By Rabbi Rami Shapiro
A major report on American Nones—those people who do not identify with any specific religion—was released today. Sponsored by Trinity College of Hartford, CT, the report reveals that Nones have blossomed over the past years. 15% of Americans identify themselves as Nones, and the number rises to 22% when we look specifically at 18 to 29 year olds. If this holds, and the trend continues, Nones may well be 25% of the American population in two more decades.
What makes a None a None? For one thing 61% of Nones believe in evolution while only 38% of Americans in general do. 51% of Nones believe in God or a Higher Power, and slightly more than half of these believers understand God in a non-personal way, like the Force or the Tao. Less than 10% of Nones are atheists, but most tend to believe that whatever God is, God doesn’t fit into the neat packages of religion.
Politically, Nones are interesting as well. 21% of Independents are Nones, as are 16% of Democrats and 8% of Republicans. This isn’t surprising. Especially when you consider that many Republicans are None Others—hoping to replace all religions with none other than their own.
Another finding that stands out in the report is that unlike every other religious group, there are more male Nones than female Nones. 19% of American men are Nones, while only 14% of American women are Nones. And within the None community there are 60 men Nones to every 40 women Nones.
In essence, Nones are the 21st Century version of the 18th Century Deist and Enlightenment traditions that founded this country. Like Ben Franklin, Tom Jefferson, and Tom Paine, Nones are committed to science and reason, and do not see these as opposed to faith.
So what are we to make of this report? I am encouraged by it. Nones are freethinkers, and God knows America needs more of these. Nones are curious and open–minded without being empty-headed. Nones are in favor of religious freedom, and because they are not limited to any one faith, will keep the country free from being controlled by any one faith. If they do become a quarter of the American population, they may spark a whole new direction for American spirituality, drawing on the wisdom of all faiths while freeing themselves from the limitations of any one faith.
Is this good for Judaism? Probably not. Judaism survives as long as Jews find it worthy of surviving; that is as long as it continues to provide Jews with a compelling sense of meaning and purpose. However, since Jews make up a large segment of Nones, claiming Jewish cultural heritage without aligning with Judaism the religion, the future of Judaism as a religion may be in trouble. But then it is always in trouble.
How to respond? Rather than write off Jewish Nones, I’d create a Jewish Nonery, a school for Jewish Nones that focuses on culture, language, progressive/prophetic politics, and the genius of the biblical wisdom tradition that embraces doubt, argument, and ambiguity. Will anyone do this? I doubt it. Jewish funders are still looking to revive the past and haven’t a clue how to invent the future.
re-printed from Rami’s Blog.