The most important recent development in American religion is the rise of the “Nones,” the increasing number of Americans—it may now be 20 percent of all adults and 30 percent of young people—who tell pollsters that they have no religious affiliation. Perhaps surprisingly, most Nones are believers. They reject organized religion, not faith. In fact, the Nones overlap greatly with another much-discussed category of Americans, the “Spiritual But Not Religious,” or SBNRs.

Even the SBNR label doesn’t completely capture things. It’s necessary to dig a little deeper. At the Oxford University Press blog, theologian Linda Mercadante, author of the recently released Belief Without Borders, has a helpful guide to the various kinds of SBNRs in America today. Mercadante has interviewed hundreds of SBNRs over a five-year period, she reports, and a very large number are best described as “casual” SBNRs. For them,

Religious and spiritual practices are generally approached on an “as-needed” basis and discarded or changed when no longer necessary. Spirituality is not felt to be the organizing center of their lives. Many of the “casuals”—especially younger ones—had little or no religious exposure either as children or adults.

In other words, it would be wrong to understand SBNRs or Nones principally as “seekers.” Nor are they hostile to religion. They just don’t care much about it. Better, perhaps, to call these people something else—something more descriptive. “Religious Indifferents” is a phrase that comes to mind.

If we really are looking at a significant and growing percentage of Religious Indifferents in America, the implications for religious liberty could be profound. Consider the politics of religious accommodations. A minority religion that seeks an accommodation in the legislative process needs allies, people who understand why it is important to honor the minority’s religious convictions. Sometimes, the best friends a minority can have are adherents of other religions, who see it in their interest to lobby on behalf of the minority. By banding together, religions can achieve results they might not be able to achieve on their own. This dynamic, as well as the traditional American commitment to religious liberty as a fundamental right, explains how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 1993.

Large numbers of Religious Indifferents would change this dynamic. First, Indifferents are unlikely to seek accommodations for themselves. If you don’t care very much about religion, you’re not likely to oppose state action for religious reasons. Second, and more important, Indifferents will not likely feel much affinity for believers who do have religious objections to government policy. If you don’t take religion seriously, yourself, you’re not likely to understand why others do. What’s the big deal, anyway?

Some observers, like Rodney Stark at Baylor, think the numbers of Nones/SBNRs are exaggerated. And many younger Americans who are Indifferents now will no doubt join religions as they get older. If Mercadante is correct, though, the politics of religion in America could be in for a significant change.  

Articles by Mark Movsesian

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