Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Faith in Minnesota: who are religious ‘nones’?

Chris Stedman
Chris Stedman is a professor of religion and philosophy at Augsburg University.
Courtesy of Eric Best

A recent Pew Research study shows that religious “nones” are the largest single group in the United States. Twenty-eight percent of Americans check the box “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. The decline of religious life in America is not new. More than 40 million Americans have left religious life behind in the past 25 years. The reasons for that decline are complicated.

In a new series, Faith in Minnesota, we’ll talk to faith leaders across the state about what people are turning to instead, if anything.

Chris Stedman spends a lot of his time thinking about people who check “none” box. He’s a professor of religion and philosophy at Augsburg University and is working on a book that takes a look at religious “nones.”

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: A recent Pew research study shows that religious nones are the largest single group in the country. And I'm not talking about the women who wear habits. I'm talking about the people who check the box none, N-O-N-E, when asked about their religious affiliation.

28% of Americans do not identify with any religious group. And the decline of religious life in America isn't new. More than 40 million Americans have left religious life behind in the past 25 years. The reasons for that decline are complicated. In a new series, we're going to talk to faith leaders across the state about what people are turning to instead if anything.

Chris Stedman spends a lot of his time thinking about people who check that box that says none. He's a professor of religion and philosophy at Augsburg University. Thanks for being here, professor.

CHRIS STEDMAN: Hey. Thanks so much for having me.

CATHY WURZER: I want to start with the personal because you have a very interesting story. I understand you grew up in Minnesota, didn't have a religious background, a faith background, but you made your way to it as a child? Is that right?

CHRIS STEDMAN: [LAUGHS] That's right, yeah. So yeah, I grew up non-religious. But I became a Christian in my adolescence because really I was looking for a place to belong. And I was wrestling with questions about suffering and injustice.

And these are core needs that we all have as human beings. We need a sense of belonging and community, and we need a sense of meaning in our lives. And so I was looking for a space to explore those things. And when I was invited to this church group by some acquaintances from school, it was like finding people who had the same questions that I did.

Eventually when I decided to go to college, I wanted to study religion because I wanted to help people who were wrestling with those kinds of questions too. But when I was at college, my religion professors, all of whom were religious themselves, really challenged me to ask myself why I believed the things I did. And it was through that process that I came to recognize that I had come into Christianity not because I thought the theological claims of the tradition were true but rather because I was looking for meaning and looking for community.

So I actually spent the better part of the last decade working as a humanist chaplain out east working with non-religious people who were sifting through those kinds of questions. And that's what I do now as a religion professor at Augsburg here in Minneapolis. So I'm really interested in how people wrestle with questions of meaning, belonging, purpose, whether it's within religion or without. But I have been particularly interested in these nones for reasons we can we can get into more.

CATHY WURZER: Right. I wonder-- well, let's dive into the nones because I think it's quite interesting. You were looking for a sense of community, as you say, and some other things. Why do you think the nones, those who are not affiliated with any religious tradition-- I wonder if they're looking for something similar or they just are not finding it in the pews.

CHRIS STEDMAN: Yeah. So the thing that is really interesting to me, especially having worked as a non-religious community builder working specifically to build community and space for people who aren't religious but still have questions of meaning and belonging, was I started to wonder whether or not this is something that non-religious people actually are looking for or not. I'm actually not sure that all non-religious people really are wrestling with those kinds of questions, at least not proactively. And that's actually a big part of why a number of people who study the religious and the non-religious have been worried about the rise of the nones for years. But I think their concerns have been a little misplaced. And here's why.

A lot of these folks who have been worried about the rise of the nones are worried because-- so in sociology, for example, some sociologists have been worried because religious people often report higher levels of happiness, physical and mental health, definitely higher levels of civic engagement, so things like voting, volunteering, being involved in their communities, whereas the nones report lower levels of these things. But the thing is the nones are actually this catchall group that includes folks like atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, people who have a concrete non-religious identity. And it also includes these folks that sociologists call nothing in particulars or people who really don't have a more specific non-religious identity. And actually these nothing in particulars, they make up the majority of the nones.

And if you separate these groups out, actually you find that atheists, agnostics, people who have this concrete non-religious identity, they report similar, sometimes even higher levels of happiness, well-being, civic engagement as religious people do. It's actually these nothing in particulars who report these lower levels. And so that's really what I've been looking into over the last five or six years now is trying to figure out what's going on specifically with these nothing in particulars. Why are they seeming to be disengaged from community? Why do they seem to be drifting in a meaningless world? [LAUGHS] So that's something I've been trying to figure out.

CATHY WURZER: And they're disconnected from institutions.


CATHY WURZER: Who are these people? Is there a certain demographic that tends to gravitate toward this disconnection and being adrift, really no central narrative?

CHRIS STEDMAN: Yeah. Well, there definitely are some demographics we can point to. What's really interesting is, like you said, that nothing in particular seemed to be checking out of institutions. So they have lower levels of education. They are often people who are socioeconomically less well off.

And in terms of the why, there really isn't one answer, as you alluded to in your introduction, which is why I've been working on this book about this topic because there's just so many factors. But one thing I can say quickly is that the rise of the nones is often reported as or discussed as the rise of non-belief or the decline of religious belief or practices. But as I mentioned, most nones aren't atheists. And so many of these nothing in particulars do say that they believe in a God or a higher power, they pray regularly, all these kinds of things.

So I don't think it's that religion is going away. Rather I think there are these cultural forces that are pushing people out of religious institutions and institutions more broadly, as you say, things like consumerism that pushes us to think of ourselves as individual consumers rather than part of this larger whole, things like increasingly precarious employment, which makes it harder to participate regularly in things and makes us feel like religion or spirituality is something we have to do on our own time fitted in between all our other commitments and obligations if we have time to think about it at all.

So to me, if people are worried about the decline of religious affiliation or participation, the biggest thing they can do honestly is to work toward a more equitable and just world where people have more time to consider life's big questions, to get engaged with the world around them, and connect and participate and belong. And this is why I love teaching this religion class I teach at Augsburg because my main goal there is simply to help carve out space in my student's busy, demanding lives to reflect on what matters to them and why and on their responsibility to the world around them, all the kinds of questions that religion at its best puts before people.

CATHY WURZER: And thank you for teaching the class. I've heard it is a fantastic class, by the way.


CATHY WURZER: I have so many of my friends in my life who are members of denominations. And they are leaders, faith leaders. And they are quite concerned as you might imagine to this decline of participation in religious communities.

And they've got tons of questions. We have these great conversations when we meet. And they just don't quite know how to react, you know? What have you seen out there? And what do you suggest these leaders do?

CHRIS STEDMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think I understand the fear. Obviously, these communities have meant something really important to them. And so I understand the concern about these resources maybe not being available to people today. And so one of the things they might do, as I suggested, is to push toward a more equitable world where people don't have so many obstacles in the way in terms of exploring questions that are centrally important to religion as well as to secular humanist philosophies.

But beyond that, I would say I suspect that we're going through this period of religious re-imagination where what religion looks like, how it functions, the role it plays in people's lives is being transformed in real time. And I think looking at it with fear or this scarcity mindset is understandable. But what I find really interesting and meaningful is people who are actually embracing it as this opportunity to say, OK, maybe this model isn't working anymore. What can we do instead? And part of what I've been doing over the last few years is talking to people who are leading all kinds of different communities-- religious ones, intentionally secular philosophy based communities-- and trying to find out what's working for them, what are they doing, and where are we going in the future rather than trying to cling to something that maybe has worked but maybe doesn't work for the world that we live in anymore.

CATHY WURZER: Really quick final question here because you touched on this in the past couple of minutes here. Because we are going to be talking about what people to turn to for spiritual meaning in their lives, in lieu of organized religion, what are people turning to? Where are they going specifically? Have you figured that out yet?

CHRIS STEDMAN: Yeah, there's so many different places. I've been looking to unexpected places for myself. There are a couple of [LAUGHS] meme pages on Instagram. One is called ineedgodineverymomentofmylife. And it's religious memes. And a lot of them people debate in the comments, are they being sincere, or are they joking? I've talked to the people who run the page, and they really are being sincere.

And another one is called nature.is.not.metal that is working on-- I mean, they share a lot of cute animal videos and stuff. But really one of their big projects is trying to re-enchant the world with meaning and to see the world not as this flat, meaningless place but as a place rich with stuff that can make our lives feel meaningful.

And so it's really interesting, but these meme pages are to me one of the couple places where these kinds of projects are really happening. And I think we tend to look for meaning and belonging in the places where we're already spending time. And for a lot of people, that's the internet.

CATHY WURZER: Re-enchanting the world. I'm going to remember that phrase here today.


CATHY WURZER: Such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much. We'll have to have you back on the program, professor.

CHRIS STEDMAN: Yeah, thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Take care. Have a good day. That was Chris Stedman, professor of religion and philosophy at Augsburg University.

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