A recent survey of the college-aged "millennial" generation indicates that about 25% of that age cohort (18 - 24 years old) claim no religious affiliation. It also indicates that that number has grown larger during as they've aged up. That is, when these students were younger kids, only 11% of them professed being unaffiliated; over the course of ten years or so, that number more than doubled.** A survey of University of Denver students (both undergraduate and graduate/professional) in the fall of 2011 produced somewhat similar results (although Denver students were even MORE unaffiliated). Hmmmm. Why?
The release of that report in the last couple of weeks coincided with my reading of (well, listening to) Robert Putnam and David Campbell's book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.*** In that book, they also address the question of those who choose not to identify with any one religious tradition. These folks are not necessarily "atheists" (i.e., those who believe there is no God) or even "agnostics" (those who aren't sure that there is a God). They just do not find that a particular religious tradition fits with their understanding of the world, the cosmos, spirituality and how they all work together. Putnam and Campbell (and, to be sure, others) refer to these folks as "Nones" (rhymes with "nuns"!). As I was listening to the book, the constant reference to "Nones" and what they (dis-)believed was always a jarring experience, as I consistently that heard "Nuns" didn't believe this, or thought that . . . and none (pardon me) of that was consistent with what I thought/knew about nuns. (Here's where reading the book would have been easier than listening to it!)
Clearly (to borrow from Sherlock Holmes), there's something afoot!
Putnam and Campbell suggest (and their argument is more complex and nuanced than I'm reflecting) that many younger people are rejecting the political associations of religion (primarily Christianity -- primarily conservative Christianity) with politics, as well as the disconnect between a scientific world-view and that of conservative religious teachings. Those associations don't necessarily reflect THEIR understandings/beliefs. In other words, they say, "If religion means a certain world/political view, and it doesn't match mine, I reject religion! But that doesn't mean I'm NOT a spiritual person! I still pray and believe in God . . . but not THAT way of thinking about God."
And, then, on top of this all, comes the recent pronouncement out of the Vatican that the Leadership Council of Women Religious (that is, those women in the Roman Catholic Church who lead communities of nuns . . . yes NUNS) needs to rethink many of its positions (or even non-positions) on moral/religious issues of the day (women's ordination, right-to-life issues, the role of homosexual people, etc.). In short, the leaders of nuns need to acquiesce to a particular sort of authority, and how that authority is made present in the current world, and reflect that authority's teachings. The nuns, on the other hand, assert that they are reflecting, and carrying out, Jesus' mandate to serve all of God's creation wherever (or, in whatever state) it might be found.
So, it seems to me, we have the Nones and the Nuns both reflecting a conflict between conscience and authority. Or, put another way, they are both reflecting a crisis of authority: where is it found? Is it found in the experience/conscience of the individual (or even a relatively small community of individuals)? Or is it found in an historical, hierarchical (some might say, patriarchal) external authority (such as the papacy, or even a sacred text)? The Roman Catholic Church puts a high value on an individual's conscience . . . but what happens when that comes into conflict with Church teachings? On the other hand, what happens when an individual's beliefs and practices conflict with the external, religious, authorities to which that individual owes allegiance?
I've long believed that the individual is THE final authority. Imay submit to another authority, whether it is a political ideology, a religious theology, or some sort of selfish desire, but I need to know, and be able to articulate, WHY I'm doing so. Do the Nones and the Nuns? I don't mean to suggest that they do not! But their presence and witness always challenges me to re-evaluate MY position!
And . . . you?
* Okay, I confess that there aren't "four nones". But it was a great image . . . and there might be four!!
** The survey was a joint effort between the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. The complete report can be found at:
***Published by Simon and Schuster, 2010