Spirituality, Religion, and the Millennial Generation of Nones

[1] To attempt to view how “Nones and Millennials” affect “What Does It Mean to be Church?” in the United States today, it will be helpful to look back at how religion in society has changed in our nation’s history.[1] Martin E. Marty described three maps of earlier American religious history and suggested a new map that he perceived reflecting the situation at the beginning of the last quarter of the twentieth century.[2] The first map, representing 1492 to about 1776, focused on the territorial and theological understandings of colonial America. In nine of the thirteen colonies, one church had a near monopoly, and religion was established by law. Not everyone practiced religion, but the cultural norms were determined by the theological perspectives of the territories’ cultural elites. The second map, depicting what was prominent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reflected denominational realities and the worldviews associated with them. A third map showed changes that took place by the middle of the twentieth century as denominational identities gave way to norms that reflected one “American Way of Life.” The sociologist Will Herberg summarized this in his Protestant, Catholic, Jew.[3] At the time of his writing, Marty proposed that a more complex fourth map was emerging, which would emphasize group identity and social location and would encompass six clusters or zones: mainline religion, evangelicalism and fundamentalism, pentecostal-charismatic religion, the new religions, ethnic religion, and civil religion.[4] In a more recent essay, borrowing a term from William James, “the habitual centres of energy,” Marty suggested a shift in the map, as he proposed that religious energies have sought channels that are quite different from the 1970s as they focus on:

The personal, private, and autonomous at the expense of the communal, the public, and the derivative; the accent on meaning at the expense of inherited patterns of belonging; concentration on the local and particular more than the cosmopolitan or ecumenical; concern for the practical and affective life accompanied by less devotion to the devotional and intellectual expressions; the feminist as opposed to the male dominated; and attention to separate causes more than to overarching civil communities.[5]

[2] Individuals “engage in expressions of individual autonomy over inherited authority . . . The individual seeker and chooser has come increasingly to be in control.”[6] This revised map continues to provide a framework that shows the contours of our religious landscape today.

[3] As a consequence, sociologist Wade C. Roof suggests, “the current religious situation in the United States [is] characterized not so much by a loss of faith as a qualitative shift from unquestioned belief to a more open, questing mood. Underlying this, . . . a set of social and cultural transformations have [sic] created a quest culture, a search for certainty, but also the hope for a more authentic, intrinsically satisfying life.”[7]

[4] A “spiritual marketplace” has developed in response to this, which offers, independent of established religious communities, “workshops, seminars, conferences, and retreat centers”[8] that produce newsletters, meditation cassettes, self-help groups, books, magazines, and music[9] to assist people in their quests.

[5] Introducing different terminology to describe this shift, Robert Wuthnow identified what happened in the last half of the twentieth century in terms of different understandings of spirituality, as he suggested that “a traditional spirituality of inhabiting sacred spaces has given way to a new spirituality of seeking.”[10] A “spirituality of seeking . . . emphasized negotiation: individuals search for sacred moments that reinforce their conviction that the divine exists, but these moments are fleeting; rather than knowing the territory, people explore new special vistas, and they may have to negotiate among complex and confusing meanings of spirituality.”[11] Thus, Wuthnow suggests, Americans are not so much abandoning “religion,” but rather reordering how they relate to “the sacred.” At the end of the twentieth century, “growing numbers of Americans piece together their faith like a patchwork quilt. Spirituality has become a vastly complex quest in which each person seeks in his own way.”[12]

[6] The new map, to return to Marty’s categories, will need to acknowledge the many ways in which people in our culture are seeking to clarify their sense of spirituality, a term that has in the past usually had reference to religion in relation to tradition, but increasingly now is understood across religions, cultures, generations, and identities and is not bound by doctrinal, creedal, or ecclesiastical categories.

[7] A broad group of leaders proposed the following concerning what a definition of spirituality would have to include:

Spirituality is a very difficult word to define. An adequate definition would include reference to a relationship with something beyond myself (known as “Creator,” “God,” “transcendent power,” etc.) that is intangible but also real. It would recognize that spirituality is the source of one’s values and meaning, a way of understanding the world, an awareness of my “inner self,” and a means of integrating the various aspects of myself into a whole.”[13]

[8] This new map provides a framework for examining the rise of the “nones” that was boldly announced, for example, in a series of reports by the Pew Forum on Religious Life. The most broadly based report focusing on the U.S. documented a continuous trend among adults in the U.S. not to identify with any religion. At that time, taking advantage of a word play about Catholic women in religious orders asserting themselves during the 2012 election year (i.e., “Nuns on the Bus”), many headlines simply picked up on the Pew Center’s own title for this report, “’Nones’ on the Rise.”[14] This report went on to say that one fifth of adults in the U.S., and one third of adults under 30, have no religious affiliation, the highest percentage ever reported by the Pew Research Center. According to the report, from 2007 to 2012 the percentage of people who have no religious affiliation increased from just over 15% to 20% of adults in the U.S. Of those who are religiously unaffiliated, however, only 12 percent said they were atheists and 17 percent agnostic.

[9] The most broadly based of these reports, covering the world’s population, was greeted by the headline, “’No Religion’ is World’s Third Largest Religion After Christians, Muslims According to Pew Study”[15] in a news story on “The Global Religious Landscape” that described the size and distribution of religious groups throughout the world as of 2010. Although the report stated that more than eight in ten people identify with a religious group, it indicated that roughly one in six people around the globe (1.1 billion, or 16%) have no religious affiliation. This makes the unaffiliated the third largest “religious group” worldwide, behind Christians (2.2 billion, or 32%) and Muslims (1.6 billion, or 23%). The report acknowledged, however, that many of the unaffiliated hold some religious or spiritual beliefs, such as belief in God or a universal spirit, even though they do not identify with a particular faith community.[16]

[10] The U.S. focused reports, including one specifically focused on “Religion Among the Millennials,”[17] supported the findings of sociologists who have been following these developments for some time. Having observed for decades a small percentage of people not affiliated with any religion in the U.S., they noted that the numbers had increased significantly since the pre-Boomer generation[18] who came of age before 1960 when 5-7 percent responded “none” when asked about their religious affiliation; the number doubled to 10 -15 percent among the Boomers who came of age in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and after 2000 doubled again to about 20-39 percent among the post-Boomers (who came of age in the 1990s and 2000s).[19]

[11] During the 1990s, the number of “nones” began to rise exponentially,[20] especially among Millennials. Using traditional measures of “religiosity,” the “emerging adult”[21] generation is considerably less religious than the older generations of Americans. One fourth of the members of the Millennial generation are not affiliated with any religious community. They attend religious services less often than older generations of Americans, and fewer of them say that religion is “very important” in their lives. An independent survey found that 65% of young adults never participate in worship services and rarely, if ever, pray with others. Nearly 67% never read sacred texts, and 68% do not regard religion, faith, or spirituality as important in their lives,[22]even though their beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell, and miracles are not significantly different from the beliefs of older generations.[23]

[12] Members of the Millennial generation, which currently makes up 27% of the adult population in the U.S., are finishing college in record numbers, but are lagging in marriage, having kids, and moving into their own homes.[24] Their views on social and political issues as they relate to religion tend to be liberal. Around 1990, Americans increasingly expressed deep concern that religious leaders should not try to influence people’s votes or government decisions. Turned off by the growing public presence of conservative Christianity (the Religious Right), those Millennials who rejected all religious identification began to view religion, according to one survey, as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.[25] With the rise of the nones among the emerging adults, there was also a significant increase in the acceptance of marijuana and homosexuality.[26] The nones were, in addition, more likely to accept evolution as a way of explaining human life, and were less likely to view Hollywood as a threat to their moral values. Although they were as likely as their elders to believe there are absolute standards of right and wrong, they were more permissive than their elders in their views about pornography and stand out from other generations in their opposition to Bible reading and prayers in schools.[27]

[13] There is, however, considerable instability among these “nones.” One study reported that one third of those who disclaim any religious affiliation one year will report some affiliation the following year, and their shift will be compensated by others who claim a religious affiliation that year but will report none the following year. Robert Putnam and David Campbell call them “liminal nones,” because they are located on the edge of some religious tradition, unsure of whether they want to identify with that tradition or not, in contrast to “stable nones,” who report in two consecutive years that they have no religious affiliation. The “stable nones” are much less religious in their beliefs and values than “liminal nones,” although even among them few describe themselves as atheists or agnostics.[28]

[14] The U.S. focused Pew Center reports included an analysis of questions about shifting understandings of religion and spirituality and the relationships between them. The reports indicated that many of the 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Other studies indicate that 83 percent of Americans report that they belong to a religion; 40 percent report attending a religious service nearly every week; 59 percent pray at least weekly; 33 percent report reading scripture at least weekly; and 80 percent are sure that there is a God.[29] The Pew surveys asked respondents whether they considered themselves to be “a religious person,” and in a separate question they were asked if they considered themselves to be “a spiritual person.” The reports analyzed the extent to which people who identified themselves as “religious” and those who identified themselves as “spiritual” were separate or overlapping groups.

[15] Although these studies make generalizations about how the Millennials express religion and spiritual issues in their lives, it is important to acknowledge that today’s emerging adults do not all have the same attitudes toward religion or spirituality. Christian Smith distinguished a diversity of types and trajectories as he described six different types of emerging adults in America today: (1) Committed Traditionalists who have a strong religious faith, have well articulated beliefs, and live out their lives practicing those beliefs. Those in this category are a small minority, comprising about 15 percent of emerging adults. (2) Selective Adherents who believe and practice certain aspects of their religious traditions but ignore or neglect others. This group comprises perhaps 30 percent of emerging adults. (3) Spiritually Open emerging adults who are not very committed to a particular religious tradition but are receptive to or mildly interested in at least some spiritual or religious matters. This group comprises about 15 percent of emerging adults. (4) Religiously Indifferent emerging adults who are not interested in practicing religion, but they do not actively oppose it. They comprise perhaps 25 percent of the emerging adult population. (5) Religiously Disconnected emerging adults who are neither interested in nor opposed to religion, as they have little or no connection to religious ideas, persons, or organizations. They comprise not more than 5% of emerging adults. (6) Irreligious emerging adults who are skeptical about religion and often make critical arguments against religion in general. They comprise no more than 10 percent of the population of emerging adults.[30]

[16] It seems clear that not all emerging adults have the same interests or needs, but Smith believes all of them would benefit from more focused attention by older adults if they are to develop meaningful lives and contribute to society. He writes:

. . . if communities of other adults who care about youth wish to nurture emerging adult lives of purpose, meaning, and character—instead of confusion, drifting, and shallowness—they will need to do better jobs of seriously engaging youth from early on and not cut them adrift as they move through the teenage years. More broadly, if anyone in the future is ever to know what is really good, right, and true, the challenges of the crises of knowledge and value that beset American culture today . . . must be addressed, in order to learn more justifiably sure-footed ways to understand reality and the moral good. . . . Finally, if traditions and communities of religious faith want better to foster ways that more of their own emerging adults can engage in lives of serious religious faith and practice, they, too, will have to come to terms with the social, cultural, and institutional structure and forces that govern emerging adulthood and shape religion and spirituality during this phase of life.[31]

What congregations can do

[17] That structure and those forces include the instability emerging adults face in the work force in this era of globalization, the overloading debt that many have from loans to pay for their college educations, the high rates of divorce and child abuse, changing makeups of families that include gays and lesbians, single parents with children, interreligious families, and feelings of uncertainty about many matters. There are few institutions that are prepared to provide the institutional support that young adults need to discuss such issues and the decisions they make in relation to them. Congregations could provide settings in which young adults could discuss such matters in the company of other adults of the same age. Wuthnow has suggested that such forums may be valuable as one way in which young adults can “tinker” with religion and spirituality as they put together their lives from the resources, skills, and ideas available to them.[32] If we are to have a serious conversation regarding the institutional support that young adults need and deserve, religion is one of the sectors that needs to be represented in the networks of support.

[18] Another possible role for congregations is to provide forums for young adults to address specifically questions of faith, life, and ethics in comfortable settings in which participants can listen to each other, form friendships, and relax in meaningful conversations.[33] A model for this was provided in a project funded by the Lilly Endowment to increase the number of college men involved in vocational discernment activities. Two colleagues and I concluded from interviews we conducted of participants from seven of the campuses involved in this project[34] that traditional college age men value their spirituality deeply, but many had little use for organized religion. These men found their spiritual lives and values nourished by sports, music, intellectual debates, intimate friendships, social service projects (many found fulfillment by working in soup kitchens or building houses in Habitat for Humanity), and deep discussions with close friends. They often wrestled with “big questions,” which are essentially spiritual questions: Who am I and what do I believe? What kind of person was I born to be and how can I become that person more fully? What interconnectedness or wholeness is there between all things? Is this related to what some may call God, the life force, a higher power, ultimate reality, cosmic nature, or the Great Spirit? For college age students—women as well as men—such questions shape their understandings of spirituality, and they want to explore these questions for themselves. The answers that they believe organized religions have traditionally offered do not seem pertinent to the questions that these young people are asking, as they are on a quest for a new shared language about things “spiritual.” Perhaps congregations can be open to such discussions without feeling the need to provide responses to these criticisms too quickly.

[19] Finally, what might this mean for congregations as worshiping communities? One attempt has been made by the movement that has become known as the “emerging church,” a loose confederation of congregations seeking especially to attract people in their twenties and thirties.[35] Leaders in this movement talk about “missional living,” suggesting that their focus is more on what people do than the doctrines they believe.[36] It seems unlikely, however, that mainline Protestant Christianity, including Lutherans, would be effective or true to their heritages if they were to move reductively in this direction. Maintaining a prophetic stance, nurturing intergenerational communities, being broadly ecumenical and open to inter-religious dialogue, being serious about spirituality but committed to playing the crucial role that religious institutions play in pluralistic societies, respectful of tradition but open to social change, promoting tolerance, inclusivity and generosity may be the most effective way for these congregations to reach out to the nones among the Millennial generation. It may well be that many of the nones will remain uninterested in religion or in becoming part of a Christian community, but Linda Mercadante sums it up well when she says that “churches need to remember that their primary job is not to make members, but to transform lives and produce mature, faithful Christians.”[37] And a final balancing word about spirituality and religion was expressed well in a lecture by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on “The Spiritual and the Religious: is the territory changing?” as he argued that “for those ‘who adhere to revealed faith’ but do not wish simply to be absorbed into an uncritical post-religious culture focused on ‘the autonomous self and its choices’” the challenge is to rediscover the meaning of Christians as “a ‘new species’, homo eucharisticus, a humanity defined in its Eucharistic practice. . . . ‘The unleavened bread of sincerity and truth’ is the gift of the Easter Gospel, we are told in the liturgy: ‘Lord, evermore give us this bread (Jn 6:34).’”[38]


[1] In this section I am drawing upon a study of American college men’s spirituality published by two colleagues and me: W. Merle Longwood, William C. Schipper, OSB, and Philip Culbertson, Forging the Male Spirit: The Spiritual Lives of American College Men (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011) 72-77.

[2] Martin E. Marty, A Nation of Believers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

[3] Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden Day, NY: Doubleday, 1955).

[4] Marty, A Nation of Believers, 4-6, 15.

[5] Martin E. Marty, “Where the “Energies Go,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 527 (May 1993): 11.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) 9-10.

[8]LiesaStamm, “The Influence of Religion and Spirituality in Shaping American Higher Education,” in Arthur W. Chickering, Jon C. Dalton, and LieseStamm, Encouraging Authencity and Spirituality in Higher Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006): 71.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998) 3.

[11]Ibid., 3-4.

[12]Ibid., 2.

[13] Steve Jacobsen, Heart to God, Hands to Work: Connecting Spirituality and Work (Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 1997) 11, quoted in Roof, Spiritual Marketplace, 35.

[14] Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, “’Nones’ on the Rise,” October 9, 2012. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ (accessed August 8, 2014).

[15]Tom Henneghan, “’No Religion’ is World’s Third Largest Religion After Christians, Muslims According to Pew Study,” Huffington Post: Religion. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/18/unaffiliated-third-largest-religious-group-after-christians-muslims_n_2323664.html (accessed August 8, 2014).

[16] Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, “The Global Religious Landscape,” December 18, 2012. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/ (accessed August 11, 2014).

[17] Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, “Religion Among the Millennials,” February 17, 2010. http://www.pewforum.org/2010/02/17/religion-among-the-millennials/ (accessed August 11, 2014).

[18] Sociologists commonly​​ divide generations of Americans based on the year they were born, using the following designations: The Greatest Generation (born 1901-1924); The Silent Generation (Born 1925-1945); The Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964); Gen X (born 1965-1981); and The Millennials (born after 1981).

[19] The first major study on the sharp rise in nones in the 1990s was Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer, “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations,” American Sociological Review 67 (April 2002), cited in Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010) 590, n. 50.

[20] Linda A. Mercadante, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010) 1.

[21] Christian Smith uses this term to apply to 18- to 29-year old Americans. See his Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) 4-7.

[22]Mercadante, Belief without Borders, 31.

[23] Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, “Religion Among the Millennials,” February 17, 2010. http://www.pewforum.org/2010/02/17/religion-among-the-millennials/ (accessed August 11, 2014).

[24] Janet Novak and SamathaSharf list the following breakdown: Millennials 27%; Gen X 27%; Baby Boomers 32%; Silent Generation 12%; and The Greatest Generation 2% in “The Recession Generation,” Forbes 194, no. 2 (August 18, 2014): 70.

[25] See David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity—and Why it Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).

[26]Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, 127.

[27] Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, “Religion Among the Millennials,” February 17, 2010. http://www.pewforum.org/2010/02/17/religion-among-the-millennials/ (accessed August 12, 2014).

[28]Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, 590-91, n. 56.

[29]Ibid., 7.

[30]Smith, Souls in Transition, 166-79.

[31]Ibid., 299.

[32] Wuthnow, 13-16, 230-32.

[33] Adam J. Copeland, “Ministry with Young Adults in Flux: No Need for Church,” Christian Century (February 8, 2012): 13.

[34]Longwood, Schipper, and Culbertson, Forging the Male Spirit.

[35]See Scott McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church: Key elements of the most controversial and misunderstood movement in the church today,” Christianity Today (January 19, 2007), cited in Mercadante, Belief without Borders, 284, n. 46; and Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). ​

[36]See, e.g., Tim Conder, “The Existing Church/Emerging Church Matrix: Collision, Credibility, Missional Collaboration, and Generative Friendship,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, ed. Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) 97-108.

[37] Mercadante, Belief without Borders, 257.

[38] “Archbishop of Canterbury – Society still needs religion,” Anglican Communion News Service, April 18, 2008. http://www.anglicannews.org/news/2008/04/archbishop-of-canterbury-society-still-needs-religion.aspx

Merle Longwood

W. Merle Longwood is professor emeritus of religious studies at Siena College in Loudonville, New York.