Rabbi Bloom: How can we convert the "nones"?

www.bethyam.orgOctober 27, 2012 

Political independents are not the only constituency in America on the rise. Now we have another sector in the religious community that appears very similar to the political arena of people who just aren't interested in religion anymore.

According the Pew Research Center, which conducted a poll in June of more than 3,000 participants, it appears that 20 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated -- they don't belonging to a congregation or identify with any faith tradition. In addition, the survey indicated that for the millennial generation, those who are 30 years or younger, the percentage rose to 30 percent unaffiliated.

Furthermore the results conclude that many of these 46 million Americans define themselves as believers in God or embracing a spiritual orientation, finding deep meaning in nature, praying regularly and even seeing the value of religious institutions helping the poor. Yet, despite these observations, this growing population is turned off to joining churches, synagogues and others kinds of houses of worship. Finally, the survey reported that these folks are united in their perception that religious institutions are "too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics."

The change is that many of these Americans are willing to drop their religious affiliation without any guilt. In other words they not only turn off to their faith tradition but instead of staying connected to that religion because of family and historic roots, they now feel they can leave it without any social repercussions. They can drop out knowing there are no consequences to their standing in the community.

America is becoming less Christian, less white and less Protestant, whether it is evangelical or mainline. Catholicism has stayed about even because of the large influx of the Hispanic population. The minor increases in the agnostic and atheist categories are almost insignificant. The largest increase is the "nothing in particular category." So we now give birth to a new group in American religious life called the "nones." Millenials, Generation X and baby boomers equal the "none" community, which means they are unaffiliated and uninterested in religion.

According to the survey, the "none" generation leans Democratic, but not by much. No matter what political party they belong, to they tend to be more liberal on the political and social issues, such as abortion or gay marriage. What really hurts is that the survey reveals that the none generation is less interested in inquiring about the meaning of their lives and not at all interested in finding a community of similar values or beliefs.

America is supposed to be known as a religious nation. Our houses of worship are vibrant and our activism for social justice, regardless of our political affiliation, is a hallmark of the American religious landscape today and in history. Is our American heritage that cherishes religious life and accepts religious pluralism falling into the abyss of irrelevancy?

Is the religious community in America responsible for these dreadful statistics? Did we produce generations of narcissistic kids who grew up thinking only about themselves? Where did we go wrong?

We are learning about the political independents who say that they are fed up with the gridlock in Washington and with the intransigence from both political parties. We are approaching the presidential elections and we see how easy it for people to switch parties at the drop of a hat. In both the political and religious realms people vote with their feet. They are sending us a message that the religious community could do better and should be aware that political infighting and rigidity in the culture of the organizations may be intellectually consistent but may also be spiritually devoid of meaning too.

There has to be a balance where we can develop in houses of worship a culture of philanthropy that does not have to poison our communities. We can be much more careful to avoid dividing us by advocating partisan politics inside the congregation. We also can refocus our attention to welcoming, integrating and nurturing the spiritual instincts of the none generation. If we do not heed the warning of the Pew Center Survey, we risk continuing a pattern of alienation and disinterest that might have long-term consequences for America. Now is the time to look at ourselves before our pews are empty, and it is too late to reverse the trends.

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.

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