What are the implications of a growing population of religiously unaffiliated Americans for social cohesion, ethics and morals, existential meaning making, charitable giving, social justice action, volunteerism, and other phenomena associated with religion as it has been traditionally understood?
Dr Elizabeth Drescher has given voice to a group of which I have heard much about in the past year – the Nones – those people who now claim no affiliation with an organized or institutional religion. But Drescher has gone a step further with this group – she has allowed us to hear their voices.
The result is an important work, much like the referred to Robert Bellah and company’s Habits of the Heart was three decades ago, that gives us much pause for reflection as to what has center stage in parts of the American soul today. Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press, USA; 2016) is an honest and well researched book opening the reader up to the issues, struggles, hopes, and dreams of a group of people, across this country that transcend, age, location, martial status, gender and gender orientation, economic and educational status, and experience with traditional, organized religion – the Nones.
Now who are these people, these Nones? They are a group of people who move along a continuum from atheistic, to agnostic to spiritual-but-not-religious. Some are open to spiritual/religious matters but many, as she notes in her conclusions, are not.
Choosing our Religion has eight chapters from which Drescher takes us from a big picture perspective of the American religious landscape to a close up of men and women, married and unmarried as they wrestle with faith, actually the lack of it, the resistance to it (in some form by some of them), and the systemic issues that their unwillingness to believe is now reshaping. Along the way Drescher through her research and interviews, brings out how these individuals bring meaning to their lives, families, and communities, and wrestle with that meaning making, in largely non-religious terms, that are still shaped and influence by the still substantial dominant religious influence in America.
Drescher identifies “four, often overlapping categories of practice Nones identified as the most meaningful in their spiritual lives.” She refers to them as the four F’s – Family, Friends, Fido, and Food – and devotes an entire chapter, chapter 4, to a discussion of them. Her discussion of these four things throughout the remainder of the book reinforce a strong community attitude, especially in with regard to family, of Nones with a shared connection and commitment to and with others.
Another interesting point for this reader was her use of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s term “ethic of cosmopolitanism” in which Drescher notes that “modes of affiliation… thrive though engagement with difference rather than reinforcement of commonality…” She uses it effectively to note that patterns of “affiliation” in place since the Second World War are now beginning to change which has implications for institutional faith.
And there were the stories themselves. What caught my attention, very quickly, were the stories of two men, the first was Jack Bell an octogenarian who attended an evangelical church but admitted that did not believe in their form of faith and went only as a deal early in his marriage to his now his late wife and now, with great angst described by Drescher, tries to explain his dropping out to his kids. The second is George Brooks, an unaffiliated Jesus Follower who has dropped out of church and became involved in small groups with similar people in homes. Their stories raised questions for me, a clergyperson, about those in congregations I have served who have sat on the sidelines, especially men, for years and have not admitted to any religious faith… Are they Nones?
Then in chapter six, Drescher in unpacking the Nones ethical framework, reveals that it is shaped and influence more by the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) than the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) which leads Drescher to ask, “Does affiliation undermine the moral character of the nation overall?” This leads to an extended study of the Ethics of Care, noted by Drescher as a “fundamentally a relational ethics.”
There is a great deal more in this book that this review cannot begin to adequately touch but for which a person interested in faith, as well as those who are not, will find rich food for discussion and reflection. It is an important book about the state of faith in America.
Choosing Our Religion is a book that requires this reader to read again because the issues it has raised in my mind and heart are ones which are about ultimate values of life. I enjoyed this book.
I gave this book a five star rating on Goodreads.
Note: I received an electronic galley copy of this book via the publisher on Net Galley in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.