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Engaging the 'nones'

The rapid growth in the number of people who identify with no religion has profound implications for Unitarian Universalism.
By Peter Morales
Winter 2012 11.1.12

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UUA President Peter Morales

UUA President Peter Morales (Nancy Pierce)

What religious group do you think is the fastest growing religion in America?

Evangelical Christians? Nope. Contrary to what many believe, the number of evangelicals has actually declined in the last twenty years.

Muslims? No again. Recent immigration, much of it from Africa, has indeed increased the number of Muslims. However, Muslims make up a little less than 1 percent of the population.

Catholics? No again. The number of Catholics has been pretty stable for a generation. However, the total number is misleading. Millions of “white” Catholics have left the faith. They have been replaced by millions of immigrants, especially from Mexico and Latin America.

The religious group that is growing by leaps and bounds is the “nones”—people with no religious connection. When I went to college in the 1960s, only about one student in twenty said they had no religious affiliation. By the year 2000, that number had grown to 12 percent—about one in eight. Today the number has exploded to 25 percent!

The fastest growing religious group in America is, by far, the “nones.”

This trend signals a tectonic shift in our culture. The implications for Unitarian Universalism are profound. How we respond to this culture change will shape our movement for a generation and beyond.

On the one hand, this culture shift is a great challenge. When I was in high school all of my friends identified with a religion: Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Nazarene, Baptist, Episcopal, Jewish, or some other group. (I did not know any Muslims.) Belonging to a church was normal and expected. This is no longer the case.

The challenge for our congregations and our movement is to engage people in an era in which people see religion as rigid, backward, and hypocritical. Given all the scandals in religious denominations and the violence in the name of religion in the world, the growing skepticism about religious institutions is understandable.

This culture shift is also, and more importantly, a historic opportunity for Unitarian Universalism. The attitudes of the “nones” align with ours. The “nones” accept their gay and lesbian friends. UUs have led the effort for full acceptance of LGBTQ people. “Nones” are highly skeptical of any one religion claiming sole possession of all truth. We UUs have long been open to science and wisdom from all the great spiritual traditions.

The “nones” may be rejecting the religious institutions they know, but they are not rejecting spirituality and religion. I recently saw a survey of students taking religion courses at Harvard. By far the greatest number of them identified no religious identity. And yet these are students choosing to take courses in religion.

The truth is that millions upon millions of “nones” are with us in spirit. They are hungry for spiritual depth and community. Our great challenge is to connect with them and engage them.

I have long preached that one key to our future is to be better at religious hospitality. I still believe that. I now also believe that it is not enough. Religious hospitality, important as it is, is too passive. We cannot just engage people who come to us. We need to learn to reach out.

Your UUA staff and UUs across the country are exploring ways to engage people who share our values but who are not part of our movement. You will be hearing more about the initiatives called “Congregations and Beyond.”

Attitudes about religion are changing rapidly. These changes give us a breathtaking opportunity.

This article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of UU World (page 5). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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