September 16, 2015

"Nones," Affiliation, and Prayer

Elizabeth DrescherElizabeth Drescher, Adjunct Associate Professor of Religion & Pastoral Ministry at Santa Clara University, has spent the past several years learning about so-called “Nones”—the religiously unaffiliated who answer “none” when asked with what religion they identify. In a recent conversation with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, Drescher discusses how her interest in this topic developed, the meaning of religious classifications, and the impact of new and social media on how people pray.


Onnesha Roychoudhuri: What first drew you to studying “Nones” as a religious classification?

Elizabeth Drescher: I was working at a seminary when the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape and the American Religious Identification survey came out. It marked the first big jump in the number of people who identified as religiously unaffiliated. Seminaries were really struggling at that time, as they are now. We were looking at the question of what it meant to prepare people for religious leadership in the current age. I wanted to understand who these folks were and what their relationship to traditional religion was. I wanted to understand how they were developing spiritual lives in relation to and beyond those traditions. So I started there, and I continued to have an interest in what that might mean. Also, I live in northern California. It’s a pretty Catholic culture in many ways, but it’s also really religiously diverse. There are a lot of religiously unaffiliated people.

OR: What are the parameters of the “None” classification? Do many “Nones” consider themselves believers in God?

ED: The data tells us that the majority of the religiously unaffiliated believe in God, a higher power, or something like that. Saying that you’re religiously unaffiliated is saying that you don’t primarily engage or practice that belief in the context of an institutional religious group. But it isn’t to say that you don’t believe in anything.

However, one of the things that the religiously unaffiliated really stress is that our conventional fixation on propositional belief, and those questions that fill our theologies and philosophies—”Is there or isn’t there a God? How does that God work in the world?”—aren’t necessarily the most important measures of how spiritual or religious people are.

For many of the unaffiliated I spoke with, their distance from or indifference to institutional religions didn’t have a whole lot to do with complex doctrinal or theological issues. It had to do with different experiences of the spiritual in their lives that weren’t central to institutional religious practices as they had experienced them.

OR: But it also sounds that you’ve found in your research that many “Nones” are apprehensive to even identify as spiritual.

ED: There’s certainly a range. A sizable percentage of folks from the 2012 “Nones on the Rise” study did identify as spiritual. But many of the unaffiliated—and I think all of the new data from Pew isn’t out, but I suspect that we’ll see this—are religiously indifferent. They are neither religious nor spiritual, and they really don’t want to have their lives defined in that language.

Certainly, the language of the spiritual is often demeaned in the culture—especially the “spiritual but not religious” moniker. I think Lillian Daniel’s work on this is pretty typical. There was a viral essay she wrote for the Huffington Post that she later turned into a book, entitled, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” She went on about people who are spiritual as being vapid, narcissistic, and shallow. But what I’ve found is that people have complex ways of understanding what they see as the work of the human spirit, the divine spirit, a natural spirit in the context of everyday life. It wasn’t necessarily systematized in conventional ways, but certainly created a richness in their lives.

OR: I’m curious about all the terminology floating around here. Already, we’ve used the terms “unaffiliated,” and then “Nones.” How much of a role does the categorization and terminology play in the visibility of different ways of practicing spirituality or faith? For instance, I think in the Pew report there was a troubling grouping of different categories.

ED: At one point they lumped together atheists and agnostics, and that creates weird data. You see a certain percentage of people in the atheist/agnostic category who pray, and people think, Well what are you praying to if you don’t believe in God? But, of course, agnostics don’t necessarily not believe in God; they just don’t know that the answer is settled.

The names are really important. When I started doing this research, I had “Nones” as this long hyphenated construction: “Nones—people-who-answer- ‘None’-when-asked-with-what-religion-they-identify-or-affiliate.” Because people didn’t know what that terminology meant. After the “Nones on the Rise” report, which got so much media attention, people suddenly did know. After 2012, people would self-identify to me as “Nones.”

The unaffiliated have tended to be described by the dominant religiously-affiliated cohort as “un” sorts of things: “un-churched,” “un-religious,” “un-saved” or with fairly pejorative language, like “heathens” or “pagans.” Even “atheist” has a strong negative connotation, although that’s changing. “Agnostic” is a little softer. Depending on your denominational background, “humanist” can be more neutral or it can be very negative. So I think for many of the unaffiliated, having this category of “None” allows them to be strategic in how they identify, but it also allows them to say, “I’m not a heathen or an ‘un-churched,’ I’m not nothing. But I’m not what you define.”

OR: It sounds like the term “None” is starting to carve out its own affirmative space. But I when I read the Pew report, I noticed that they were cautious about using the term. They specified that they were putting “Nones” in quotes, as a nod to the fact that the term is considered diminishing by some. What are your thoughts on the use of the term?

ED: For some people, “None” has an empty sound to it, and they want to be more specific. When I was interviewing people for the New Directions in the Study of Prayer project, and for my wider research on the Choosing Our Religion book, I asked them how they identified. I would say, “If someone asked you what your religion is, what would you say? How would you describe yourself?” People had all sorts of ways of describing and labeling themselves, and refusing labels. Sometimes that would change repeatedly in the course of an interview.

One of the things that was pretty consistent was that people would amend the label that they used, often with the space holder, “whatever.” So they might say, “Well, I’m more of an agnostic or whatever.” Some people read that “whatever” in a kind of valley-girl, vapid way. But linguists talk about those kinds of words as space-holders that allow people to negotiate meanings together. Essentially, they’re saying: “There’s not really a word in the language for who I’m being and who I’m becoming, but I’m going to continue to talk about it with you, and maybe together we’ll come up with some kind of understanding.” “Whatever” doesn’t always mean, “it doesn’t matter.”

People have been testing “None” out now for a couple years. For some, it really works well and feels more authentic than something like “spiritual but not religious.” The label will probably change, too. That’s a big part of the process of religious change we’re seeing right now. Just like fixed doctrinal propositional beliefs are no longer the center of people’s religious experience. Even for people who remain affiliated, the language of, “I am a Presbyterian,” or, “I am a Buddhist,” as a fixed feature of identity is less and less the norm.

OR: I know there are a lot of different theories as to why there’s been a rise in “Nones” and an increasing aversion to wholeheartedly embracing one label. What’s your perspective on what might be behind this rise?

ED: There’s no one particular cause. At a really basic level, people live much longer lives than they ever have. As institutional religion was developing, most people died by the time they were 50. They didn’t have a lot of exposure to other religious traditions, and lives were short and brutal. Doing a lot of religious and spiritual exploration was a luxury that most people didn’t have. If you happened to live in a part of the world where everybody was Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, that’s what you practiced. Now, many of us can expect to live past a hundred, and we have much easier lives—even if they’re complex in different ways. Our lifespans allow for a more expansive exploration of religion and spirituality.

New media technologies have given us access to more information and authority over it. And the ability to shape expressions of our identity in online spaces has influenced our offline activity. We have this expectation that everything is revisable in a certain sense. There are very few people with exclusive authority over knowledge, information, and wisdom now. And in a globally connected world, we’re just exposed to lots of different religious traditions and non-religious practices. It’s just not possible, as Charles Taylor tells us, for people—even if they believe in a very devout sense in one particular religious tradition—to really think that other reasonable people don’t believe different things.

People are also frustrated by the politicization of religion, or the religionization of politics, and have stepped away from certain versions of fundamentalist religion and culture. So all of those things have come together to create this period in which people are holding religious identity more loosely and exploring it in more complex ways in their lives.

I think that the conversation itself—about religious affiliation and “Nones”—produces some “Nones.” There are people who might not have been particularly active participants in the religious traditions that they identified with, but maybe still would have said, “I’m a Lutheran,” or “I’m a Hindu.” And when the conversation about “Nones” in the media invites them to think about that, they start identifying as “Nones.”

OR: Your research relies heavily on interviews with “Nones.” Can you talk a little bit about your experience conducting these? Did you discover any common threads in terms of how “Nones” describe prayer, or what constitutes prayer for “Nones”?

ED: I traveled around and interviewed over 100 people across the country about their spiritual lives. There was a lot of variety. When I surveyed people about their spiritual lives, prayer was the only traditional religious practice that came up as spiritually meaningful, consistently across the board—both among the affiliated and the unaffiliated. But people think of prayer in lots of different ways.

The traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of prayer is that it’s either a petition to a supernatural being, or a way of engaging the presence of that being. So it’s either about making a request and hoping for some kind of change to happen, or developing a relationship, and often expecting some kind of change to happen on the basis of that relationship.

That conception of prayer didn’t come up much with the “Nones” I talked to. More often, I saw prayer functioning as a practice that created a continuity between their religiously-affiliated past and their unaffiliated present. It allowed them to be in certain social relationships—with people in their families, among coworkers and friends who were praying people. For example, one woman I interviewed is an atheist who works as an executive in a social services agency in Chicago. She said that in the course of her work, there are many religious groups and lots of praying. So her feeling is that, Sure, I’ll bust out a prayer, that’s not a big deal. I don’t have to believe in your God to stand with you. She didn’t think the words meant anything in terms of getting a supernatural being to affect lives, but they meant something in terms of her relationships. It’s this idea of praying with people in a Durkheimian sense of creating social cohesion. I’ll pray with you because it brings us together.

This woman also said that when she’s gathering with family and friends, they’ll often start with a prayer as a way of acknowledging the significance of the gathering and the people who are there. For some people there, that has religious meaning, and for others, it doesn’t. I saw that a lot with people I interviewed: prayer serving to continue connections, to move the story forward.

It also came up that prayer held a space in which people could express the paradox of hope and anxiety—often in circumstances where people were praying for somebody. People explained to me that saying you’re praying for somebody is different than saying that you’re thinking about them. When I explored that in greater depth, what I heard was that, when someone is struggling in our lives, we have what I think of as a contingent vulnerability—this sense that your sense of security, safety, and health is connected to mine, at least emotionally. So the idea is, I don’t feel secure and healthy and safe until you are. Prayer is way of narrating that contingent vulnerability and articulating this sense that, I both hope you’ll be better, and I’m worried that you won’t be.

There aren’t many words in our language that really hold that paradox. Saying, “I’ll meditate for you,” or “I’ll think about you” doesn’t say, “I’m implicated in your wellness and security.” Whereas saying, “I’m praying for you” does, even if it doesn’t relate to a supernatural being or force.

OR: What you’re describing sounds like a practice of deep empathy.

ED: Absolutely. People told me that the most spiritually meaningful practices in their life were those that related to family, friends, their pets, and sharing and preparing food. It’s what I think of as the “four F’s” of contemporary spirituality: family, friends, Fido, and food. It’s not necessarily about developing personal virtues that allow you to be a good person in the world; it’s about nurturing relationships, starting with those in the family, relationships with friends, with nature, and so on.

Empathy is really critical in those kinds of relationships of care, where care is the central ethical value. And in that context, prayer is a technology of empathy. It’s a way of articulating and ritualizing empathy. But it also goes beyond that. If empathy is, in a classic dictionary definition, “the ability to understand the feelings of another deeply,” what I’ve been calling “contingent vulnerability” evokes an even deeper compassion, a sense of a profoundly personal implication in the wellbeing of another.

OR: You had mentioned that, for some “Nones,” praying is a way of connecting to their religious pasts. Are there a lot of “Nones” who have a past that includes identifying with a more conventionally delineated religion?

ED: The majority of the unaffiliated come from religious backgrounds—mostly Christian backgrounds. And they emerged from that background in different ways. Sometimes it was problematic, but not always. Some people felt like they took all kinds of beautiful things from the tradition, but that it didn’t really work for them anymore.

One woman I interviewed identifies as variously a “None,” “spiritual but not religious,” and has a pagan-wiccan practice. But she really likes the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and thinks it’s a beautiful tradition. It’s really common for people to carry artifacts from their tradition into their lives as unaffiliated people.

Another woman I interviewed had a really difficult relationship with her fairly conservative Evangelical tradition. She left it behind and then identified as a fairly hardcore atheist. I think she’s softened on that now, but she talked about prayer as “sneaking up on her.” She really didn’t want to be doing it, but she was in certain life circumstances and it was really the only language she could approach that experience with. But it was uncomfortable for her.

OR: One of the women you interviewed identifies as an atheist, but she starts every morning by praying. And for her, that means looking at photos of her children and grandchildren. And in that instance, it sounds like she’s incorporated that kind of prayer in her life and it’s sufficient. Whereas in some other contexts, it sounds like prayer is an act of yearning to feel connection that isn’t yet fulfilled.

ED: Yes. Judith set out these photos of her daughters and granddaughters every morning. It’s easy to see how that resonates with lots of traditional prayer practices—you know, the prayer cards, having the ritual of doing that every morning. But it’s also easy to see how that doesn’t have to involve an idea of God at all. Just seeing those images reinforces those relationships, deepens empathy, enriches a sense of caring, and creates a sense of fullness for her.

There were other people who talked to me who said, “You know, I wish that I did believe in a God that was going to do something, and when I sit and pray, maybe I’m connecting with something, but I’m not certain about that.” It was still important for them to do. One of the people I interviewed, a recent graduate from Santa Clara where I teach, is an atheist who prays. He says when he does it, he’s not really seeking anything in terms of a specific outcome; he’s just thinking about the people he cares about, the things he wants to explore in his life, his relationship to the world.

OR: You mentioned the impact that new media has had on the conception of “Nones” and prayer. How has the rise of the internet and social media opened up space for a more elastic definition of prayer and the practice of prayer?

ED: We see this on Twitter and Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, even Flickr. Every time there’s some kind of tragedy, we see the hashtag on Twitter: #prayforCharleston, #prayforBoston. You’re seeing people expressing this kind of paradoxical understanding of hope and anxiety that is most fully marked in the language we have available with the word “prayer.” It has both some bonding effect—because everybody’s looking at the hashtag—and we’re reflecting on whatever that regional or national experience was. For some, that will provoke what would be traditionally recognized as prayer. They’re going to invoke a deity, petition, use traditional language. For others, it’s going to provoke a kind of reflection that they may or may not consider to be prayer, but we might define as prayerful. It creates a great space.

We see the same thing on more visual sites, where people put up quotes and images that create a kind of digital stained glass window that looks a lot like traditional prayer stations. There’s iconography and short memorable passages that can be recited in patterned ways. People spend time scrolling through them. I have students who say that when they’re feeling down, they go onto Pinterest and scroll around and get some inspiration from people. That certainly changes how people actively experience what they would articulate as prayer or prayerfulness in their everyday lives.

So, they’re not seeing prayer in the more conventional liturgical structures that would be associated with institutional religions. And this isn’t just among the unaffiliated. When the affiliated are going into their churches, they’re also carrying these digitally integrated prayerful practices into those spaces.

OR: Can you give some examples of how these broader conceptions of prayer are evolving the way that people pray in churches?

ED: I think there are lots of churches where ministers are actively inviting people to both Tweet prayer requests or put them on a church Facebook page. So there’s a digitally integrated connectedness that expands beyond the local space into a more distributed network of care. I gave a talk with a colleague a while back, and as an experiment, we invited people in the group to ask for prayer requests. People were holding up their iPads and their iPhones calling out prayer requests from all around the country. It was quite a powerful moment.

Marcel Mauss has an understanding of prayer as increasingly moving people into greater and greater internalization so that, ultimately, we’ll become our own private religious spaces. In fact, social media has flipped that. We’re externalizing prayer quite a lot more,but it’s in much more nuanced ways than, say, a charismatic or street-corner prayer experience. Where we might have seen the evolution of religion becoming more market-based, free choice, individualized, privatized, and interiorized, it’s actually becoming more networked, relational, and social in really complex ways.

April 4, 2014

Sweating Our Prayers in Dance Church

As I walk up from the Oakland subway station on a Sunday morning, rain is falling in a slow drizzle and the downtown street is deserted. Around the corner, I spot the “Tropicana Ballroom” sign on a 1920s building that is my destination. I pay $15 at the entrance and walk up the red-carpeted stairs to a ballroom where art deco wall sconces softly glow onto an 8000-square-foot floor full of dancers warming up. On the far side of the dance floor, beneath floor-to-ceiling windows, an altar has been laid with candles, a vase of gladiolas, a statue of Shiva, and Osho Zen Tarot cards. A young woman sits cross-legged in meditation in front of the altar; the man next to her is kneeling and praying; and two hundred other dancers—ranging in age from infants wearing padded ear coverings to men and women in their 70s—are preparing to “sweat their prayers” on the dance floor.


January 27, 2014

Three Theories For Why "Nones" Pray

The latest addition to Pray for Me, our Psychology Today blog on prayer, references New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Elizabeth Drescher’s research on why people who claim no religious affiliation pray. From her research, Drescher gives us the nones’ reason for continuing to pray; I also give three guesses for why prayer might persist even when religious beliefs fall away.

The “nones” are multiplying faster than any other religious group.

Nones, which is what scholars are calling people who claim no religion, make up 20 percent of the population, and their numbers are rising faster than any other religious category. One third of Americans under 30 fall into that group.

That’s a lot of folks.

Click here to read the full post, “Nones at Prayer.”

April 17, 2013

Upcoming Talk at Princeton Youth Ministry Forum

I will share preliminary findings from my research on the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated—Nones—at the Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, April 23-26 at Princeton Theological Seminary. Drawing on interviews and narrative surveys with self-identified Nones across the United States, I will discuss practices of meaning-making, self-realization, and self-transcendence that Nones describe as durably meaningful and how these practices shape complex, secularized religious constructs of spiritual identity. The lecture will highlight in particular my research on practices of prayer among Nones, as these suggest an emerging spiritual epistemology that speaks to wider shifts in American spirituality and religion.

March 28, 2013

Losing Religion, but Keeping Prayer

There’s been a lot of praying going on around the globe, what with the recent elevation of new leaders in the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. Throughout the Christian Holy Week, both Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby called on the faithful to join them in prayer, but they also made a point to included the religiously unaffiliated—Nones—in the prayerful love. In a recent article for Religion Dispatches, I wonder what all this might mean:

As more and more people pull away from institutional religion, do  have any real meaning in the wider world? Do they connect in any significant way to private, personal expressions of prayer? Does prayer matter at all?

A majority of Americans still answer “yes” to those questions. Close to 90 percent of those affiliated with religions report praying on a regular basis, and 40 percent of Nones in general say they pray with some frequency. Indeed, a plurality (17%) of those identified as “Atheist/Agnostic” by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report that they pray. Among those who described their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular,” more than half say they pray regularly.

But do the prayers of Nones have anything in common with the prayers of Pope Francis or Archbishop Welby and their flocks?

The rest of the article is available here.

March 19, 2013

Nones at Prayer

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.


March 7, 2013

Upcoming Talk at UC Berkeley on Ethical Practices of ‘Nones’

Elizabeth DrescherI will be sharing early insights from my research on the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated—Nones—at a forum sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley’s Religion, Politics & Globalization Program on March 13. Drawing on interviews and narrative surveys with self-identified Nones across the United States, I will discuss how Nones articulate the ideologies, philosophies, and values that they understand as shaping their day-to-day ethical practices. The talk will consider the ways in which the resources that Nones see as significant in their ethical formation and practice mark shifts in the wider ethical ethos in the United States. 

February 26, 2013

Praying Between the Lines: The Prayer Practices of 'Religious Nones'

Two recent trends introduce new questions about the practice and meaning of prayer in the lives of contemporary believers. One is the dramatic growth in the population of believers who do not specifically identify or affiliate with institutional religions—so-called “Nones,” who answer “none” or “no religion” when asked with what religious group they identify. The majority of Nones believe in God and maintain some measure of religious or spiritual practice, within and beyond institutional religions. The majority were raised as Christians, and many attend church services and participate in denominational communities to varying degrees.

The lines that religious Nones cross in their spiritual lives are many, and the “in between” they frequently create and inhabit stands as new territory for religion more broadly. While frequently labeled “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), religious Nones often resist this identification, preferring to locate their religious and spiritual identities not in traditional sociological categories of “believing, belonging, and behaving,” but rather in a more diffuse notion of “being” that understands spiritual and religious beliefs and practices as deeply and holistically integrated into everyday life. Thus, activities such as enjoying time with pets, family members, and friends; enjoying the outdoors and the arts; and preparing and sharing food take on considerable spiritual significance for many Nones as they understand their lives and the world in which they live as holy, as inherently religious and spiritual. Within this emerging lived religious configuration, my preliminary research with Nones indentifies prayer as the only traditional religious practice that continues to be seen as spiritually meaningful.

A second trend intersects with what Newsweek has described as this “rise of the Nones.” Recent changes to cultural and social life associated with digital social media invite new configurations of traditional practices such as pastoral care, religious formation and education, social witness, prayer, and worship in both online and offline locales. Digital social media encourage collaboration, content-mixing, and the distribution of authority in ways that draw upon, reconfigure, extend, and challenge traditional religious structures and practices.

Within the matrix of religious and spiritual practices subject to digitally-integrated appropriation, prayer is particularly central. Facebook pages focusing on prayer are among the most popular and engaging on the platform, and prayer activity is a robust substratum of activity on Twitter across religious traditions and ideologies. Likewise, hundreds of smartphone and tablet computer apps have been developed in the past five years to support the prayer practices of believers, seekers, and skeptics alike. For people seeking to enhance traditional institutional religious participation or to avoid it entirely, new media platforms offer a wide range of tools as well as opportunities to connect with others of similar or widely differing outlooks.

Together, these trends can be seen to extend, adapt, and change the meaning of prayer for believers within and outside of institutional religions. “Praying Between the Lines,” then, will explore how the prayer is unfolding as a social, cultural, and spiritual practice today. The focus of the project will be on religious Nones, engaging the range of activities that they define as “prayer,” both in offline and online contexts. Through one-on-one interviews and focus groups, the project will invite religious Nones to share their own understanding of the meaning and significance of prayer in their lives generally and in an increasingly digitally-integrated culture.