“Nones” — the term of art for those who say they have no particular religious affiliation — is an unsatisfying label. I’m not the first to notice that it sounds like “nuns” when said aloud, and that, as a result, it can confuse people who aren’t steeped in sociological jargon. But more crucially, “nones” obscures the diversity of backgrounds and beliefs among the millions of Americans who fall into this very broad category.
Perhaps the blankness of the term comes from the fact that it attempts to describe a group that has grown significantly in the past half-century (by some measures, nones are around 30 percent of the population). Previously, nones had been defined by what they aren’t — adherents to a religious tradition — rather than who they are or what they believe.
In an effort to better differentiate the ways we relate (or don’t) to religion, some scholars, like David Campbell, Geoffrey Layman and John Green in their book “Secular Surge,” have come up with new language to distinguish Americans by their beliefs, sorting us into four groupings: religionists, non-religionists, secularists and religious secularists.
When I spoke to Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame, he told me he thinks of religionists, intuitively, as people who are “highly religious and don’t have much secularism in their lives.” Non-religionists aren’t affirmatively secular, they just don’t have much of a religious worldview. “They haven’t really thought about truth, meaning, etc.,” he said. Secularists “have determined that they find truth in philosophy and science and sources like that, and not from religious texts.” And religious secularists “see the world through a secular lens, but they also have a foot in a religious community.” They have “found a way to accommodate both ways of seeing the world.”
Compared to “nones,” those four categories are useful, but they still don’t quite capture the range of experience when it comes to summing up many of the stories of the 7,000-plus readers who responded to my question, in April, about why they had moved away from organized religion.
Though they don’t make up a demographically representative sample, reading these stories, what struck me was how much change some readers had gone through as they progressed through life. Part of their moves away from religion involved a change in circumstance, like births, deaths, moving to new places and taking new jobs. I talked to one woman who stopped going to church because she started working in retail, and needed the time-and-a-half she could earn on Sundays if she skipped services.
Sometimes, their beliefs also evolved because of whatever was flowing through the cultural landscape of their day. I heard about a “hippy dippy” California Presbyterian congregation in the 1970s that enjoyed “wine and sourdough bread and cheese” as part of its worship services. Politically conscious 1980s hip-hop led one man to discover “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which in turn led to his conversion to Islam.
When I followed up with these readers, three trends emerged. Several had switched religious affiliation more than once; I’ll call them seekers. Others had an abrupt break from church in their youth, after which they became atheists or agnostics; I’ll call them skeptics. And there were others who drifted away from religion fairly late in life; I’ll call them slow faders, because their religious evolutions took time.
Seekers Don’t Want to Lose that Transcendent Feeling
Austin Jackson, 50, who lives in Rhode Island, is a seeker. He’s the grandchild of a preacher in what he describes as the traditional Black church in upstate New York. “I literally grew up in the church that my grandfather built with his own hands,” Jackson told me. He lived with his grandparents on and off during his childhood because his parents struggled with addiction. The church “formed such tremendous and necessary social bonds” in their small Black community, Jackson said.
Looking back, he thinks he never really believed in Christianity. When he had difficulty in his youth — he spent some time in foster care, and he and his siblings were split up — he tried to pray, but “those prayers went unanswered.”
As a teenager, Jackson said he and his friends “developed an interest in Islam because we kept hearing these references and seeing these rap videos with Malcolm X” in them. He read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and when he finished, he felt it had given him a “kind of structural analysis of race and society” and a connection to Black history that he hadn’t been taught in school. He and his friends soon converted, reciting the Shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith.
He was nominally Muslim when serving in the Navy and in college, but he didn’t have a faith community or a regular faith practice. He finally found one in graduate school, but it was an uneasy fit for him. In part, he said, because the community had very few African Americans, but also because he was starting to have serious doubts about the existence of God. When he thought about people suffering around the world he asked himself, “What kind of compassionate God would allow this level of carnage and suffering?” He thought, “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Ultimately, that change in perspective led him to take Buddhist vows in 2017. “I still reflexively say ‘Alhamdulillah’ and ‘Allahu akbar’ and ‘Mashallah’ when good things happen,” he said, but he now considers himself a Zen Buddhist and agnostic. “I don’t care about religious labels. I just want to live an ethical life, a life of service, of helping others,” Jackson said.
Patty Gray, 63, who lives in California, also had a mercurial religious journey. She was baptized in a Methodist church in Omaha as a baby, but even as a kid, didn’t find that tradition inspiring — “I was bored to tears sitting in the pews,” she said. Her family moved around a lot, from Nebraska to Connecticut to California to Tennessee. She went to college in Michigan in the late 1970s and, her freshman year, “The resident adviser in my dormitory was this very tall, handsome guy that I fell madly in love with. And it turned out that he was active in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship,” the campus ministry. “He sort of took me under his wing and then I ended up getting born again,” Gray said, and over the next couple of years, she shifted from one religious group to another.
Later, she ended up getting involved in the charismatic Christian movement, a kind of Christianity that focuses on the encounter with the Holy Spirit rather than on specific liturgical practices. Gray said at first she was practicing a “feral” kind of Christianity that wasn’t really attached to a specific institution. After that, she got involved with what she describes as a “very extreme, top-down, hierarchical, controlling,” charismatic, “speaking-in-tongues and increasingly politicized Christian” organization. She said the organization controlled how she dressed, behaved and dated, and its ideas were reinforced through repetition and peer pressure. “You couldn’t even look lustfully at a man without talking to your overseer” about whether that relationship might be approved by God. She describes herself as, at one point, “brainwashed.”
When I asked how she ended up moving away from that community, she said, “I sort of discovered sex.”
After that, she was basically done with organized religion, though she has remained friends with many people from her observant days, and has studied religion as an anthropologist. She doesn’t describe herself, at this point, as agnostic or atheist, and she is interested in spirituality. “I’m sitting here right now looking at all the flowers blooming in my garden, and when I go out there and have spent some time with my hands in the dirt, I get a wave of well-being and a feeling of connectedness to the universe,” she said. “That might be the original impetus that I had as a teenager coming toward religion, you know?” Gray mused. And she doesn’t want to lose that feeling.
No Santa, No God
A common reason that people raised in religious households become nones is that they lose faith early in life. In 2016, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 62 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans who were raised religious “abandoned their childhood religion before they turned 18.” An additional 28 percent left the religion of their youth between the ages of 18 and 29.
More than one reader who responded to my call-out lost faith after realizing that Santa Claus and other revered childhood figures are make-believe. Kathleen Kalt, 68, who lives in Florida, was raised Catholic and is the oldest of six kids, said that she lost faith in the first grade. That’s when she found a bike in her family’s storage room that she knew was a Christmas gift, and realized that there was no Santa. “My brain just went: tooth fairy, Easter bunny, God. It took less than a minute, a very traumatic minute. I realized I was on my own at 6 years old,” she said. She doesn’t believe in God, but she observes Buddhist rituals and said “I will often say the rosary as a meditation because it’s second nature to me.”
Toni Rachal Smith, 34, who lives in Brooklyn, lost her faith after college. She said she was home-schooled by “fundamentalist Christians,” in Florida, where her mom still runs a specialty bookstore for home-schooling families. Her small church was her life growing up, and then she attended Oral Roberts University, a conservative Christian college. She started questioning her faith when she was 22 and a close friend renounced his Christianity. At first, Smith said, she and others were worried for him, but in retrospect, for her, it was the first domino to fall.
She started questioning things like creationism. “When it became clear to me (thanks to the internet) that the world was not created in seven days, it began to unravel,” Smith said. Moving to Los Angeles, reading Reddit, and being exposed to lots of different kinds of people both digitally and in person made her realize what she had been raised with wasn’t what she believed any longer.
“Realizing that people who believed other things weren’t evil” encouraged her to move away from the religion of her upbringing. She still misses the community, she said, and hasn’t found something to satisfyingly replace what she has lost. “Most of my friends and family are still very religious so it’s very isolating to know that they have a space they go to without me,” Smith said.
‘Once a Pastor, Now a None’
Though the current data suggests that a very small percentage of Americans become nones after 50 — just 2 percent according to P.R.R.I. — quite a few readers who responded to my initial call-out found themselves losing faith in their 60s, 70s and even 80s. When I relayed this to sociologists who study religion, more than one suggested that I might be onto something new. More older people may just finally feel comfortable admitting to doubts now that society has become less religious as a whole.
Taken together, many of these people felt that their religiosity was so ingrained in them as part of their family and community culture, they couldn’t voice their long-simmering doubts until a major life change occurred, whether that was retirement, the death of a loved one or a big political shift.
Kathy T., 64, who lives in South Carolina, was raised Southern Baptist. “My mother took us to church every time the door was open,” she said. When she went to college, she didn’t attend church because she didn’t have to, though she still felt herself to be a believer. When she met her husband, they started attending an Episcopal church together. “I grew to love the service and the feel of connection that the liturgical process brings, that everyone around the world” is “repeating these same words together as part of this service,” she told me. She also felt that when she was raising her children, the church helped provide a sense of moral grounding for the family.
Then, a few years ago, her husband died. “I found at first that I was drawn to go to church every Sunday to feel close to my husband because it was so much a part of him,” she said. Ultimately, she realized that when she was at church, she wasn’t praying to God, she was communicating with her late spouse, which almost felt blasphemous to her.
When pandemic restrictions meant she could no longer sit in a pew, it gave her the space to reassess. “This was part of what we did as a couple, and it was so important to him that it became important to me. But with him no longer alive in my life, then I had space to see: Is it important to me? Hmm. And my answer has become no,” she said. She now identifies as an agnostic.
Steven Leuzinger, 63, was a Lutheran pastor for 31 years. “Throughout my life, he told me, “there were always doubts and questions, things about the faith that didn’t really add up.” He pushed those doubts aside during seminary, and when he survived the stomach cancer he was diagnosed with in the 1990s. But at the time, he knew four people in his congregation with cancer — two lived and two died. The heart of his struggle around faith was the question: How could God let two of us die? All four people were relatively young, and had kids. It didn’t make any sense.
He didn’t address questions like those until the day after retirement. “I just kind of sat and thought a little bit about my doubts and questions, and it immediately became clear to me, I don’t believe this stuff,” Leuzinger said. He’s felt a sense of freedom and relief after acknowledging this to himself. Leuzinger said he’s been ruminating on the topic quite a bit, and he is working on a memoir called “Once a Pastor, Now a None.” Which brings us back to the original issue with the term: “It’s a pun that works better verbally than on paper,” he said.
Leuzinger said that he has replaced some of the community engagement he got out of church with involvement in his local theater group. In the next installment, I’m going to be writing about what other rituals, activities and even new religious observances are coming out of this major shift away from organized religion.