On Tuesday, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published its newest findings on the religiously unaffiliated or "nones".
The study finds that nearly 20 percent of Americans are unaffiliated. What's more, they grew up with religion and now are unaffiliated (74 percent), aren't looking for a religion (88 percent) and feel religion has no place in politics (67 percent). In short: they are happy without religion and don't want it imposed on them.
That's why so much of the discussion surrounding the release of this study was so disturbing. In two separate press conferences, the experts and panelists presenting the study fielded questions about how religious communities could "minister" to the unaffiliated and lead them to religion. They wanted to know what specifically they should do to reach out to the nones. How and where they should approach them.... "at the mall?" On the street "in Georgetown?"
The researchers and expert panelists that appeared with them, tended to marginalize the percentage of nones that are atheist and agnostic, noting that nonbelievers are still a "small minority." They repeated often that the findings don't show that the unaffiliated are "hostile to religion" and that the findings don't mean the nones are completely secular. In other words, religious people shouldn't panic.
In response to a question about why the nonreligious aren't interested in religion, one expert played up the idea that many have practical difficulties that prevent them from attending church, such as having to work (15 percent). In reality, the much larger chunk (59 percent) gave reasons that related to religion itself, such as "don't agree with religion", "hypocrisy", and "church corrupt".
Even worse, when asked from a political perspective how the nones could be reached by politicians, Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton's former White House press secretary, and current Washington-based communications consultant, went so far as to insinuate that the unaffiliated are just wishy-washy types. McCurry, who was one of the expert panelists invited by the Pew Research center to speak about the study on Tuesday, went on to say that it would be much easier to reach the nones if they could be encouraged to find a church first. That's right: nones should join a church to make it easier for politicians to reach out.
"How do you reach them? Because they may not be as politically active. They may be as un-formed on the question of politics as they are on religion," McCurry said. "A lot of the nones will be found and ministered to, and that's good news."
Good news for who? The 88 percent of nones who say they aren't seeking a religion?
Reporter Jamila Bey, asked the panel to address the insinuations often made by politicians that a god belief is a necessary component for American patriotism and that perhaps that is what is disenfranchising the religiously unaffiliated from greater participation in the political process.
"I don't think they're being told they're un-American," McCurry said, but then went on to make Bey's point for her. "We remain a religious country. We were founded that way. It's part of our DNA. It's part of who we are as Americans."
All the while the larger point was completely missed. The nones are non-affiliated not because they "haven't found a religious home", but because they don't want a religious home. They aren't concerned about missing out on the feeling of community religious communities claim to provide, because only 28 percent think a "shared community" is important.
Rather than attempting to truly understand why the religiously unaffiliated are happy to be unaffiliated, the focus was on what "went wrong" and how the nones could be converted. The data was dissected through the prism of those who view lack of religious affiliation as a problem that needs to be corrected.
If the point of the study was to better understand why Americans are becoming increasingly less religious, then listen to what the "nones" are actually saying. If politicians really want to reach out nones, they must stop looking at us as though we're a confused, intellectually "un-formed" demographic that must be converted or preached to.
Instead recognize that most nones didn't wind up irreligious out of laziness-it was something most of us thought hard about and consciously decided. It's time to listen-really listen to our real concerns-which greatly include keeping religion out of politics.