Spiritual but not religious: The rise (and surprise) of the Nones

by Randy Newman, Senior Fellow for Apologetics and Evangelism, C.S. Lewis Institute and author of Mere Evangelism

You’ve probably heard about “the rise of the nones,” that is, the steady and significant increase in the number of people who say they have no religion.* As Christians who love the mission of Christianity Explored and desire to share the Gospel with others, we should not dismiss this trend. It’s not just a minor blip on the demographic screen. The rise of the nones will influence how we evangelize for many years to come.

But here’s some surprising, seemingly counterintuitive, news about the “nones”. They’re actually quite religious – in diverse and, in some cases, rather disturbing ways. This is the rather well-researched and colorfully documented conclusion of Tara Isabella Burton in her recent book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Building on the long-standing assumptions that “pillars” of religions provide “meaning, purpose, community, and ritual,” (page 3), Burton demonstrates that a growing number of people—especially people in their 20s and 30s—are astonishingly, remarkably, and intensely religious. In her concluding chapter, she writes, “Just 8 percent of white millennials identify as evangelical, compared to 26 percent of seniors…And yet, new gods are everywhere” (page 239-240).

At one point, not that long ago, many people would say they were “spiritual but not religious.” In fact, enough people used that phrase that they earned their own abbreviation – SBNR. If you asked these people, “What do you mean by spiritual?” in many cases, you’d find that they really weren’t spiritual at all. They hardly ever thought about spiritual issues but the SBNR label felt good. Today, however, many SBNRs really are quite spiritual, even though they might click “None” in an online survey.

There is tremendous diversity among these so-called nones. Yet religious devotion may be the one thing that unites them. But wait. What do Burton and I mean when we say the nones are increasingly “religious”? This is where things get even more complexified. It’s possible to be religious (and yes, I do mean that word) about many things in life that don’t have anything to do with church. In fact, our world is becoming more and more religious all the time about a dazzling array of things you may not consider religions. They’re religious about their diets, their spin-cycle class, their sexual explorations, their political causes, their involvement in social justice, their following of Instagram influencers, and even, their devotion to magic through websites for loyal Harry Potter fans. This is the surprise of the nones: 1) that they’re not as non-religious as they claim and 2) their new “religions” may look nothing like what we expect.

You may find reading Strange Rites disturbing. I certainly did. But I also grew in hope as I read it. People may be more open to spiritual—and yes, even religious—conversations than ever before. I’m reminded of what C. S. Lewis once wrote:

“When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were’…For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man…The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman**.”  

C.S. Lewis, “Is Theism Important?”

So, for the sake of evangelism, let us anticipate and not be surprised if our friends, neighbors, co-workers and relatives tell us they have no religion or they’re “spiritual but not religious.” Let’s resist the temptation to react in a horrified or sarcastic way and ask God to fill us with both compassion and curiosity. Let’s ask them to share their story about how they arrived at this position. Let’s listen to what they find helpful or powerful or meaningful about it. 

And then let’s tell them about our journey of faith to another religion—the one that delivers far better in the realms of meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. Who knows? Maybe we’re on the cusp of a great revival instead of a giant collapse, as some of us have feared. Wouldn’t that be a glorious surprise!

* some of the best research on the Nones has been done by Ryan Burge.

** In our day, Lewis’s reference to the New Statesman might equate to any materialistic atheistic perspective.

Randy Newman is the Senior Fellow for Apologetics and Evangelism at The C.S. Lewis Institute. He’s also authored several books including Mere Evangelism, Unlikely Converts, and Questioning Evangelism.

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