This week the Internet was abuzz with the latest Pew Forum poll that showed one in five Americans now claim no religious affiliation. The document’s official title, “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” begins with the following statement: “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.”
It is staggering to think that one in three of my generation considers themselves as having no religion. But what staggers me even more is that of those one in three, 88 percent say they are not looking for a religion.
But it’s not just evident in the statistics. I hear this trend of autonomous ambivalence echoed on the radio waves as well, perhaps most potently through FUN’s “Some Nights” hit. The depths of the message of this radio hit are hidden beneath its catchy, upbeat tune. But the heart of the song captures a young generation’s struggle to find purpose and meaning in life:
But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for oh
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know anymore…
These words ring with sadness, pain, and the longing for meaning. They speak of the desire for something bigger than self, yet reach the apathetic, or maybe bitter, resignation that this is as good as it gets.
And they pose the critical question: What do we stand for? According to the song and current statistics many of us are not really sure—and we’re not even sure we care to find out.
But is this really true? Can anyone be truly neutral and undecided on a religious stance?
While it is possible to claim no affiliation to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. it is not possible to claim no religion or religious affiliation at all. This is something the Pew Forum’s poll itself admits. In the preface to the full report it’s emphasized that the term “Nones” has become the popular way social scientific journals and the media have referred to those who claim to be atheists, agnostics, or those without a particular religious affiliation. Furthermore, it’s emphasized that,
“The absence of a religious affiliation does not necessarily indicate an absence of religious beliefs or practices. On the contrary, as the report makes clear, most of the “nones” say they believe in God, and most describe themselves as religious, spiritual or both.”
The label “None” is misleading both to those who don’t read the full report as well as those who would label themselves in the “None” category. We’re led to believe by this little word that it’s possible to have no religion whatsoever. But is it?
The Oxford Dictionary defines religion as: “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods; a particular system of faith and worship; or a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.”
According to this definition, we all have a religion—whether we acknowledge it or not. “Nones” may not believe in a personal God or worship at an established location, but that in no way negates religion. What do they believe in? Is it money, power, sex or pleasure? Or is it social justice, environmental care, science and human expression? What do they follow with great devotion? Where does there sense of meaning and worth arise from?
These are not just questions about life, love and the pursuit of happiness. They are insights to our belief systems and what we worship. We all worship something. It may not be God, but we all worship.
Furthermore, is it accurate to say that “Nones” are not seeking religion? The fact that we ask ourselves “What do we stand for?” says no. Where do you look for meaning? That is your religion. Where do you seek significance? That is what you worship. What do you stand for? If nothing else, you at least stand for yourself. If you worship nothing else, you adhere to the Religion of Me. The question that needs to be asked is if the religion we adhere to is a good one.
The trend may be new, but Jesus has much to say to the “Nones” of today. The human heart hasn’t changed much in the past 2,000 years. Speaking to His disciples, Jesus said in Matthew 16:24-26,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
These words are countercultural but profound. What do you stand for? Here Jesus is saying that if you stand for yourself, you’ll lose everything. But if you stand for Christ, allowing Him to define truth and life for you, you’ll gain everything.
We are all searching for something—”Nones” and religious observers alike.
At another time Jesus posed the question that’s just as relevant today as it was when he first spoke it. “What are you seeking?”6 In a few simple words composed into a simple question, Jesus confronted the profound reality of the human heart. We are all on a search, “Nones” included. What and where are we searching? We’re all thirsty; thirsty for meaning, hope, and something to stand for. We need to ask ourselves if we’re searching for water in the right place. Again, the words of Jesus speak profoundly into our search: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 4:14).
The polls tell me more and more of my generation are claiming the religion of “None” with no inclination to seek anything different. Yet culture and life experience tell me we’re thirsty for meaning and purpose while slowly dying alone, as the lyrics of “Some Nights” say, all dried up in the desert sun.
Jesus offers us meaning and something to stand for. The question then becomes, do we want what He has to offer?
An avid C.S. Lewis fan, Sarah studied Christian apologetics at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics in Oxford, England. She blogs about the relationship between apologetics, theology and everyday life at Penny of a Thought.