‘Nones’ may have dim view of religion, but many still say they’re ‘spiritual’

Crux [Denver CO]

January 24, 2024

By John Lavenburg

[See also Pew Research Center, Religious ‘Nones’ in America: Who They Are and What They Believe, January 24, 2024)]

A new survey has found that about 70 percent of American adults who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, the so-called “nones,” nevertheless believe in God or a higher power, and almost half of them (48 percent) describe themselves as spiritual.

The findings come from a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center titled “Religious ‘Nones’ in America: Who They are and What They Believe.” It follows a survey Pew conducted last October, which found that 28 percent of American adults are religiously unaffiliated.

Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis, the U.S. Bishops’ Conference Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis chair, said that he has often heard about people who identify as spiritual but not religious, and believes there is an opportunity for the church to reach them.

“You want to tap into what that spirituality is, and you certainly don’t want to write off people who have a belief in God or some higher power and who understand something beyond science that’s the truth that only faith can comprehend,” Thompson told Crux.

“So how do we help the ‘nones’ and anyone else tap into that faith that’s already there, that sense of spirituality that’s already there, and accompany them, walk with them to that deeper sense of awareness and understanding and appreciation of how important community life is as a church?” Thompson asked.

Thompson acknowledged that at a national level the topic of reaching the religiously unaffiliated would fall under the purview of the USCCB Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, and that bishops have discussed them over the years, but didn’t say anything was formally in the works.

Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, who previously led the USCCB Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, presented on bringing the religiously unaffiliated to the faith at the U.S. Bishops’ 2019 spring plenary assembly, calling it a top priority of the church.

In the presentation, Barron suggested five paths to reach the religiously unaffiliated. These included leading with the church’s tradition around doing the works of justice, which young people resonate with; showing them the beauty of the faith, such as churches; offering adequate listening and teaching, turning parishes into missionary communities, and taking advantage of modern media.

Speaking with Crux, Thompson highlighted the importance of Catholics reaching out.

“All of the baptized are called to be a part of the mission of the church, so we have to reach out to our neighbors, reach out to our classmates, our co-workers,” Thompson said.

The data for the new Pew study was gathered from a survey conducted July 31-Aug. 6, 2023. There were 11,201 respondents, which included interviews with 3,317 so-called ‘nones’ – 658 atheists, 678 agnostics and 1,981 respondents who described their religion as “nothing in particular.”

For purposes of the survey, the religiously unaffiliated, or ‘nones’ are people who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ when asked about their religious affiliation.

One of the most significant findings concerns why the religiously unaffiliated say they are not religious. The survey data shows that the most frequent reasons ‘nones’ cite are:

  • They question church teachings (60 percent)
  • They don’t believe in God (32 percent)
  • They dislike religious institutions (47 percent)
  • They have had bad experiences with religious people (30 percent)
  • They don’t see a need for religion in their lives (41 percent)

Most of the religiously unaffiliated also said that religion does more harm than good in American society – 43 percent responding religion does more harm than good, and 41 percent responding that religion does equal parts harm and good. Only 14 percent said religion does more good than harm, and two percent declined to answer.

The majority of the religiously unaffiliated (80 percent) also said that religion causes division and intolerance, and encourages superstition and illogical thinking (69 percent).

Conversely, most of the religiously unaffiliated responded that science does more good than harm in American society – 56 percent responding that science does more good than harm, and 37 percent  responding that science does equal amounts of good and harm. Only five percent of survey respondents said that science does more harm than good in American society, and one percent declined to answer.

In civil life, the survey found that while religiously affiliated American adults generally were more satisfied with their family life, local community, and social life. Yet the discrepancy between their satisfaction and that of the religiously unaffiliated isn’t huge, and the religiously affiliated are also largely broadly content.

Neither the religiously unaffiliated (17 percent) or the religiously affiliated (27 percent) were particularly likely to volunteer. In voting, 39 percent of the religiously unaffiliated participated in the 2022 congressional election, and 51 percent of religiously affiliated participated.

Further, the survey found that the religiously unaffiliated are more likely to lean Democrat (62 percent) than Republican (31 percent). Religiously affiliated Americans are more likely to lean Republican (52 percent) than Democrat (41 percent).

The survey also confirmed what Thompson referenced and has been reported for a while – that many consider themselves spiritual not religious, and are open to religious ideals.

As mentioned, the survey found that 70 percent of religiously unaffiliated believe in God or a higher power. However, only 13 percent believe in God as described in the Bible. The survey also found that less than half (36 percent) of the religiously unaffiliated said they believe in heaven, and 29 percent responded that they believe in hell.

The majority of the religiously unaffiliated (56 percent) believe that there are some things that science cannot possibly explain, according to the survey. Further, the majority of the religiously unaffiliated (63 percent) believe that there is something spiritual beyond the natural world even if we can’t see it.

With the aforementioned finding that 48 percent of the religiously unaffiliated are spiritual, the majority (57 percent) also responded that spirituality wasn’t very important to their lives. The majority of religiously unaffiliated responded being spiritual means being connected to something bigger than thyself, being open-minded, and being connected with their “true self.”

Less religiously unaffiliated responded that being spiritual means being connected with God, and less than 10 percent of religiously unaffiliated responded that being spiritual means following a religious faith.

Perhaps one response that bodes well for the prospects of churches to reach the “nones” is that 58 percent said religion helps society by giving people meaning and purpose in their lives, and 53 percent responded that religion encourages people to do the right thing and to treat others well.

So, at least to some degree the opportunity appears open, the question is how the church can reach them.

“First we have to appreciate the spirituality, the belief that’s already there, and then how do we harness and tap into that and dialogue in faith with all believers and nonbelievers?” Thompson asked.

Follow John Lavenburg on X: @johnlavenburg