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Anna G. Larson, Published December 01 2012

Ranks of unaffiliated ‘nones’ on the rise

MOORHEAD – College senior Kristi Del Vecchio says she’s “kind of in the ‘none’ ” category.

She belongs to a growing group of “nones,” those who don’t identify with any religion. Twenty percent of the U.S. public is in that same category, according to a study released in October by the Pew Research Center. That is up from 15 percent five years ago.

A 2010 report from the Association of Religion Data Archives found an even higher proportion of the U.S. – 51 percent – not claiming a religion. That report said 44 percent of Minnesotans and 33 percent of North Dakotans don’t claim a religious affiliation.

The growth of “nones” is largely generational, according to the Pew study.

Thirty-two percent of adults younger than 30 are religiously unaffiliated, compared with 21 percent of people ages 30 to 49, 15 percent of people ages 50 to 64 and 9 percent of those 65 and older.

“My generation is seeing a huge interest in spirituality but not in organized religion,” Del Vecchio says.

Del Vecchio is a religion and biology major at Concordia College who identifies herself as an atheist and secular humanist. She says that she believes humans have the moral capacity to live life without a god or gods.

“You don’t have to be in a church to live that sort of life,” Del Vecchio says.

Men make up 56 percent of the unaffiliated and women make up 44 percent. On average, the education and income levels of the unaffiliated are about the same as those in the general public, according to the study.

More than 13 million people are self-described atheists and agnostics, and almost 33 million people say they have no particular religious affiliation.

The Pew Research Center lists political backlash, waiting to marry, secularization and broad social disengagement as possible reasons for the decline in religious adherents.

Concordia College professor Roy Hammerling has a hunch that young people are particularly frustrated with organized religion and institutions that exclude people. But, he said, that doesn’t mean they are without beliefs.

“If you look at the history of the church, you see this idea of spirituality and not so much religiosity,” Hammerling said. “People think ‘I believed in a god, I may not know what that god is, and it may not match up with anything I see, so I’m going to say none.’ ”

Concordia senior Evan Marsolek, a religion major, says the “none” category is too broad.

“I would argue that a ‘none’ is a person who is completely apathetic,” he said. “We all have our faith stories or non-faith stories.”

While the term might encompass too many sub-categories, Marsolek said he understands why people might categorize themselves as “nones.” He identifies as agnostic.

“The teachings that the previous generations have had were sufficient for the world they were raised in,” he said. “In the world that I’m growing up in, the questions that are being asked are extremely relevant and need to be answered and often aren’t or are answered in a non-constructive way.”

Marsolek cited the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals as an example of a question that his generation is asking the church.

“Religion is something that can’t remain static,” he said. “I feel that some people try to keep it static.”

A lack of religious literacy is another reason so many people identify as “nones,” Marsolek said. Learning about other religions and beliefs leads to greater understanding, he said.

“If you understand tradition, where someone’s coming from, you’re going to treat them with more respect,” he said.

“Nones” are a group of people who are growing up in a society with less of a connection to an established religion, Hammerling said.

“If you were to pull the ‘none’ apart and look at him or her, you’d find spirituality and religiosity,” he said. “More and more over the 20 years I’ve been here, students say they’re spiritual but not religious. But they are very passionate about their way of living.”

Marsolek said he has a passion for living in a way that promotes human welfare.

“I’m motivated to help people because I recognize the human dignity everyone should have,” he said. “I’m not motivated by a religious undertone.”

Both students are part of Better Together, Concordia’s branch of the Interfaith Youth Core. The interfaith movement brings together young people of different religious and moral traditions for cooperative service and dialogue around shared values.

Interfaith Youth Core was founded by Eboo Patel, one of President Barack Obama’s advisers on faith.

“Just because my generation has more ‘nones,’ and we don’t think the same as those in organized religion, it doesn’t mean we can’t work together,” Del Vecchio says. “Our inspirations are just different.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525