Scholars don't accomplish much all by themselves. While it can be a lonely business, and we can publish papers with our names on it, the foundation of our work is how we all participate in larger conversations on broad topics and questions. These large, yearly get-togethers become critical for our work.
Image by ruSSeLL hiGGs via FlickrIn attending these conferences, one of the most important things for me to do is to listen to what other people are paying attention to. This year, so much attention is focused on "religious nones." Religious Nones are people who do not mark a religious preference or affiliation on surveys. The percentage of Nones have gone up (lots of news this year on this like here), but we are still trying to figure out what this really means.
Everyone agrees on one thing - being a Religious None does not mean a person is an atheist.
Religious Nones is a survey category, and it can be asked in a lot of ways. For example, there are people who go to church and others who do not. Among those, there are people who go to church who believe in God (as we expect), but there are people who go to church who say they do not believe in God (not many). This simple example shows how there are different ways to discover types of Religious Nones, adding further complications about what it means.
In a session with sociologist Michael Hout, he demonstrated using new data how over the past decade the proportion of Conservative Believers becoming Religious Nones is greater than any other religious group. Conservatives are moving toward Nones more than any other segment of the religious population. Hout thinks this may be due to the growth of attention on the Religious Right from the media - he showed a striking parallel between the two - and that Conservatives are eschewing the label of religion to get away from the stigma of being part of those fundamentalist-moralistic crazies.
Think about that for a moment. If Conservatives are leaving a label, are they leaving religion? Or is something else going on?
In short, are Religious Nones less "religious"? Hmmmm...
Image via WikipediaWell, we frankly don't know in part because we do not have a commonly agreed definition of what it means to be religious. Working with notions of "atheism" doesn't seem to help either. But other research out there seems to suggest that we need to pay attention to how people are defining and living out their religious practices rather than relying on these survey scores.
There are probably lots of ways to be a Religious None.
Still, the notion of a Religious None has filtered it's way into congregational leader's thinking about ministry for a long time. Here's one thought -- From my own research, I believe much of the vitality we see among entrepreneurial evangelicals comes from the attempt to craft a church that will appeal to a growing culture of "Religious Nones". This has some relationship to the "unchurched" or "seeker" ideas of the last decade.
Catch the irony here - creating church for people who have rejected religion. Doing so is based on crafting our own understanding of who is rejecting "church," "God," or "religion" and why they do. Then create church (in language, ritual, style) that seeks to overcome those things.
Anyways, this is only one of several dozen ideas that flow through my head as rich information and new perspectives are being brought by the bright, curious, and ambitious scholars I encounter here every day.