‘Nones’ Have Always Been with Us – Joe Carter

Over the past decade, a new demographic has steadily risen to prominence in the landscape of religious affiliation—the “Nones.”

“Nones” is a term used to describe individuals who, when surveyed about their religious identity, respond with “none,” indicating no specific alignment with established religious traditions. A recent Pew survey finds that 17 percent of Nones identify as atheist and 20 percent say they’re agnostic. But the majority (63 percent) choose “nothing in particular.”

Among Nones, 69 percent are younger than 50, while 31 percent are 50 or older. (By comparison, 45 percent of U.S. adults who identify with a religion are younger than 50, while 55 percent are 50 or older.) Nones overall are roughly split between men (51 percent) and women (47 percent).

The evidence seems to reveal the overall number of people identifying as Nones has swelled in the past 50 years. Gallup surveys show the number of religiously unaffiliated was close to zero in the 1950s. But today, just over one in four Americans (28 percent) identifies as a None.

This trend has garnered significant attention, both in religious circles and in the broader societal discourse, for what it seemingly indicates about the modern world’s spiritual state. The presumption is the rise of the Nones signals an abandonment of faith and increasing irreligiosity.

That could be true. But it seems more likely that the Nones have always been with us.

The presumption is the rise of the Nones signals an abandonment of faith and increasing irreligiosity. That could be true. But it seems more likely that the Nones have always been with us.

Throughout church history, there have been “cultural Christians.” In Cultural Christians in the Early Church, Nadya Williams defines the term as “individuals who self-identify as Christians but whose outward behavior and, to the extent that we can tell, inward thoughts and motivations are largely influenced by the surrounding culture rather than by their Christian faith and the teachings of Jesus.”

Williams’s book argues that while we think of cultural Christianity as a modern concept, it has occurred since the beginning of the church. I’d argue the rise of the religiously unaffiliated is a related phenomenon and that many Americans who identify as Nones today are merely those who would have been cultural Christians a few decades ago.

Christianity as a Fashionable Belief

We tend to assume people adopt a religious identity because they think the religion’s beliefs are true. We think people become Christians, for instance, because they believe the statements found in the Nicene Creed. Conversely, if they reject the Christian faith, it’s because they reject those propositions.

This is, of course, one way people can form their religious identities. The reason Nones give most often for not having a religion is that they question religious teachings: 60 percent say doubt about these teachings is an extremely or very important reason why they’re nonreligious.

Yet while atheists and agnostics are the most likely to say their belief is based on questioning religious teachings (83 percent and 78 percent respectively), fewer than half (48 percent) of the “nothing in particulars” say the same. A near majority (47 percent) of the Nones say their dislike of religious organizations is an extremely or very important reason they’re nonreligious. About a third (30 percent) cite bad experiences with religious people. Altogether, 55 percent of Nones mention religious organizations or religious people (or both) as key reasons for being nonreligious.

This isn’t surprising, since belief formation is complex and not solely based on reasoning. Tim Keller once pointed out that human knowledge has three aspects: (1) rational/intellectual, (2) experiential/intuitive, and (3) social/pragmatic. “We come to ‘know’ something well,” he said, when (1) “there are good reasons for it,” (2) “it fits with our inward experience,” and (3) “we find a trustworthy community that holds it too.”

Keller believed that “at least some folks—who go from ‘firm, active believers’ to ‘complete disbelievers’ through disillusionment with the church—had rested their belief in Jesus’ resurrection almost completely in the #3 social aspect.” Many of our beliefs—especially about social phenomena such as religion and politics—are essentially formed by this social/pragmatic aspect. Often, this type of belief is what economist Arnold Kling has dubbed a “fashionable belief”: one that will raise, or at least maintain, your status among your peers, regardless of whether it makes sense. “For example,” Kling says, “I speculate that young, affluent teenagers are increasingly declaring themselves LGBTQ+ because it is fashionable to do so.”

Many conservative Christians (including me) will nod in agreement. We’ve noticed the surge in negative behaviors—such as bisexuality, eating disorders, and transgenderism—and we attribute their escalation to their underlying beliefs becoming popular and being spread by their peers. What we often fail to recognize, though, is that the same process can work for beliefs that we want to become popular and widely adopted—namely, Christianity. Because Christian beliefs are true and important, we want the orthodox, evangelical faith to be a fashionable belief.

In America, it was a fashionable belief for a long time. From the 16th to the 20th century, Christianity maintained its status as one of the most—if not the most—fashionable of fashionable beliefs. Only around the 1960s did it begin to lose dominance as a cultural brand. It would take another 50 years before a significant number of Americans felt comfortable shifting their religious label from “Christian” to “nothing in particular.”

In hindsight, it’s easy to become nostalgic and assume that in the past, Christianity was a fashionable belief because people accepted its teachings as true. But as with any other belief that has become fashionable, there was always a large percentage of people who accepted it because it helped raise or maintain their status among their peers.

If this thesis is correct and a significant number of Americans adopted Christianity as a fashionable belief, then the prominence of the Nones is less likely to be solely about an increase in total irreligiosity and more about an unveiling of what has always existed. Some Americans are merely exchanging one group of previously fashionable beliefs for a new set that’s more in vogue. This situation provides us with both a lamentable challenge and a considerable opportunity.

Better Morality Through More Hypocrisy

Let’s first consider the challenge. When Christianity was fashionable in America, Christian morality held a higher status. This was good for everyone.

Some Americans are merely exchanging one group of previously fashionable beliefs for a new set that’s more in vogue.

Admittedly, plenty of Christian morals—namely, racial equality—have been flouted for our entire national history. Yet in earlier eras of American history, many Christian moral principles (especially those connected to sexuality) were indeed held in high esteem in broader society and thus served as a moral compass and a check against sinful impulses. The Ten Commandments, the prophetic writings, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Pauline epistles, for example, provided a clear framework for ethical behavior that was widely acknowledged, even by those not fully committed to the faith. This societal reverence for Christian morality played a significant role in curbing certain behaviors and promoting a general sense of right and wrong based on biblical principles.

Conversely, as the status of Christian morality has declined in the public sphere, there has been a corresponding erosion of these external restraints on sinful behavior. We’re seeing the result of the apostle Paul’s warning in Romans 1 about a society given over to a “debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (v. 28). Without the wider societal endorsement of Christian ethics, individuals are more likely to explore and act on impulses once held in check.

Ironically, this system was held in place because many cultural Christians were hypocrites. Hypocrisy is defined as the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which your behavior doesn’t conform.

For instance, in 1973, less than half of Americans (43 percent) supported premarital sex. Yet many of those who opposed sex outside of marriage, and did so because of Christian teachings, still engaged in illicit sexual behavior. They didn’t let their stated beliefs affect their behavior and thus were, by definition, hypocrites. But they at least understood or acknowledged that their behavior was considered (by society, if not by themselves) to be immoral.

Is such hypocrisy preferable to the alternative? Many Christians would say it is. As Ramesh Ponnuru has argued, hypocrisy serves an important social function: “If a public standard of moral conduct is to have any force at all, inevitably some people who believe in that standard will sometimes fail to meet it. For a society to be both decent and tolerable requires a healthy amount of hypocrisy.” In other words, the best option is for people to act in a biblically moral way because they believe that’s what God requires. The second-best option is for people to pretend to believe what God requires, even if they have no intention of acting on such beliefs.

Whether we should prefer such hypocrisy is debatable. But there does seem to be a significant loss that came with the shift from cultural Christianity to None status. When Christianity was fashionable the on-ramp to true faith didn’t have as many external obstacles as we see today. It also made it easier for genuine Christian to “lead a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim. 2:2), without fear of losing their livelihood because of their faith.

It’s therefore understandable why so many Christians in America want to return to that system. But Christianity isn’t likely to become fashionable any time soon, and an appeal for Nones to return to the hypocrisy of cultural Christianity will fall on deaf ears. We’re not going back to pre-Christianity or nominal Christianity. We’re entering a new, more confusing stage where Christian morals guide Nones in condemning Christians for not being moral enough. The challenges we face should not be underestimated.

New Goat Detector

Fortunately, along with the significant challenges comes a possible opportunity. When those who would’ve previously been cultural Christians become Nones, they’re more readily identifiable as “goats.”

The Scriptures acknowledge that not all who are part of the religious community are true believers (Matt. 7:21–23). Jesus even says that when he returns, “before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left” (25:31–33).

In the future, the goats will be identified by Jesus. But imagine if a “goat detector” had been invented in 1776. We’d be able to identify who was truly a disciple of Jesus and who was a “goat”—someone who identified with Christianity because she considered it fashionable enough to increase her status and maybe even lived a moral life, yet was not “born again” (John 3:3).

With such a goat detector, Christianity may have become unfashionable even sooner—and the decline of morality in the United States might have started decades sooner. But the upside would be that we could have been, through every stage of our nation’s history, identifying the fashion-attracted goats and separating them from the true-believing sheep. Christians would have been better able to deal with the perpetual problem of not knowing who in their churches still need to put their faith in Jesus. As Bob Johnson points out, “Some of our most obvious evangelistic opportunities are with the people who are members of our churches.”

Think of the phenomenon of the Nones as a type of self-identifying goat-detecting device. Instead of remaining unregenerate goats among Christian sheep, these would be unregenerate unbelievers who self-identify and self-separate in a way that makes them easily recognizable. Once recognized, they’re easier to evangelize. (Ask any pastor—or the short-story writer Flannery O’Connor—who is easier to lead to Jesus: an unbeliever who has never heard the gospel or a self-righteous unregenerate cultural Christian.)

About 44 percent of Nones (including 73 percent of atheists) say they’re nonreligious because they don’t see a need for religion in their lives or they don’t have time for religion. We see the need in them that they’re blind to. And we’ve got a solution—Jesus—to the problem they don’t recognize they have.

None like Jesus

This emerging shift in religious identification presents us with a unique opportunity for evangelism. While it may seem daunting, the shift from cultural Christianity to a more honest self-identification among the Nones provides a clearer landscape for sharing the gospel. It’s an opportunity for us to engage with those honest about their disbelief or indifference toward religion, making them potentially more open to hearing the truth of the gospel without the barriers of cultural pretense.

The shift from cultural Christianity to a more honest self-identification among the Nones provides a clearer landscape for sharing the gospel.

It’s similar to the situation in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3–9). The sower spreads seeds on various types of ground, representing different responses to the gospel. Some seeds fall on the path; some on rocky ground, among thorns; and some on good soil. The Nones, in this analogy, can be seen as the ground that has been cleared of the thorns of cultural Christianity. They’re not pretending to be something they’re not; their ground is ready to be worked on. Our task as Christians is to sow the seeds of the gospel diligently and prayerfully, trusting some will fall on good soil and bear fruit.

The rise of the Nones also calls us to introspection and reformation within the church. It prompts us to ask critical questions: Are we presenting a Christ-centered gospel, or are we merely promoting a cultural form of Christianity? Are our churches communities where the transformative power of the gospel is evident in our lives, or have we succumbed to the pressures of conforming to the patterns of this world? This is an opportunity for the church to recommit to its core mission of making disciples (Matt. 28:19–20) and to ensure our faith isn’t a fashionable accessory but a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.

Because of this, the rising trend of the Nones should neither dismay us nor make us complacent. It should invigorate our evangelistic efforts and encourage us to live out our faith authentically. We can be faithful in sowing the seeds of the gospel, trusting in the Lord’s sovereignty to bring the increase (1 Cor. 3:6), and we can live as true disciples of Jesus, showing with our lives the transforming power of his grace and truth. In doing both, we can help lead the Nones from identifying as “nothing in particular” to embracing “the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9).

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