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Education and Engagement with the "Nones" by Dr. Brock Bahler

On July 10, Erin and myself appeared on Talk Pittsburgh with Dr. Brock Bahler (University of Pittsburgh) and Dr. Scott Hagley (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) to discuss a recent article about the U.S. decline in religious affiliation and how Christian churches can react. Host Heather Abraham made sure we all got to contribute something to the conversation, but we all had so many things to say that we couldn't get them all into one segment! We asked Dr. Bahler to put his thoughts in writing, and he was generous to offer the following post.


by Dr. Brock Bahler

At present, the fastest growing “religious” identification in America are those who identify as nonreligious, making up somewhere around 25–30% of the population. If these trends continue, according to Pew Research Center, around 2070 Christians will comprise a minority of the U.S. population and the nonreligious (nones, atheists, agnostics) could plausibly be over 50%.

When we are talking about the rise of the “nones,” it’s important to remember that nearly all of the discussion around the nones centers around Christianity or church attendance in the American context. This emphasis on Christianity is problematic for a number of reasons (For example, it can undergird unspoken assumptions that America is a “Christian” Nation. It can negate the experiences of Jews, Muslims, etc. who leave their religious tradition). However, it is understandable for two reasons: (a) almost all of the net change of religious identification in America is from a decline in membership in Christian denominations (about a 8 million net loss from 2015–2020 according to PEW) and (b) despite these shifts, according to PRRI about 67% of the U.S. population still identify as Christian, whereas less than 2% of Americans identify as Jewish, and less than 1% identify as Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu respectively.

Over the past 10 years as I have taught religion and philosophy courses at the University of Pittsburgh, I have encountered first-hand hundreds of Millennial and Gen Z students who have walked away from religion or identify as “none.” On the first day of my Philosophy of Religion class, one of my ice breakers is to ask students if they identify with the phrase “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) and then as a class we flesh out what people mean by the phrase and define the terms. Many of my students resonate with this identifier. This aligns with much of the data: according to PEW, among the religiously unaffiliated about 60% express belief in God and 40% experience “feeling spiritual peace” on a weekly basis, despite them rarely attending religious services or reading sacred texts. Many of the nones/SBNR are suspicious of religious institutions yet still find spiritual practices deeply meaningful. They often view the institution as a corrupt system only interested in maintaining power, upholding patriarchy and white supremacy, or excluding LGBTQ+ people. Many of them have been victims of religious trauma, such as the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church or the SBC, and then have watched their religious institutions protect their abusers. In particular, there is significant overlap between the “nones” and those who identify as “ex-evangelicals,” as younger Evangelical Christians felt particularly betrayed by an institution that emphasized sexual purity and honesty and then endorsed a presidential candidate known for sexually harassing women and habitually lying.

Along with these reasons for leaving religion, my students often say that the religion of their upbringing is antiquated and out of step with 21st century culture (particularly on LGBT+ inclusion, women’s rights, or the value of separation of church & state), that their religious training seemed irrelevant, or their religious leaders were inept in answering their deeper existential questions. Or, they have simply concluded that the term “Christian” comes with too much baggage (e.g, being bigoted, anti-intellectual, etc.), so they have shed the identification. Interestingly, at the same time the nones often also don’t want to identify with being an atheist or agnostic, as these terms sometimes carry their own negative connotations (e.g, think of fundamentalist atheists like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris).

One notable result of this increase in religious disaffiliation is the sheer lack of religious knowledge that students bring into the classroom. As an educator of religion in America today, I cannot assume that students have a basic understanding of terms like Torah, Gospel, Eucharist, or Trinity; nor can I expect them to know who Teresa of Avila, Maimonides, or even St. Paul are. [To be frank, most students who even consider themselves religious know very little about other religious traditions—and often know very little about the complexities of their own.] I’m not sure this is simply an issue for religious education, as student background knowledge in other Humanities fields such as poetry, philosophy, and even history has also decreased.

While one could easily frame this reality as a problem to complain about, in some respects, I see it as a potential strength. First, it reveals the presumed normativity of Christianity in religious discourse: when people bewail the lack of religious knowledge among young people, they often are really only concerned with knowledge about Christian concepts and care very little about educating people about other faiths. This increase in religious disaffiliation provides more space for students to learn about multiple religious traditions and to encounter the complexities within each tradition—that there really are many forms of Christianity (Christianities) and so on. Second, living in a post-religious world provides newfound opportunities to reimagine a Christianity that is not intertwined with Empire, which has arguably been the case (in the “West) since Constantine.

My experience in the classroom is that while students may have little religious education coming into the class, by and large, they are interested in cultivating a personal spirituality. Fewer students may identify as members of a religious institution, yet they tend to express a deep desire to understand other cultures and cultivate empathy for people of other religious traditions. They may be skeptical of institutions that claim to have all the answers to life, but they are interested in wrestling with existential questions and expressing them in community. While they are motivated to deconstruct religiosity, I find that they tend to be inspired to practice a more authentic and faithful way of being in the world.

When discussing the rise of the nones, I often find that Christians respond by (a) blaming those who leave and (b) seeking solutions that assume some nostalgic period from the past to which we must return. But perhaps the present cultural conditions and social changes demand Christianity to reevaluate itself, reform its practices, and even redefine what it means by religious faith—for religions have always been in a process of evolving throughout history.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Reflecting from a Nazi prison cell, in his Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer reflected: “I often ask myself why a ‘Christian instinct’ often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious.” Bonhoeffer found a greater camaraderie with the nonreligious who opposed Hitler than with the German Lutherans who were silently complicit with Nazism. He lamented that for many people who claimed to be religious the term “God” functioned merely as a superficial magic spell that could be summoned to miraculously fix all of life’s problems. Bonhoeffer found this to be both insincere and lacking pragmatic value in a 20th century world.

In response, he spoke of the need to cultivate a “religionless Christianity.” While he did not have a chance to fully form this idea, Bonhoeffer speculated that if Christianity was going have a substantial impact in the future, it would have to eliminate archaic dogmas and practices that hinder an authentic faith, move beyond anti-intellectualist versions of religion that deny scientific and technological advancements, and cultivate a faith that is far more flesh-and-blood practical in the everyday trenches of life than apologetical arguments. He envisioned a Christianity not merely concerned with providing people with a ticket to the afterlife but an active faith “living completely in this world.”

In contrast to a faith concerned with easy answers about the so-called “ultimate questions,” drawing from his experience with the Black Church in Harlem, which revolutionized his faith, Bonhoeffer proposed cultivating a faith not from the vantage point of the powerful and well-off, but “from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled.” Only then could Christianity continue to have a vibrant impact on society rather than simply being an ornamental feature on the margins of human life.

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