Spiritual but not religious


I’m a “None.” That’s what pollsters call Americans who respond on national surveys to the question “What is your religious affiliation?” with a single word: “None.”

According to the Pew Research Center, the ranks of the Nones have ballooned in recent years, making the fastest-growing religious affiliation no affiliation.

Between 1972 and 1989, about 7% of Americans identified as having no formal religious affiliation. However, between 1990 and 2012, that figure jumped to 19.6%. Among people under age 30, just over 30% say they have no religious affiliation. At the same time, the percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as Christian has experienced a steady decline, and other faiths have experienced modest growth at best.


The number of religious services I attended growing up could fit on one hand, with enough fingers left over for a peace sign. I hardly know a Catholic from a Protestant, let alone the belief systems of other world religions.

Granted, not all Nones are as ignorant about religion as I am. Some grew up attending church but distanced themselves from their faiths as adults. Others may still attend religious services occasionally but do not identify as members of any one religion. Then there are those, like me, whose lack of religion was handed down to them. Both of my parents grew up with a religious affiliation but were Nones by the time I entered the picture.

I married a fellow None, and you could call us a “mixed-faith” None couple: My broken affiliation is with Christianity, while my husband’s is with Judaism.

Some might assume that Nones do not believe in God, but fewer than 15% consider themselves atheists. For the most part, it seems, Nones are curious about spirituality — even deeply interested in it. We may have rejected organized religion, but we embrace spiritual feelings. We may believe in a higher being, though we might call it “the universe” or “the divine intelligence that created all this.” Most of us have reverence for a power greater than ourselves and crave a deeper understanding of its significance.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell, who discuss religious trends and attitudes in their book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” characterize the sudden rise of the Nones as the most significant trend in our country’s religious landscape in the last 50 years. They found that, for the most part, Nones mirror the population at large in terms of education, social standing, gender and race.

So what is causing this seemingly sudden religious disassociation among a large subset of the American population? The only explanation that seems to make sense, the authors suggest, is political. The one characteristic many Nones share is that they lean left politically.


Putnam and Campbell say the rise in Nones appears to be tied to the perception, particularly among young people, that religion and conservative politics go hand in hand. This sounds about right to me. I can’t wrap my head around a God who is more concerned with our private parts than with the content of our hearts.

But are we the ones who are missing out? For centuries, religion has been a tool to make people happier, kinder, more inclined to see the big picture. It’s been credited with keeping believers grounded, reducing anxiety and the compulsions that often lead to self-destructive behavior. In times of great difficulty, it may be the only thing that keeps a person afloat until things get better. Religion is touted as a doorway to the eternal, helping us understand our role in the cosmos.

A couple of years ago, I found myself thinking about religion and wondering “What are they doing in there? What do they believe?” as I passed houses of worship.

So I took the “Worship Directory” from my local paper — an entire page listing the places of worship in my community — and started making a plan. There were denominations I recognized but knew little about, and many more that I’d never heard of, such as the Inter-Denominational Charismatic and Nazarene. There were more than 50 options.

I decided to visit all of them. If these places offer tools to help their congregations navigate life and make the human experience more meaningful, then what do I have to lose? Regardless of whether I eventually “choose” a religion or remain a None, I do hope to gain a special kind of wisdom.

Corinna Nicolaou is a writer living in Washington state. Follow her journey into religion at