And No Religion Too … Selected Insights from Workshop on Nones in Selected Countries

Last week I presented a paper at a workshop on ‘Nones in Selected Countries in Western and Eastern Europe and the US – a Comparison,’ at the Religion and Politics Cluster of Excellence at the University of Muenster, Germany.

My paper was titled ‘Nones’ in Ireland, North and South: Has the ending of Ethno-Religious Violence and Institutional Abuse Contributed to the Rise of No Religion?’ I provided more detail about the paper in a previous post.

I have selected a few insights from the other papers, which may be of interest not only to scholars of religion – but to people of faith who are concerned or curious about the ‘sea of faith’s … melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ (Matthew Arnold).

Selected Insights from Workshop on Nones in Selected Countries

One of the most interesting developments in the last decade has been the rapid increase in Nones in the United States – long considered a much more religious country than the nations of Europe. Gregory Smith from the Pew Research Centre in the US presented the latest data. Nones now make up about 22% of the US population (2016), up from just 16% in 2007.  That’s a growth of 19 million people in the last seven years who are now describing themselves as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular.

Smith pointed out that the rise of the Nones seems to be a generational phenomenon – 70% are Millennials or Generation X. And while 89% of the general US population believe in God, 61% of Nones do (down from 70% of Nones who believed in God in 2007). Further, 88% of Nones say they are not looking for a religion. As Smith said: ‘They are not latent church goers and don’t feel like they are missing anything.’

Apart from the failure of religious socialisation indicated in the data (i.e. people unable to pass their religion to their children), both Catholics and mainline Protestants are losing some people in adulthood. The top reason they leave?: They just gradually drifted away.

Linda Woodhead from Lancaster University, a visiting professor at the Religion and Politics Cluster of Excellence, pointed out that in the UK, where she has conducted most of her research, people are rejecting both religious and secular labels.

However, amongst those in the UK who were raised without a religion, 95% remain without a religion. Amongst those raised as Christians, there is a 45% probability that they will become a None. As in the US, there is a failure of religious socialisation.

At the same time, she pointed out that by studying Nones, scholars are looking at what is not there (traditional, institutional religion) rather than what is there. Scholars, therefore, should be exploring where people find meaning and significance in their lives, without assuming that it is most likely to be mediated through religious institutions.

David Voas from University College London also spoke about the UK and emphasised that any study of Nones must be accompanied by the study of ‘Somes’ – those who retain complex mixtures of faith and practice in their lives. In the UK, each generation has been becoming less likely to affiliate with a religion, and there is very little change in their personal religiosity over the course of their individual lives.

The generational gaps in religiosity indicate a failure of religious socialisation or reproduction, more so than a rise in people actively abandoning their religious affiliation. Voas pointed to a European Values Survey that asked people how much of a priority it was for their children to learn the faith at home. Amongst Anglicans, only 11% said faith was a priority. Even amongst those who said that religion was very important to them personally, only 36% said it was a priority to pass it on to their children.

Detlef Pollack from the Religion and Politics Cluster of Excellence spoke about Germany, pointing out key differences between East and West. With its Communist past, East Germany has one of the highest rates of Nones in Europe.

Pollack also spoke about differences between Nones from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. While the data on formerly Catholic Nones in Germany are not as reliable, former Catholics seem more inclined to religious orientations, attitudes and belief in God. Most formerly Protestant Nones leave because they are indifferent. Former Protestants are also likely to agree (especially in the West) that you can be Christian without belonging to a church.

Pollack emphasised that general ‘environmental’ conditions related to modernity and secularisation have contributed to the rise of the Nones, but the actions of the church also can have an impact. In 2010, the year when the clerical sexual abuse scandals received the most publicity in Germany, there was a slight increase in Catholic withdrawals from the church. Pollack stressed that this was very small, however: ‘even scandals don’t necessarily lead people to withdraw.’

Joep de Hart from the Netherlands Institute for Social Research described the situation in the Netherlands, where 68% of the population had no religious affiliation in 2015. De Hart also emphasised that the focus on Nones is backward-looking, failing to notice only what is disappearing rather than what is present or emerging, such as alternative spiritualities and syncretism.

De Hart noted that Catholics are more likely to be Nones than Protestants, and that this has a regional dimension. In the south, which is majority Catholic, most people are Nones. In the north, which is minority Catholic, Catholics are more likely to affiliate.

This regional difference reminded me of the island of Ireland, and raised the question for me: will the majority Catholic Republic of Ireland at some point in the future become like the southern part of the Netherlands (with a majority of Nones), while the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland continues to identify with Catholicism? As I explored in my own paper, this is already starting to happen – although the numbers of Nones on the island of Ireland are much smaller than in the Netherlands.

Olga Schihalejev and Atko Remmel from Tartu spoke about ‘Nonreligion in a nonreligious environment: Estonian perspectives.’ Estonia is one of the least religious countries in the world, and its national identity is ‘associated with atheism.’ Schihalejev and Remmel said that just 4% of Estonians are ‘traditionally religious’, while only 48% of Estonians who identify as Christian even believe in God. But there is a ‘benign indifference’ to religion rather than hostility – the Estonian Sceptics Society has just eight members!

At the same time, alternative spiritualities are widespread. Schihalejev and Remmel presented several slides demonstrating widespread belief in concepts associated with paganism, new age or alternative spiritualities – leading one member of the audience to comment that ‘Estonia might be the most religious country of all!’

Schihalejev and Remmel also identified problems with asking Estonians survey questions about religion. Because institutional religion is so weak, questions about institutional religion have very little meaning. They spoke of one woman who interpreted a survey question about ‘modernising’ the church not to mean updating liturgy and worship styles (as the question intended), but as asking her opinion on whether church buildings should have electricity rather than rely on candles. It seems many Estonians think of the church strictly as a historic building – not a significant or active community of faith.

Gergely Rosta from Budapest made a similar point about how important it is how we frame questions about religion. His paper was on ‘Nones in a Secularising Society: the Case of Hungary.’ Hungary is a majority Catholic country that has experienced a steep decline in those identifying as Catholic and a rise in those identifying as Nones between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses.

Religion in Hungary, Census Data

Religion 2001 2011
Catholic 55% 39%
Calvinist 16% 12%
None 15% 18%
No answer 10% 27%

Rosta noted that a change in the way the Census question was asked may have contributed to the seemingly steep decline amongst Catholics and the large rise of ‘no answer’. In 2001 the question was: ‘Your religion, denomination’ – which implies you must have a religion. In 2011 the question was: ‘Which religious community or denomination do you feel you belong to?’ This does not seem to automatically assume people have a religion. The question about religion was the last one on the 2011 survey, which citizens could complete online. This may have led to many people simply not answering out of ‘question fatigue.’

Jorg Stolz from Lausanne presented new data from an ongoing study on secularity in Switzerland. He emphasised that there was very little hostility against religion – there are only five secular organisations in the country. As was the case in other countries, indifference rather than hostility seems to rule the day, as religion is not viewed as important or significant: ‘Why would you bother to fight against religion?’

Stolz admitted that he thought his research team would find more committed secularists. Even those who belong to secular organisations do little by way of activism, beyond paying small membership fees or having a drink together to ‘talk about the problems of religion.’

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