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Faces on Faith: Nones, dones and SBNR

By Staff | Jun 2, 2020

Rev. Dr. John H. Danner

Nones, dones and SBNR. That’s what they call them. Nones, dones, and SBNR. It’s the language of pollsters and demographers. Nones refers to those folks who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation, none; nor any particular set of religious beliefs. Dones are the folks who’ve given up on institutional religion, those folks who were once part of a congregation, but have found it didn’t fulfill their needs and so they quit. They’re done with it. And SBNR stands for “spiritual but not religious,” that large group of Americans who claim no specific religious affiliation, but who still value matters spiritual. They may, or may not, believe in God. They may or may not value Jesus or the Bible. They may or may not pray or meditate. They may or may not find inspiration in nature or music or the arts in general. But they do not find much that’s helpful or pertinent in most rites and rituals that are associated with any particular religious institution. They often say they dislike organized religion. Nones, dones and SBNRs.

The researchers at the Pew Research Center attribute the decline in religious affiliation to four primary issues. First, what they call “political backlash.” Many of the unaffiliated, young people in particular, strongly dislike the connection that often comes between Christian churches and movements opposed to gay rights and abortion.

The second cause they identify is the delay in marriage. People are waiting much longer to get married today than they did when older generations were coming up through the ranks. There is a correlation between being married and religious affiliation that more than likely has to do with the desire many people have to see their children go through religious rites of passage, like Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, baptisms and first communions, and also their desire for children to have a religious education.

The third issue which contributes to non-affiliation is labeled by Pew as “broad social disengagement.” In general, institutions are suffering in America. Civic clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis, veterans’ organizations like the American Legion and the VFW, even strictly social or recreational groups, are often facing declining membership. People today are much less likely to be joiners.

The last contributing factor that they cite is “secularization.” As a society we are becoming more and more secularized. Things like Bible reading in schools and prayer at public events are increasingly uncommon. So called “blue laws” which closed down stores on Sundays are largely a thing of the past. To advance in society it is not automatically assumed one will become a member of a church or synagogue. We are a much more secular society than we once were.

In and of themselves, none of these things are necessarily bad, they just are. They are a part of who we are as a nation at this time in history. Disentangling institutional religion and politics is most likely a very good thing. Delaying marriage can result in more maturity. Social disengagement means groups have fewer members who join just because they feel it’s the thing to do and more members who are truly committed to the cause. And secularization means that religious organizations need to really demonstrate their worth to the individuals they serve.

Still, it all presents a challenge. A real challenge. A challenge being faced by religious congregations across faith lines. Now, with the changes being brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the challenges are amplified. But religion has endured – especially, and sometimes only, when it has been able to adapt to changing times. So how will we who are part of such institutions, adapt?

The Rev. Dr. John H. Danner is the senior pastor at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ.