Rise of the 'nones'


When Heather Remy tells friends she's heading to church, they know she means the beach. It's where she thinks, meditates and feels connected to something larger than herself.

But she doesn't call that God or Christianity.

Despite growing up Catholic, she no longer believes in Jesus and hasn't warmed a pew in years. Instead, she believes in a spiritual energy, something that binds living things, but not in a divine creator pulling the puppet strings of humankind.

"I think everything falls into place so nicely that I don't believe it is all coincidence," she said. "I try to keep my mind open as much as possible."

Instead, the Dorchester County woman finds the sublime beneath the Angel Oak's majestic ancient branches, where she'd rather get married, for instance, than beneath a church steeple.

"I don't know if that is spiritual," she said. "But I don't know that it's not."

She's in growing company.

Large-scale national studies in recent years, including a major new one, have shown sizeable increases in the numbers of religiously unaffiliated Americans. Even in the Christian-strong Lowcountry, experts said they see a societal shift away from organized religion.

Many of these so-called "nones" still believe in God and pray. But while many once went to church, they no longer do, and aren't seeking a religious affiliation either.

"Not too many years ago, church attendance and basic Bible literacy were the cultural norm. Being a Christian didn't feel like swimming against the cultural current," a new Barna Group study says. "But now?"

In the 2000s, about one-third of American adults didn't attend church. Today, that number is 43 percent, nearly half of all adults.

And given that the younger people are, the less likely they are to attend a church, it could spell trouble for the organized religion's future.

Is America, including its Bible Belt, going the way of secular Europe?

"I definitely agree with the observation that 'cultural Christianity' is dying in the Lowcountry," said Peter Beck, associate professor of Christian Studies at Charleston Southern University. "That sense of compulsion to attend church for social and business reasons is an artifact of yesteryear."

The new Barna Group study reflected a large survey by the Pew Research Center in 2012 that found the highest percentages ever in religiously unaffiliated Americans, or what its authors deemed the "nones."

Two-thirds of respondents said they believe in God, more than half felt deeply connected to nature and more than one-third called themselves "spiritual" but not "religious."

The Barna study similarly found that two in three of the so-called "unchurched" still considered themselves spiritual. Many even identified as Christian. Six in 10 churchless adults said they prayed in the past week.

The vast majority even once belonged to, or at least had attended, a church.

So why are they rejecting organized religion?

"They cannot accept some of what their faith is standing for," said Herb Silverman, whose Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry has more than doubled its membership in recent years. "They are fed up with how some religion intrudes in their lives or politicians make laws based on religion."

Indeed, most in both surveys saw no reason to join a specific faith group.

"Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics," the Pew study's authors wrote.

In other words, it's often the imperfect practitioners, not the faith itself, that have turned people off.

"Many do not know what the Bible, for example, truly teaches. But they do know how so-called Christians act," Beck said. "They want nothing to do with the latter, so they reject the former as well."

He has seen younger adults, including in his classrooms, become more reactionary over the years and more guarded against anything their perceive as hypocritical. They also often don't distinguish between the beliefs and the application of those beliefs.

"They've seen the hypocrisy and failures of the religiosity of their parents and grandparents' generations. They reject that," Beck said. "They seem to hold the system, not the person, responsible for those failures."

That leaves many rejecting the entire church, whose actual teachings they don't know very well.

"Many of these same people who reject Christianity, or organized religion, for a nebulous world of spirituality often have no real understanding of what these faith systems actually claim," Beck said.

Yet, the "churchless" also are less open to the idea of going to church where they could learn more about those beliefs.

Twenty years ago, 65 percent were open to being invited to church by a friend. Today, that has slipped to less than half.

"Our research suggests a growing indifference toward churches among the unchurched," said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and co-editor, with George Barna, in a statement about their new book, "Churchless," which details the findings.

So while some churches are growing, the overall numbers of Christ followers in the pews appears to be declining.

Some are going to places like The Unitarian Church in Charleston.

"It's hard to understand the 'nones' or have meaningful engagement, because by definition, they're not likely to cross the threshold of a house of worship anyway," said the Rev. Danny Reed, minister of the Unitarian church. "Once connected though, our open way of faith could be a viable and meaningful option since we don't insist on creedal or doctrinal agreement."

Many simply aren't going to any religious institution at all. Although South Carolina remains a Christian stronghold, going to church no longer is as culturally expected as it once was even here, local experts agreed.

"We are still the Holy City," Silverman said. "But I think that even a few years ago people more often would go to church because it was expected of them for social and business reasons."

Indeed, when Remy moved here in 2001 from Massachusetts, people often asked what church she belonged to or invited her son to Vacation Bible School. She's since learned to avoid those conversations.

"It's so ingrained down here that your social community is your church," she said. "But as long as I'm not hurting anybody, I think you should mind your own business."

Despite the rise of the "nones," America, and especially South Carolina, remains highly religious. While the South saw its numbers of religiously unaffiliated grow, the ranks grew more slowly than any other region.

In all of this, Beck feels hope. People haven't so much rejected faith as they have turned their backs on a what they see in common practice today.

But if they dug more deeply?

"As John Calvin once claimed, people are incurably religious," Beck said. "This generation has not rejected the belief in God but the failed practices of previous generations. They're seeking a more authentic relationship with the creator."

So the question remains: Where will they find it?

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.