Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Nones Among Us

A major report on American Nones—those people who do not identify with any specific religion—was released today. Sponsored by Trinity College of Hartford, CT, the report reveals that Nones have blossomed over the past years. 15% of Americans identify themselves as Nones, and the number rises to 22% when we look specifically at 18 to 29 year olds. If this holds and the trend continues, Nones may well be 25% of the American population in two more decades.

What makes a None a None? For one thing 61% of Nones believe in evolution while only 38% of Americans in general do. 51% of Nones believe in God or a Higher Power, and slightly more than half of these believers understand God in a nonpersonal way, like the Force or the Tao. Less than 10% of Nones are atheists, but most tend to believe that whatever God is, God doesn’t fit into the neat packages of religion.

Politically Nones are interesting as well. 21% of Independents are Nones, as are 16% of Democrats and 8% of Republicans. This isn’t surprising. Especially when you consider than many Republicans are None Others—hoping to replace all religions with none other than their own.

Another finding that stands out in the report is that unlike every other religious group, there are more male Nones than female Nones. 19% of American men are Nones, while only 14% of American women are Nones. And within the None community there are 60 men Nones to every 40 women Nones.

In essence, Nones are the 21st Century version of the 18th Century Deist and Enlightenment traditions that founded this country. Like Ben Franklin, Tom Jefferson, and Tom Paine Nones are committed to science and reason, and do not see these as opposed to faith.

So what are we to make of this report? I am encouraged by it. Nones are freethinkers, and God knows America needs more of these. Nones are curious and open–minded without being empty-headed. Nones are in favor of religious freedom, and because they are not limited to any one faith, will keep the country free from being controlled by any one faith. If they do become a quarter of the American population they may spark a whole new direction for American spirituality, drawing on the wisdom of all faiths while freeing themselves from the limitations of any one faith.

Is this good for Judaism? Probably not. Judaism survives as long as Jews find it worthy of surviving; that is as long as it continues to provide Jews with a compelling sense of meaning and purpose. However, since Jews make up a large segment of Nones, claiming Jewish cultural heritage without aligning with Judaism the religion, the future of Judaism as a religion may be in trouble. But then it is always in trouble.

How to respond? Rather than write off Jewish Nones, I’d create a Jewish Nonery, a school for Jewish Nones that focuses on culture, language, progressive/prophetic politics, and the genius of the biblical wisdom tradition that embraces doubt, argument, and ambiguity. Will anyone do this? I doubt it. Jewish funders are still looking to revive the past and haven’t a clue how to invent the future.


Simcha Daniel Burstyn שמחה דניאל בורשטיין said...

That seems to be a message from "Mishpachot HaAdama" - it's an ad for a Chinese furniture maker (via Google Translate).

My problem with "Nonery" is that many of the people who answer "none" to the religion question should really be answering "materialism" - they worship what they can see, feel, and buy. Not unlike "Mishpachot HaAdama"...

Karen said...

Simcha Daniel Burstyn seems to have made a broad statement with regard to "nonery" and "materialism". I would have easily, readily, and without needing to think marked "none" with regard to religious affiliation. Does this make me materialistic? NO! My relationship with God is direct, extremely personal, and rather devout in my own way. Just because I choose not to associate with a religion to have a profound relationship with God does not mean that I don't believe in God, does not mean that I'm not spiritual, does not mean that I feel profoundly connected to all that God created (which is everything (Isaiah 45:6-7)), and certainly does not mean that I only "worship what I can see, feel, and buy." Give me a break!

Rabbi Rami's statement about being "committed to science and reason" and not seeing "these as opposed to faith" is one with which I agree. Science and reason -- in my opinion, study, research, and contemplation -- actually have further crystallized, enhanced, and solidified my relationship with God.

Your view, Simcha Daniel Burstyn, can easily be considered at a different angle. What about all the highly "religious" people I know who don't seem to have a spiritual bone in their body? With their relationship to God being boiled down to one of "as long as I ask forgiveness for my sins, I'm good to go" -- which seems to get them off the hook for all sorts of insanity?

Di said...

Will the people in the Jewish Nonery wear None Habits and smack the kids knuckles with rulers? Signed...a recovering Catholic

Jim Wells said...

As you know I think of myself as a Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist Jew who makes every attempt to live out the highest principles I have thus far learned, recognizing that there is so much more to learn that I generally remain fairly humble with regard to thinking I have a corner on Truth. As I see it, anything I believe is true is subject to revision as I obtain new information directly through my own experience or indirectly through listening to others for the purpose of increased understanding. It seems to me that Simcha Daniel Burstyn's view of people without religious affiliation being followers of "materialism" makes sense for at least some folks without other religious affiliations. On the other hand, it makes sense to me that Karen embraces an approach to spirituality that she does not find reflected in a particular religious tradition but which does not include attachment to things, money, status, or power. I also like to believe that as a "somewhat observant" (a phrase that perhaps for some is mutually contradictory)Jew, my life experience is enhanced by what the Jewish tradition has taught me about living authentically. By like token, my exposure to other traditions over the course of many years has also contributed immensely to my perceptions of the meaning and purpose of human existence. I think my theology is more consistent with that of Jefferson and Franklin than with many contemporary religious leaders, but I have appreciated greatly the writing of folks steeped in particular traditions but with apparently open minds like Kabir, Rumi, Heschel, Buber, and Shapiro, to name just a few. I have also enjoyed immersion into some Jewish holidays and the camaraderie of the various religious communities of which I have been a member over the years. My hunch is that just as Jews adapted to the diaspora, Jews will adapt to modern life and that while practice may change with time, the old stories will continue to have power for a lot of us, enough to perpetuate that which is important in various ways to be preserved.