By Kaya Oakes
In 2020, the rise of the so-called religious “Nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation—has evolved from a story of interest to a small niche of readers into an entire genre on the religion beat. While the term None has some usefulness as a blanket descriptor, we are beginning to understand that most individual stories about religious disaffiliation are far more complicated than just checking “none of the above” on a survey. Stories about the decline in Gen Z, Millennial and Gen X believers are a regular feature in secular news—Religion News Service even publishes an entire column dedicated to statistical data on Nones, compiled by the sociologist Ryan Burge—and a growing number of books exploring the narrative stories of Nones have appeared in recent years, including a book of my own.
What many of these articles and books share in common is a sense of confusion or despair. The primary question they ask is often framed in the same way: people are leaving organized religion, so what can churches do to get them back? or, if it’s an election year, how will this religious disaffiliation affect their vote? Rarely do those who study religious disaffiliation ask the more difficult kinds of questions that are likely to yield more complex answers: Why did you leave? What did this do to your family? Where did it lead you, spiritually and psychologically? As researcher Andreea Nica noted here on RD in 2018:
Leaving fundamentalist, strict religions can have negative health consequences, both perceived and actual, that manifest in the body and mind. Research shows that individuals who come out to family members, specifically as an atheist… report that families often react with anger and rejection, as communication deteriorates and distrust grows.
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