By Don Lattin
Special to Examiner
Almost forty years ago, when we resuscitated the religious rhythm at the old San Francisco Examiner, one of the trends I documented was the rise of an eclectic spiritual movement called the “Nones”. Not “nuns” with a “u”, but “Nones”, as in “none of the above”.
These were people who had strayed from organized religion but never really stopped believing in God or a more amorphous Higher Power. Some have started to call themselves “spiritual but not religious”.
Like many national trends, this one started on the west coast and spread east. Over the following decades, the Nuns became the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States.
At the same time, conservative, traditionalist and reactionary forces were taking control of the two largest religious organizations in the United States – the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. It was the 1980s and the rise of the “Reagan Revolution”.
This alliance of right-wing politicians, Catholic bishops and evangelical pastors cultivated a backlash against the sexual revolution, civil rights movement and other social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. They used the fight against abortion , gay rights and the government itself as corner issues to fuel a populist and nationalist political movement that culminated with the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016.
So as the nation emerges from the COVID pandemic, where do believers go from here?
Nones and the Christian right may have reached their peak, according to a new survey of America’s religious landscape.
Meanwhile, we may see a reversal of the long decline of moderate, liberal, and progressive congregations, those belonging to “mainstream Protestant” denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and the Church. united Christ.
And, while “white Christians” remain the largest religious / ethnic group, spiritual diversity is on the rise, especially in places like the Bay Area.
The Public Religion Research Institute’s (PRRI) large-scale new survey analyzed interviews with more than half a million Americans between 2013 and 2019, as well as information from 3,142 counties in the United States.
Among the discoveries:
- The Bay Area is a Buddhist mecca – for Asian Americans and white converts to this ancient spiritual tradition. Three of the country’s top ten Buddhist counties are found in the Bay Area: San Francisco (# 3), Alameda (# 6), and San Mateo (# 7).
- Hindus perform here. Three Bay Area counties feature in the national top ten: Santa Clara (# 2), Alameda (# 5), and San Mateo (# 6).
- Silicon Valley is one of the most spiritually eclectic places in the country. Santa Clara County is the fifth most religiously diverse county in the United States.
As a longtime Scribe on God’s Rhythm, I was a little surprised that no Bay Area County made it into the top ten when it came to the Nones, also known as ” unaffiliated ”. It is an amorphous category that includes atheists, agnostics, spiritual seekers, and other free-thinking believers.
Nationally, the new numbers show that Nones now make up 23% of the U.S. population, up from a peak of 25.5% in 2018.
In San Francisco, unaffiliated people make up 42 percent of residents. That’s almost double the national average and places Baghdad-by-the-Bay in 26th place in the county’s “None of the above” draw.
Natalie Jackson, research director at PRRI, told me it was too early to tell if the Nones really hit their peak in the United States.
“It’s safe to say their growth has stagnated over the past couple of years,” she said. “As we see over the next year how the pandemic reshapes society, it will be interesting to see if there is an impact on this trend.”
The conclusion of the survey that made national headlines last week was that mainline white Protestants may now outnumber white evangelicals, a reversal of previous trends. This has led to speculation that some moderate evangelicals are so fed up with the Christian right’s embrace of Trump that they no longer use the term “evangelical” to describe their religious affiliation.
All of this may or may not be true. Mark Twain has notoriously noted that there are “lies, bloody lies and statistics”, and this is particularly the case when it comes to measuring religious affiliation, adherence and attendance of people. .
People who tell pollsters they are “Presbyterian” or “Protestant” may not have obscured the church door in decades. People, especially in the past, lied when asked how often they went to church. And national membership statistics released by the main Protestant denominations themselves show sharp declines. More recent surveys show that people are also leaving conservative evangelical congregations.
Gallup reports that between 1999 and 2020, the number of Americans reporting membership in a church, synagogue, or mosque rose from 70% to 47%. Other surveys, in 2018 and 2019, showed that the percentage of American adults who consider themselves Christians fell twelve percent in a decade, falling to sixty-five percent of the adult population.
It’s amazing, but not surprising.
For several decades, the Roman Catholic Church has been rocked by its scandal of child and adolescent sexual abuse. Mainline Protestants are fighting among themselves over the morality of abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, many conservative evangelical leaders have gone to bed with GOP culture warriors.
No wonder people are abandoning the church, which is as polarized as the rest of society.
Then, on top of all that, the COVID pandemic forced churches on all sides to close their shrines for over a year. Many are just starting to reopen.
Christianity has a branding problem. Old labels like Baptist, Lutheran, or Episcopal have lost their appeal, and the churches themselves are realizing it. Thousands of congregations have changed their names. What was once known as “First Baptist Church” may now be called “Sunrise Worship Center”.
According to pollsters, the number of self-proclaimed “atheists” remains low in the United States, dropping from about two to four percent.
Most of the nation’s Nuns still believe in God. They can pray, meditate, or engage in some other spiritual practice. They could study yoga, read the Bible, or find fellowship in the so-called “small group movement”
For better or for worse, millions of Americans are developing their own religion.
Don Lattin worked as a full-time religious writer for the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle from 1982 to 2006. He is the author of seven books, including Shopping for Faith and Running from Religion. Learn more at www.donlattin.com.