Some thoughtful guidance for reporters interpreting era of the religious 'nones'

How many barrels of printer’s ink (it's a metaphor these days) have been expended on the rise of the “nones,” Americans who tell pollsters they have no religious identification?

The following material may not be worth a story in itself, but provides perspective as reporters continue to interpret this important phenomenon. What are the patterns that suggest where this story came from and, thus, where it might be going next?

Pew Research surveys show “nones” have increased from 16 percent of American adults in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014, and are fully a third of young adults. (Young adults have always drifted away from religion, so the significant point is indications they’re not returning as they mature.)

Writing in the, University of Southern California sociologist Richard Flory advises us that, first, “nones” are a mishmash of very different types and, second, most aren’t really anti-religion and often reflect certain religious traits. Those who call themselves flat-out atheists who reject gods and the supernatural, or devout agnostics, are very small segments.

From ongoing research by USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, Flory sees such variants as the familiar “spiritual but not religious,” marginally interested non-attenders, occasional attenders, those generally open to the supernatural but uninvolved, and those vaguely spiritual but not devoted to any specific content.

We get much the same from Philip Jenkins of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, in a blog written by historians. The percentage of atheists has remained low and steady for a century, he says, and  the “nones” seem to “hold pretty standard religious attitudes” so he’d be “very careful” in assuming more “nones” mean more secularization.

Flory identifies the five factors that have fostered non-involvement in organized religion:

(1) All sorts of traditional authority structures, including religious ones, are “flattened” in an age when “everyone and no one is an authority.”

(2) Fewer Americans see a “positive impact on society” from major social institutions, whether corporations, government, or religious denominations. (The Guy would add to the list today’s “mainstream media.”)

(3) Religion has developed a “bad brand,” especially due to scandals and the association of evangelicals with the political right.

(4) Increasing competition for peoples’ attention from jobs, family, social media and other activities makes religious activity “just not that important.”

(5) In a culture where personal choice has always been supreme, more parents are raising children to “make up their own minds about religion” and consequently they choose none.

Why does this matter? Flory says religious groups are central to providing volunteers and services to those in need. One survey showed that 95.8 percent of regular attenders were told at worship services about opportunities to volunteer and help people. As churches lose active members, there’s major doubt whether “communities of caring and the necessary infrastructure” can persist.

He’s less certain what impact on politics will occur. Yes, the “nones” have become a major bloc in the Democratic Party, but they’re less likely to be registered or to actually vote than religiously involved citizens. In a 2012 survey, for instance, “nones” were 20 percent of adults but only 12 percent of voters, a consistent pattern since 2000.

Back to Jenkins. He lists “nones” and scandals among 12 broad trends hitting U.S. religion the past 40 years. The others:  revolutions in gender roles, in “sexual identity,” shifting family structures (more singles, fewer marriages, fewer children living with both parents), increased ethnic and racial diversity, more awareness of global faiths, “vanishing” mainline Protestantism, strong religious conservatism, socio-political alliances across older religious lines, the  spread of megachurches and -- writers take note -- new church lingo. 

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