A new report from Duke University and the University of California, Berkeley confirms the uptick in religiously unaffiliated Americans—those who answer “none” when asked questions like, “What is your religious preference?” or “Of what religious group are you a member?”—that was marked by the “Nones on the Rise” report released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in late 2013. Drawing upon data from the General Social Survey (GSS), researchers Michael Hout, Claude S. Fischer, and Mark A. Chaves, showed the percentage of Nones in the U.S. population at twenty percent at the end of 2012, just slightly higher than the 19.6 percent reported in the Pew survey. Together, the two reports strongly challenge data released earlier this year by Gallup, which showed Nones at 17.8 percent of the population and suggested a plateauing in their growth.
As in the previous survey, the GSS data shows that, while engagement with institutional religions has been on a steep decline in recent decades, belief in God or a Higher Power (“Universal Spirit,” in the Pew survey) remains robust, and growth among Atheists has been minimal. America remains a nation of believers, though it’s less and less clear exactly what that means on a number of levels. Publically, in terms of national or cultural identity, for example, the idea of the United States as “a Christian nation,” however much this might be contested at one time or another, has of course had important practical implications for how we understand ourselves in relation to one another in local communities and in relation to other nations in the world. These various self-understandings, in turn, have much to do with what we understand as culturally appropriate ethical, moral, and civic action.
In terms of personal approaches to existential meaning-making, self-realization or self-fulfillment, and self-transcendence, the clear shift away from affiliation with institutional expressions of religion certainly says something about new configurations of personal and social self-identity and the life practices that support this. It is worth noting that the terms “religious affiliation” and “religious identity,” which are routinely conflated in the work of Hout, Fischer, and Chavez as well as in that of many other commentators on Nones, are not equivalent. A Roman Catholic who no longer belongs to or attends church, for instance, may answer the question, “What is your religious preference?” with “none.” But she might also answer the question, “With what religion or religious tradition do you most identify?” with “Catholic,” perhaps adding that she’s a “lapsed,” “former,” “cultural,” or “ethnic” Catholic.
Still, affiliation and identity are closely related not least because affiliation has traditionally pointed to certain kinds of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices associated with one religion or another. When a Roman Catholic says she “prays,” regardless of how she actually goes about that, we might think of rosary beads, or Ignatian contemplation, or formal prayers like the “Hail Mary.” For an Evangelical Christian at prayer, as Tanya Luhrmann’s work illustrates, cognitively reified imaginative dialogue with God is often practiced.
But what of the plurality of Nones who report that they pray relatively regularly? More than half of those in the Pew study who indicated that their religious affiliation is “nothing in particular” reported praying at least weekly or monthly. Indeed, though daily prayer among this group is reported at roughly half the level of the religiously affiliated (27 percent compared to 58 percent), Nones in the “nothing in particular” category report prayer on a weekly or monthly basis at a slightly higher level than do the religiously affiliated (24 percent compared to 21 percent). Moreover, Atheists and Agnostics in the Pew study—whose responses were, unfortunately, reported in a combined category—reported praying at least minimally on a daily (6 percent) and weekly or monthly (11 percent) basis. What might we make of such findings?
Like other scholars and journalists working within the New Directions in the Study of Prayer project, I have been interested in how those in my particular cohort, Nones, practice prayer and how they articulate the various meanings of that practice from their own perspectives rather than necessarily in relation to traditional practices, theologies, or dogmas. Last fall in New York, for instance, I interviewed a woman in her mid-sixties named Nancy who described herself as “an Atheist with Catholic baggage” about her spiritual life, including her daily prayer practice. She reported that she sits down every morning at her kitchen table with a cup of tea and a small collection of photos of her three daughters and seven grandchildren.
“I place each one of them in front of me in a semi-circle—kind of like laying out a hand of cards,” she told me. “First my girls, then each of their kids.” Then, she continued:
I just take a moment or two to look at each one of them. I like to see if I notice anything new about them, but I don’t always. It doesn’t matter, but it is interesting when I do. Like, I’ll see that one of the kids’ eyes is a little lopsided, or something. It’s sweet. I feel like I know them a little better.
Then, I take another moment and think something specifically good about each one of them. You know, like, “Deborah is always so generous with her friends” or “Lindsay is doing so well in school. She’s going to be something big!” I just hold that all in my head for a minute. Then I drink my tea. Then I go into the office. That’s it.
Nancy recognized a certain parallel between her morning photo array and the prayer cards with Catholic saints she’d collected as a child, but she insisted that her prayer practice had nothing to do with how she’d prayed as a child. “I don’t think me having tea and looking at pictures of my loved ones has any special, magic power,” she said. “I’m not asking some god in heaven or some saint to do something for them. I don’t expect that. But I still call it ‘prayer.’ I really believe it is.”
The stories of Nones who have, in a wide variety of ways, adopted, appropriated, and invented practices that they think of as prayer certainly say something about an experiential capaciousness in a category of meaning-making practice still largely associated with institutional religion. Unlike with the subjects of Robert Orsi’s study of clergy abuse survivors, “prayer” among the Nones I’ve interviewed and surveyed is, understandably, not a “toxic” term. But, even among those who claim no religious belief whatsoever, it seems to be resolutely unproblematic, denoting a range of practices that may or may not assume engagement with a supernatural reality of any sort without attaching to much of the theological meaning traditionally associated with prayer.
If the population of the religiously unaffiliated continues to grow, as the trend lines in most of the reputable data seem to suggest, I have to wonder what effect Nones’ constructions of prayer as a meaning-making practice will have on American religiosity in general. Will prayer vacated of religious content continue to express something significant about personal, spiritual, social, or national identity in anything like the ways it has in the past? Or, will the term itself become a dead metaphor, pointing to a vaguely psychological or perhaps psychosocial practice that no one would think of as having any religious content (as is largely the case with the word “contemplate”)? Or, does the still reasonably robust theism of most Nones mean that “prayer” will continue to function along recognizably religious lines, pointing to some sort of imaginative interactive engagement with a supernatural being or force, but perhaps standing for “the religious” once religious institutions have faded from the American landscape?