Growing numbers shed organized church for loose spiritual sensibility
Kellee Hom was raised in the Roman Catholic Church but never imagined she’d become a religious none.
No, not “nun.” That’s “none,” as in “none of the above.”
Hom is among a growing number of Americans who simply answer “none” or “no religion” when pollsters ask them their religious affiliation. Some “nones” identify themselves as as atheists or agnostics, but the vast majority believe in God, pray and often describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
“My sense of God transcends all the different religions,” said Hom, a clinical supervisor at Asian American Recovery Services in San Francisco, which helps people with substance-abuse problems. “It’s an energy.”
Nones are one of the fastest growing religious categories in the United States.
According to a recent survey, their ranks have more than doubled in a decade and include about 29 million Americans.
They’re easy to find in the West and are the single largest religious group in Oregon and Washington, where they make up 21 and 25 percent of the population, respectively.
California is not far behind. Nearly one in five people in the Golden State (19 percent) say they are nones. Only the Catholic Church (with 32 percent) outnumbers the nones.
Mark Shibley, a sociologist at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, has studied the nones of the Pacific Coast. “The West is a vast place geographically, which has made it harder for religious institutions to pervade the landscape and corner the market,” he said. “There’s a sense of space — an openness — in this culture.”
There are other reasons. People on the West Coast tend to be from somewhere else. They tear up roots when they move out West, including their religious roots. But this is not just a West Coast fluke.
What has gotten the attention of many scholars is the sharp increase in the number of Americans nationwide who now claim no loyalty to a single faith.
The shift has been noted in several polls, including the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, conducted by the City University of New York. This telephone survey of 50,000 Americans, which was also conducted in 1990, asked the open-ended question, “What is your religion, if any.”
Based on those answers, the study estimated that the number of “no religion” Americans had jumped from 14 million in 1990 to 29 million in 2001.
Out of that 29 million, only 900,000 would call themselves atheists. Those 29 million nones are outnumbered only by the 51 million Americans who call themselves Catholic and 34 million who say they are Baptist.
Two sociologists at UC Berkeley, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, believe the rise of the religious nones has more to do with politics than declining piety.
“In the 1990s, many people who had weak attachment to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion,” they write in the American Sociological Review.
Robert Fuller, the author of “Spiritual but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America,” also questions whether American belief has really changed that much in a single decade.
Fuller, a professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., said the survey might just show that people were getting more comfortable saying they have no religion.
“They may have always been there,” Fuller said. “But having a critical mass of like-minded people gives them a social reference group.”
Many of the nation’s religious nones have become dissatisfied with the beliefs and practices of the Judeo-Christian mainstream.
Hom, the addiction counselor in San Francisco, was raised by a Buddhist father and Baptist mother who sent her to Catholic school. “They made us feel guilty if we didn’t go to church on Sunday,” said Hom, 33. “It felt like an obligation rather than something I was choosing to do.”
Hom said she had fallen away from the Catholic Church because she felt its teachings “were unfair to women.” She also couldn’t accept the idea that “innocent babies are born with original sin.”
Alan Drummer, a father of two in Burlingame, was raised in the Church of Christian Science, but left when he was 12 years old.
Now 46, Drummer and his wife, Charlene, have two children, a 5-year-old and a 17 -month-old. Concerned about religious education for the kids, the couple have been church-shopping on the Peninsula, but they don’t like what they see.
“Sunday school can be so doctrinaire and restrictive,” Drummer said. “We think we may just give them a religious education on our own, visiting different religious groups. No single religion has the only true interpretation of God.”
“I see truth and beauty at the core of most religions,” Drummer added.
Bruce Meservey, who lives in San Francisco and works for an insurance company, was raised in the Catholic Church. He says he left because of “its hypocrisy and inability to address major concerns of mine.”
Now 52, Meservey says he is definitely a religious none.
“I believe, but I don’t know what — just in the universe as an entity, ” he said. “I don’t know if I believe in heaven or hell. It’s all so ambiguous.
“I believe in karma,” he said after a pause. “Don’t screw you neighbor. It will come back to you one way or another. I pray once in a while. I kind of believe in a supreme being, but if you start trying to pin me down …
“We are all part of the same thing,” he added. “We are all part of each other and the animals and the Earth — all part of one big thing.”