The proportion of religiously-unaffiliated Americans has grown rapidly to almost 20 percent of the population, according to a report entitled “Nones” on the Rise,” released this week by the Pew Research Center. And yet, a follow-up survey by Pew and the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly found that the majority of the country’s 46 million religiously-unaffiliated adults believe in God or a universal spirit, and many are religious or spiritual in some way. Those of us who are in interfaith families did not find this seemingly-paradoxical portrait the least bit surprising.
The new study did not address the role intermarriage may play in the rise of those who are religiously unaffiliated, or how the rise of the religiously unaffiliated may play into the growth of the “raising children with both” movement. But for me, as someone in a three-generation interfaith family, several connections seem worthy of exploration:
- Those who intermarry face barriers to religious affiliation. Interfaith families who want to educate their children in two religions often cannot affiliate with religious institutions. Many religious institutions discourage or even forbid families from belonging to more than one religious community, or enrolling their children in more than one religious education program. These families may turn for support and religious education to independent interfaith communities such as the ones in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC. Or they end up religiously homeschooling their children in both religions. Either way, they may become part of the “religious but not religiously affiliated” demographic documented in the study.
- Those who are not religiously affiliated may face fewer obstacles in intermarrying. Without a religious institution or clergy member to tell them they cannot or should not do so, they are free to marry for love. As the Pew study points out, these religiously-unaffiliated people may still see themselves as spiritual, or religious, or both. And they may feel culturally and historically connected to one or more religions. They may want to continue to practice a religion, experience spirituality, celebrate cultural connections. And they may even want to pass all of this religious heritage on to their children. But they do not necessarily need, or want, affiliation with religious institutions.
- The new study points out that “none” is not a very accurate or objective term for people who may have rich religious and spiritual lives but who do not happen to belong to a church or synagogue. The Pew report authors state that they prefer the term “religiously unaffiliated,” but that the term “none” has been so widely used now, both in the press and in research, that they chose to use the term in the title of the report. I am both the child of interfaith parents and the partner in an interfaith marriage. Like many interfaith children, and many intermarried people, I am religiously unaffiliated, yet resent the term “none.” I belong to neither church nor temple, yet spend hours each week in religious and spiritual engagement with two religions, in the context of an independent interfaith families community. I am deeply, not minimally, engaged with theology, religious practice, and spirituality. I am not a “none.”
- I am grateful to Pew for drilling down into data on the “nones” and discovering some of the rich complexity of religiously-unaffiliated spiritual life. In an interesting parallel, many of the early studies on interfaith families conflated “doing nothing” with “doing both.” Just because a family does not affiliate with a church or a temple does not mean they are doing nothing. On the other hand, families may claim to be doing both, or attempt to do both, but cannot always follow through successfully without the support of clergy, family, or like-minded interfaith families. It will be important in future studies to examine the full range of practices, beliefs and experiences of unaffiliated interfaith families.
- The Pew study attempts to tease out some of the reasons for the growth in the religiously-unaffiliated. Some of the people in this category doubt the existence of God, some believe that religious institutions are too concerned with rules, money, power and politics. On the other hand, the study found that the majority of the religiously-unaffiliated do appreciate how religious institutions strengthen community bonds and provide community service to the poor. For those who want community without dogma, Unitarian-Universalist (UU) congregations provide one option (an option that has provided a home to many interfaith families). In light of the rise of the religously-affiliated, I was not surprised to read this week of the recent concomitant growth in UU communities. Another option, of course, both for Jewish and Christian interfaith families and for anyone interested in religious education and spiritual practice without institution or creed, is the growing interfaith families community network represented by this blog.
I hope that this new study inspires further research on all of us outside of official religious institutions, and on the relationship between the increasing religious fluidity and hybridity of our world, the rise of interfaith families, and the role of religious institutions.