Growing up Catholic in the 1980s, I attended a number of Boston-area churches, each a snapshot 1 of a religious community in flux: an African-American parish that had once been Baptist, a historically Irish parish making room for immigrants from Vietnam, a suburban parish whose acoustic guitar hymns made it virtually indistinguishable from Protestant churches down the road. At other times, my family worshipped 2 with conservative Anglicans, liberal Congregationalists and assorted charismatics. After I left home for college, when a favorite professor led Shabbat services at the campus Hillel, I attended those, too. Later, I dabbled 3 in Buddhism, got married in a Presbyterian church and wrote a dissertation on Yiddish literature at a Jesuit university.
What does that make me, religiously speaking? One answer might be “American.” To live in a country as pluralistic as the United States is inevitably to be influenced by a grab bag 4 of beliefs. “Thou shalt reconsider assumptions you held as a child and remain open to new ideas” might as well be the first commandment of our national faith.
Yet according to a major study on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” released last week by the Pew Research Center, my eclectic spiritual formation has also made me an unwitting 5 member of the “nones.” In this and other recent surveys, we who check 6 no single box when it comes to religion are considered part of an “unaffiliated” population whose resistance to such classification has become a tidy 7 category all its own.
The rise of the religiously unaffiliated, by Pew’s accounting, has been so swift 8 (up more than 6 percentage points of the total population in seven years), and the simultaneous decline among members of Catholic and Protestant churches so severe (down about the same when combined), that coverage of the survey 9 has largely presented the religious lives of Americans as numbers on a scorecard 10. As USA Today put it, “Christians drop 11, ‘nones’ soar 12.”
Religion, however, is not a zero sum game. Just as any individual’s life might include periods of greater and lesser religious interest, every tradition is home to remarkable diversity of belief and practice. Church pews 13 may hold nonbelievers; a chanter of mantras may still recall the bat mitzvah prayers of her youth. To claim 14 one religious identity is not necessarily to forsake 15 all others, no matter what a pollster’s 16 multiple choice options might imply.
The Pew study itself acknowledges this, and it does so mainly as it applies to nonaffiliation.
“Nones,” who according to the study now account for nearly 23 percent of all Americans, are made up of people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” Within these denominations of the unaffiliated, there are in fact deep theological divisions. Though the survey’s “nones” include those who have little use for belief or the acts associated with it, others in the category “believe in God, pray 17 at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people.”
While the prospect of a future Inquisition begun by the orthodox Church of the Believing Nones against the heretical Nothing in Particular sect sounds like a satire of the whole exercise of quantifying something as elusive as belief, the use of such categories is a reminder that the history of religion is rife with 18 seemingly trivial differences that morphed 19 into epochal debates.
American religious history especially has been shaped by sagas of minor disagreements revealing hidden rifts 20 that shift 21 power from dominant beliefs to those on the margins.
This history suggests that, despite the headlines to the contrary, we are not necessarily seeing a period of religious decline. Rather, this may be just the latest in a series of moments when more Americans are intent on 22 custom-tailoring 23 their religious identities. The Pew numbers support this: At least a third of Americans today do not maintain the affiliation with which they were raised 24.
Change of a similar magnitude marked America’s first period of religious upheaval 25, the 18th century’s Great Awakening. Then, too, another quickly growing portion of the population was leaving traditional ways behind. Called the “New Lights,” as opposed to the “Old Lights” of traditional belief, they replaced what one minister called the “old rotten 26 and stinking 27 routine of religion” with hugely popular open-air revivals, building on long-simmering 28 dissatisfaction with existing worship styles to become newly ascendant denominations. Many of these churches are those that appear to be losing numbers to the “nones” today.
The man often credited with jump-starting 29 this new phase of American religious life, the itinerant evangelist George Whitefield, was known for sermons calling into question the divisions between Christians, which was as close as anyone at the time might get to praising disaffiliation. Standing on a balcony in Philadelphia, the city in which Benjamin Franklin once estimated that Whitefield could reach 30 a crowd of 30,000 with his unamplified voice, the orator called out to the sky to ask “Father Abraham” who could be found in heaven.
“Any Episcopalians? No.” Whitefield preached 31. “Any Presbyterians? No. Any Baptists? No. Have you any Methodists, Seceders or Independents there? No, no.” He shouted with dramatic exasperation, “Why, who have you there?” The answer he provided, as if in the voice of Abraham himself - “We don’t know those names here” - surely gave solace 32 to any believing “nones” who heard him.
More recently, Americans’ desire in the 1970s and ‘80s to devise 33 spiritual identities apart from traditional categories was labeled “Sheilaism” by the sociologist Robert Bellah, for a woman called Sheila who believed in God, did not go to church, but trusted her own internal voice to direct her on a spiritual path.
Many of today’s “nones” are yesterday’s “Sheilas,” and some of them may be spiritual descendants of those New Lights whose innovative ways of being (and not being) religious established trends in American belief nearly three centuries ago. The rising and falling preference for the open air of unaffiliation is not only not new, it is exactly how religion in America has been periodically enriched and expanded from the beginning.
1. snapshot: instantània
2. to worship: anar a resar
3. to dabble: coquetejar
4. grab bag: caixa sorpresa
5. unwitting: inconscient
6. to check: marcar
7. tidy: arreglat
8. swift: ràpid
9. survey: enquesta
10. scoreboard: marcador
11. to drop: baixar
12. to soar: pujar
13. pew: banc
14. to claim: reivindicar
15. to forsake: abandonar / rebutjar
16. pollster: enquestador
17. to pray: resar
18. to be rife with: abundar en
19. to morph: transformar
20. rift: esquerda
21. to shift: canviar de lloc
22. to be intent on: estar determinat en
23. custom tailoring: fer a mida
24. to raise: educar
25. upheaval: trastorn / agitació
26. rotten: podrit
27. stinking: pudent
28. to simmer: fer xup-xup
29. to jump-start: fer arrancar
30. to reach: arribar a
31. to preach: predicar
32. solace: consol
33. to devise: dissenyar / traçar