connected on the internet, if you were the atheist guy on the block, you might not find another one, right? Now you can find whole bunches of them. So those kinds of connections were happening. But for one of the guys I profiled in the book, Paul Harland, who had left an Episcopal church because they were having all kinds of arguments about LGBT inclusion, and he was just tired and he said a thing that lots of people said. “It was really hard just to get the energy to get our kids to church,” like that’s a big complex thing! You know?
HODGES: [laughs] Yep!
DRESCHER: That takes a lot of juice. And with all the bickering, it just was like, “Nah, we don’t need it anymore.” So he dialed out, but he missed playing music with people at the church. And so a bunch of friends, some from church some not, started coming together on a regular basis to play music together. They would have a potluck, one of their friends had a big backyard, and they’ve been gathering for years to do this. That, he said, was more deeply spiritual and engaged him with his family in richer ways and with his friends, all kinds of new ideas coming in and different life changes for people, that created a really rich experience.
I think that what we’re looking at when we look at traditional studies of religious practice is, “is there a specific community with specific liturgical practices and a built space where you spend a defined amount of time?” And we’re going to count that as what’s religious. And you know if you’re gathering in some other way, that doesn’t count. That just really doesn’t count at all. And Nones are saying, “No, I’m counting that. When you ask me what’s spiritual, that matters to me.” And it can be there more informal things like Paul’s jam band, but it can also be just encounters with people, pretty random encounters with people that—one of the guys talked about hanging out, going once in a while…his office was in Atlanta and he’d just go down to this busy courtyard on Peach Tree Plaza and just sit there and kind of be with humanity, and that sense of connectedness helped him to ground the work he was doing, which he thought of as fairly abstract in the lives of real people, and to see that he was one of those people just moving through life. And it was a really rich experience for him.
HODGES: Now, there’s another story in the book where your feelings of ambivalence come out a little stronger here. I’m thinking of Lourdes Alvarez, she’s a 19-year old from Florida. You were asking her if she had a spiritual community and she said, “Oh, yeah. I have this yoga class at school.” And you said this was both beautiful and worrisome.
DRESCHER: Yeah. So I was talking to her about her spirituality and I said, “Do you have a spiritual community?” And she was like, “Oh, totally! Yoga, that is my community.” And I thought, “Oh, this is going be like she’s been going to this yoga class three times a week for the last couple years at least and they hang out together.” And of course because I come from a churchy background I immediately build a church like around the yoga class. But no, it’s a class she’s taking that quarter. So she’s been there maybe 15, 20 times, a couple time a week. She doesn’t even know people’s names.
HODGES: That’s her community, she says, yeah.
DRESCHER: But that’s her community and I was like, “Wow. How is that your community?” And I went to, “Well, what would you do for people there?” She said, “Well, you know, they’re like people I know from yoga.” And I said, “So do you help them because you’re there?” And she said, “Well, I might think about them or if they are having a bad day I might say, ‘Hey, cheer up.'”
HODGES: She might give them a ride, she said, I think [laughs].
DRESCHER: Yeah. I might give them a ride because I have a car and other people don’t have a car and you know then I see them out and I think “hey, that’s so and so from yoga class or guy from yoga class, I don’t even know his name.” And I thought well how is that spiritually meaningful? Because it does seem so thin. I asked her, “You know, you’d give somebody a ride but would you give them a kidney?” She was like, “No. Probably not, but maybe I would.” I sort of go, “Sometimes being in a community requires that you give a kidney. Sometimes it’s consequential.” So that was sort of the worrisome side of it for me, like how do we sustain the social good that religious communities along with other communities create in the world and that is a real and substantial thing.
The other part of it though was this sort of lovely—and I talk about the shift from communitarianism to cosmopolitanism that I think is marked by the None-ing of America. This sort of sense of community as Lourdes was defining it as being a sense of being in a relationship with people where you are and honoring that connection. Later that day—I talk about it in the book—I had to go pick up a prescription. And having had that conversation with Lourdes just made me plug in to standing at the pharmacy with these people who were having actual lives, you know, a woman with a kid who was sneezing and I can be very germaphobic and normally I just want to get away from that, but I all of a sudden had this sort of tenderness toward—here is this woman trying to wrangle these kids in this line and people are sneezing and there’s a guy with a Wienerschnitzel uniform on, getting ready to go to work and checking his watch. So there’s something lovely, I think, about really embracing the spiritual in our relatedness with people even if that’s not a sustained, durable relatedness in the sense of that being institutionalized.
And of course in the Christian tradition, Christians talk about seeing the face of Jesus in people. I really came to see that as, “No, seeing people as they are in that moment,” and maybe that aggregates into something that has the kind of social good that we traditionally associate with religious communities.
HODGES: That’s Elizabeth Drescher. She’s an adjunct associate professor of religious studies and Santa Clara University and she has written on American spirituality in a number of different periodicals like America, Salon, Sojourners, and in the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. She also wrote a book Tweet if You Heart Jesus. And her latest book, Choosing Our Religion is what we are talking about today.
When we come back on the other side of the break, we’ll talk about the golden rule and how Elizabeth challenges it in the book a little bit and how Nones have found different ways to approach the golden rule.
THE MORALS AND VALUES OF NONES
HODGES: I’m back with Elizabeth Drescher. She is the author of Choosing our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. It’s a brand new book that just came out about surprising aspects of the spiritual life of Americans who don’t affiliate with particular religious traditions.
Elizabeth, one of the common things that people who are affiliated talk about when they think about Nones is that Nones must lack a moral compass. “If they don’t believe in God, anything goes,” and this happens for family members who see one of their family members depart the faith or something. “What are they going to believe? Do they have any kind of beliefs? They must just think anything goes.” How do different Nones confront that perspective?
DRESCHER: Yeah. I mean that came up for me because I was doing a lot of speaking with religious groups as I was researching and writing the book. So the affiliated Somes would ask me all of the time, “How are they going to make moral decisions? How are they going to ground that?” So that was one aspect of it, is can you be moral, can you be good without God, without the guidance of a divine law or rule and a moral community to norm that? So that was one thing.
The other part of it was whether it’s morally wrong to teach children—so the children of Nones—that there’s no afterlife. That when grandma dies, that’s it, she’s gone. That there is no hope of ever encountering her in any way again, and that that was cruel. And that the wonder of the world is a bigger wonder when it’s associated with a supernatural being and power. So there were lots of layers of that.
But the idea that Nones…Somebody said, “like my mother thinks I’m going to go out and go boost a car if I can because I don’t go to church anymore.” The idea that Nones have no ethics is pretty common, or a confusion about where they would get them.
HODGES: Right. Because yeah the Christian institution has a long history of sort of grounding morals in an ontological argument about what God is and what nature is and all of these things. So people think if you remove that—the funny thing is I think a lot of Christians don’t even reflect on that or couldn’t sit down and pass a theology test if they had to. But there has got to be something else then, that sort of informs an ethic.
DRESCHER: Yeah. And you know, Nones themselves wrestle with that. I talked about one couple Benjamin and Kate who had decided—I think literally about 15 minutes before Kate was about to give birth to their twin daughters—that they weren’t going to baptize them, they weren’t going to raise them in the church, and that had all kinds of implications for their families. But then they had to think about, “well then how do we raise them to be good people?” And that set out for them a really important moral exploration.
So first of all, Kate did a whole bunch of reading on different approaches to morality that came out of the humanist tradition and the atheist tradition and they found that that was helpful but they felt like that was too strident, that they wanted their daughters to explore and be curious about the world. So then they started talking with their family and friends about what their values were and really thinking about where they got those values and developing what they felt like were a set of values about being curious about other traditions, about the way people live in the world, and being oriented toward improving the world with your life.
So I think for lots of Nones themselves who have been raised in a religious tradition and they learned the Ten Commandments or they learned the Five Pillars or whatever was the rule base structure of their religion, in the sense that there is some kind of divine being or force that is going to enforce that, they really had to stop and think about it. But that thinking in itself became a powerful moral and spiritual practice for them. The idea that we negotiate morality in relationship with each other—that becomes an important kind of thing. And I talk about in the book overall, not just in the discussions I had with people about morality and ethics, that there’s a relationship-based, a “care ethics” approach that’s really grounded in our primary relationships with family and how do we nurture and develop people in the context of family and then how do we extend that into the world.
So what I saw overall was Nones articulating an ethics of care that says “how do we live with one another in what Buddhist would say right relationship. How do we develop relationships of nurturing and care in the world? What are the values that sustain that and the practices that sustain that?” So it wasn’t about not having a moral compass and not being moral relativists either, but about thinking about morals and ethics as something that’s sustained in relationship, negotiated in relationship, and normed in practice.
NONES AND THE GOLDEN RULE
HODGES: The book made it pretty clear that a couple of the biggest bits—the idea that Nones are atheists or the idea that Nones are utter moral relativists, you do a fine job of overturning those perspectives.
Let’s talk about the “Golden Rule Christians.” The people you talk about who…A lot of people Christian, non-Christian will talk about, “Do onto others as you would have others do onto you.” Simple moral principle, but your book explores some of the problems that Nones have come to see with that ethic or some of the problems that you began to uncover as you spoke to them about that ethic.
DRESCHER: People generally love the golden rule in lots of ways, both believers and non-believers, the affiliated and the unaffiliated. There is a researcher at Boston University, Nancy Ammerman. She did a study a decade or so ago about what she called Golden Rule Christians. And what she found was that in a wide range of Christian communities, both conservative and liberal, when she asked people what’s the main teaching of Christianity, they would say the Golden Rule from Mathew: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What Ammerman found was that the Golden Rule does a really great job of focusing people on caring for people who were most like them. And that’s because the Golden Rule locates the standard for care on you, right? Do unto other as you would have them do unto you. So it’s reciprocal. First of all, it locates it in the person doing the caring. So I’m the standard for what you would want. And also there’s an expectation of a cosmic reciprocity. Eventually that will come back to me.
There are two problems with that. One is, what I might want might not be what you need, and that causes me to look for people who are like me to offer care, and that narrows the circle of care, makes it hard for me to reach out to people whose needs aren’t like mine and so I can’t match them to them. And then this expectation that there’s going to be some type of general reciprocity, that somebody else will also be looking for somebody like them and I’ll be that person and I’ll be cared for—that tends to narrow the circle of care, Ammerman found, and prevent Christian communities from reaching out in really radically loving ways to people who are way “other.”
Nones like the golden rule as well, I found, because the golden rule exists in lots of other forms and lots of other traditions, even in the Christian tradition it doesn’t reference God so it’s an a-theistic rule so it seems like, “Okay this is good. We just care for each other the way that we want.”
The problem people have had philosophically with that is this inability to engage the other. And many, many of the Nones I talked with noticed that too, and lots of them saw the story of the Good Samaritan from scripture as a corrective to that—as a moral corrective that said, “No, the Good Samaritan was good precisely because he was not expected to tend to the man who was left beaten on the side of the road, because that person was not like him at all, that was damaged goods from a Samaritan perspective.”
So that reaching out to the other, that kind of cosmopolitan spirituality that says “we care for people on the bases of what we need whether or not we are going to get something back from that,” that’s a very different mode of ethics that doesn’t require inventing a whole new religious tradition, but is compelling to lots of Nones because I think they seem themselves as “othered” within religious communities and they still want to be engaged. And also because they want to see the world in its rich cosmopolitan diversity.
HODGES: It’s really interesting, that “reciprocity versus relationality.” And some of the Nones would even talk about how, in their religious former lives, if they had them, they were sometimes motivated by fear of punishment or by a desire for a reward whether it be going to heaven or whatever else, and that these types of rules-based, reward/punishment, moral and ethical outlooks they saw as not as compelling as their new outlook which was based on a new ethic of just caring for humanity, and that this is inherent to humanity, whether it evolved or whether it just happens to be. They may not have like a Garden of Eden story for it but they do have an ethical system that informs their spirituality. It’s a really valuable part of what your book does.
And I also liked how you demonstrated the way that this isn’t countering some of the things that you can find within some religious affiliated communities as well. It’s just that some communities emphasize certain things and don’t emphasize other things, so—
DRESCHER: Yeah. I think the only that I would add to that is that because Nones are Nones—because of their diffuseness and their diversity and their variability even within their own identity and practice, I was able to look at their stories as they told them to me and their practices and say “I’m really seeing what looks like a care ethics.” So that is a system that I overlaid on their practice. I’m seeing a sense of a Good Samaritan cosmopolitan ethical practice that’s really important. But one of the things that I say at the end of the book is, where I think religious communities and the unaffiliated can come together productively for the good of the world is that religious communities are really good at systematizing and creating durable narrative arcs. Can we be too rigid about that? Yeah, sure. Data shows that very clearly. But that doesn’t mean that we throw that away. And I think that if we’re all concerned with improving the world— whether that’s the world we live in now or the world we live in now as it becomes the world to come, whatever “kingdom” means to people at different times and in different ways—I think that conversation about “how can we all bring our gifts to the table,” I think that’s really important.
HODGES: That’s Elizabeth Drescher. She is an adjunct associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University. She joined us today on Skype from California. We talked about her book, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. It’s a brand new book from Oxford University press. Elizabeth, thanks so much for taking your time to do the interview today.
DRESCHER: Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure.