"Religious Nones" as a Prophetic Voice

Michael Metzger

The detective said, “Just give me the facts.” Yet the facts are not enough. The facts are only meaningful within a frame.

If there is anything that we’ve learned from “Doggie Head Tilt” it’s that frames rule. We’ve all become familiar with Berkeley professor George Lakoff’s insight, “If the facts don’t fit the frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off.”

This insight is especially true when it comes to the analysis of “religious nones,” that fast growing segment of the society that is religiously unaffiliated. A third of young people fall into this category. As a consequence, “religious nones” are the source of a lot of lament and handwringing within the church. We see the facts from survey research, but perhaps we have gotten the frame wrong.

The first thing to say about religious nones is that it is a descriptor that no millennial will use of themselves. It is an abstract composite probably created by boomer social scientists. Other terms used of this group are “religiously unaffiliated” and “spiritual but not religious.”

The second thing to say about religious nones is that the media usually misinterprets the facts or interprets them through a distorting frame. New outlets such as National Public Radio frequently use the facts provided by the Pew Research Center to bolster their confidence in a growing secularity or atheism among young people. Michael Lipka writes, for example, “Religious “nones” are not only growing (23%) as a share of the U.S. population, but they are becoming more secular over time by a variety of measures, a fact that also is helping to make the U.S. public overall somewhat less religious, according to surveys done as part of our Religious Landscape Study.”

One point of confusion is around the word “secular.” Both New Atheists and “religious nones” are secular in their orientation, but they mean something very different by it. Calvin College philosophy professor James K.A. Smith defines this secular frame as “a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order.” But “religious nones” are secular in a different way than New Atheists.

In Charles Taylor’s study of secularity, A Secular Age, he explores three uses of the word “secular”: secularism1, secularism2, and secularism3.

  1. Secularism1 – medieval, one-dimensional perspective
  2. Secularism2 – Enlightenment, two-dimensional perspective
  3. Secularism3 – contemporary, three-dimensional perspective

What we are suggesting is that the frame shift demonstrated in “religious nones” is the move from Secularism2 (Enlightenment) to Secularism3 (post-postmodern). Rather than thinking of a “secular” age (secularism3) as synonymous with unbelief, Taylor suggests that it is now best understood as contested ways of apprehending reality.

In the medieval age, secularism1 refers to “worldly” vocations, as in farmers were secular and priests were religious. Secularism1 had to do with one’s position or status within a generally unified and transcendent understanding of society. The medieval use of “secular” did not have any negative religious connotation. Everyone assumed that they were living within a larger spiritual reality, under a spiritual canopy, in which they merely served different functions—farmers being secular, priests being religious.

This changed in early modernity into the Enlightenment. During this period, the “secular” became what Taylor calls secularism2. Assuming that “secular” reason was unbiased, rational, and opposed to tradition, secularism2 pitted reason against faith, science against religion, and progress against tradition. This either/or binary framing of ideas came to shape debates about science and religion. This view dominated until recently and is evidenced in the public controversy surrounding New Atheism. The secularization thesis when presented as a “subtraction story”—“tales of enlightenment and progress and maturation that see the emergence of modernity and ‘the secular’ as shucking the detritus of belief and superstition”—is not correct, which opens the door to secularism3.

What we experience in secularism3, rather than an antipathy toward faith, is a renewed openness and explosion of many modes of believing, all of which are contested and held with a more humble open hand. The either/or dichotomies of secularism2 are rejected for the both/and framing of secularism3. Marketing guru Seth Godin counsels, “In a world where nuance, uncertainty, and shades of grey are ever more common, becoming comfortable with ambiguity is one of the most valuable skills you can acquire. If you view your job as taking multiple-choice tests, you will never be producing as much value as you are capable of…. Life is an essay, not a Scantron machine.”

So a secular3 age does not entail the rise of atheism and unbelief but instead the rise of cross-pressured belief, where belief and doubt are fused comfortably together. Smith explains: “The ‘salient feature of the modern cosmic imaginary’ or cultural narrative that Taylor highlights ‘is that it has opened space in which people can wander between and around all these options without having to land clearly and definitely in any one.’” What we are witnessing in the rise of “religious nones” is a shift from secularism2 to secularism3. This is the problem with most of the research on “religious nones.” It posits the data within a secularism2 frame and thereby misses the point.

While it is true that “religious nones” are not attending church or looking to traditional religion for spiritual direction, their growth is a signal of a new opportunity within the church. Many are more put off by the either/or secularism2 framing of the church than they are of faith itself. If young people have a framing not a faith problem, maybe it is time for us to examine our 2D frame more closely.

Young people are open to a spiritual pilgrimage, they are hungry to find spiritual meaning, they are haunted by the fear of missing out on a larger spiritual world, they are exploring faith in multiple ways but they are put off by the binary, overly certain, Enlightenment-manner in which reality is presented within the church.

Could it be that the rise of “religious nones” is an indictment against the taken-for-granted 2D framing of the evangelical church? If so, then their critique can be enormously instructive. Ironically, “religious nones” can be seen as a prophetic voice for a more constructive manner in which to understand a 3D faith. In this case, the facts lead to a very different conclusion.

John Seel is the former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation. He is currently doing social impact consulting on the importance of millennials for the church. He is the author of the forthcoming book by Harper Collins, Recalculating: Navigating the Millennial Frame Shift.


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  1. The resonant exchange of frames and constructs creates a mutual perspective of commonality and oerspective. Exchange deficit creates the contact reduction.

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