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Redefining religion: The growth of ‘nones’ — unaffiliated with any group — sparks debate, reflection

In the classroom at Albuquerque Talent Development Academy, poet and creative writing teacher Katrina Guarascio says “the students are questioning not just religion, but everything.” (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

In the classroom at Albuquerque Talent Development Academy, poet and creative writing teacher Katrina Guarascio says “the students are questioning not just religion, but everything.” (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Are we losing our religion?

To peer into one laboratory of culture – millennial teens – come to an Albuquerque charter school classroom and listen right along with creative writing teacher and poet Katrina Guarascio.

The students are questioning “not only religion, but everything,” she says. “They try to redefine themselves, create their own identity. It seems as though more students are taking one piece from one system, one piece from another. It’s not necessarily a one-stamp brand.”

But millennials aren’t the only ones disrupting America’s definitions of religion.

The fastest growing segment in America’s religious landscape are those who do not identify with any organized religion, according to a Pew Research Center study in May 2015.

The Christian share of the U.S. population fell from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014, fueled mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. The unaffiliated grew from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent.

The shift isn’t just occurring in one generation or one ethnic group – the trend is stretching across all demographic lines.

Whether you are Latino, Anglo or African-American, whether you are old or young, whether you are a woman or a man, whether you went to college or not, this trend has landed in your immediate world.

You work with, live with, are married to, are parenting or sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with someone in this category. Or maybe it’s you.

If so, there is a word for you – you are a “none.”

Seeking definition

“Nones” aren’t nothing, they’re just hard to define.

Like Albuquerque mom Lisa Godin, who doesn’t consider herself religious but rather, deeply spiritual.

As a young adult in Florida, she drifted away from the Catholic church in which she was raised. “I had a lot of experience with nuns,” she says with a laugh.

But she is quick to add she prays every day and maintains a relationship with a God she sees as creator and guide for her life.

Unity Church trustee John Vandermey of Albuquerque says his denomination simply isn’t listed on surveys. Yet he’s had his years of being a “none” too, starting out in life as a Catholic in Minnesota, then finding his home at Unity.

The “none” drift is pronounced, and understandably, it’s sparked much debate, such as whether it’s the end of religion in America.

Brian Nixon of Calvary Chapel says the hunger for significance and the desire to seek God is always there, even when people aren’t fitting themselves into religious categories. “There’s a hunger to know.” (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Brian Nixon of Calvary Chapel says the hunger for significance and the desire to seek God is always there, even when people aren’t fitting themselves into religious categories. “There’s a hunger to know.” (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

‘A hunger to know’

But interviews with New Mexico church leaders and the spiritually minded, affiliated and not, raise questions about whether we are losing our religion or just shifting it. Most say it would be a mistake to assume we’re not all that interested in spiritual matters.

“We all have in us a desire for goodness, a desire for truth, a desire for beauty,” says Abram Muenzberg, director of the youth and young adult ministry at Church of the Incarnation in Rio Rancho. He quotes St. Augustine, who wrote, “Our heart is restless until it rests in Thee,” and he notes that it’s our heart, not hearts, as in the human collective.

“I think there is definitely a hunger for significance,” says Brian Nixon, director of publications at Calvary Chapel in Albuquerque. With three sites, two in Albuquerque, one in Santa Fe, that draw 10,000 to 12,000 on any given weekend, the church is one of Albuquerque’s largest. “There’s a hunger to know.”

From his vantage point at a mainline Christian church, Nixon says America may have a theology problem. People may be choosing “none” because they lack knowledge about what Christianity and other religions actually believe.

They vaguely know that “Christianity is about this Jesus guy, Islam is about this Mohammad guy, and what do Jews believe?” That leads to the conclusion that “I don’t know what anyone believes. I don’t know what I believe, therefore I’m none of these,” Nixon says.

People see the news about a particular denomination in the media and draw conclusions, and he says that often sounds like this: “Hey, I don’t want any part of that.”

That reaction may be more about losing our civility when we talk about matters of faith. (The term “losing my religion” actually is a Southern term for losing one’s temper or civility, made mainstream in the 1980s R.E.M. pop song, “Losing My Religion.”)

Nixon’s worked as a journalist and can remember a time when faith was portrayed in a more positive light, when public life and media included “champions of faith.” Then, news about religious life went behind the headlines on terrorism, scandals, cultural wars and political boundaries and highlighted “the beautiful, the true and the good,” like Mother Teresa, he says. “She cut across religious lines.”

But Nixon adds he believes the church must keep making its message relevant, a “build it and they will come” approach. “When you provide them with answers to life’s big questions, people will respond,” he says.

John Vandermey checked “none” for years, but with his partner, Lesley Goddin, he launched an exploration to define his spiritual affiliation. For him, it’s the Unity Church, where he has served as a trustee. “It was important to me, but I didn’t know it,” he says. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

John Vandermey checked “none” for years, but with his partner, Lesley Goddin, he launched an exploration to define his spiritual affiliation. For him, it’s the Unity Church, where he has served as a trustee. “It was important to me, but I didn’t know it,” he says. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Elevated engagement

World events have fueled students to probe further, Guarascio says. In her classroom at Albuquerque Talent Development Academy, she would describe the engagement with those questions as elevated, particularly compared to a few years ago. She’s hearing that “a lot of the structures aren’t in agreement with structures we want for our society.”

Vandermey has observed more seeking, too. When people find Unity, which describes itself as “positive, practical Christianity” and maintains there is good in all approaches to God, they often tell him, “Wow, this is what I have been looking for.”

Nixon says that “wow” is consistent with his experience, adding, “I believe hearts are restless until they know God.”

Cutting new cloth

The “none” phenomenon may reflect a trend toward multiplicity, a melting pot of beliefs. It depends on who you ask whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Some call it cherry-picking. But others see it as redefining traditional denominations or crafting new communities of belonging and belief that are cut from new cloth.

That’s certainly the opinion of religious historian J. Gordon Melton, founder and director of the Study of American Religion, who points out that 600 new denominations have formed in America since 1965.

Calvary would be one of those, Nixon says. The denomination came out of the Jesus people counterculture movement of the 1960s, when founder Chuck Smith felt that mainline denominations were not meeting the needs of his generation.

But Muenzberg sees this time as a distillation, the “poor church for the poor,” as Pope Francis has cultivated. The church may be becoming smaller but stronger, with the most faithful of the faithful ministering to each other, forming tighter bonds and growing clearer in their beliefs. “But do we need a smaller, poorer church to do that?” he asks.

Finding your way

Some think what’s happening now is no different from other times of exploration. Just as Vandermey needed time to explore, so has his adult son, who resisted Vandermey’s invitations to come to church but now attends.

“By finding your own way, you give people permission to find their own way,” he says. “The Dalai Lama once was asked what was the best religion, and his reply was, ‘The one that brings you closer to God.'”

As a mother of three – two adult sons and a daughter in high school – Godin says she’s reflected on whether she has given the right guidance, “especially as they start to leave the nest.”

Over the years, they have attended together at Catholic, Christian and Jewish faith communities. “They’re aware that there is something out there that they can explore.”

In the classroom, the questions can go far afield, Guarascio says. But poetry can illuminate the spiritual quest. “Religion and poetry have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning of time,” she says. The Bible is written in verse, and then there’s Dante’s “Inferno,” she points out.

“Poetry is a great way to start conversations, to exchange ideas,” she says, maybe more so than an essay or a news report. “When it’s good poetry, when it’s honest and reflective … it’s going to access a different part of the mind and soul and spirituality than a textbook would.”

Lisa Godin, mom of three, doesn’t consider herself religious but rather, deeply spiritual, someone who’s always in conversation with God, even when she’s tending to her horses. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Lisa Godin, mom of three, doesn’t consider herself religious but rather, deeply spiritual, someone who’s always in conversation with God, even when she’s tending to her horses. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Faith and identity

These are vital questions, she tells her students, because faith and identity are deeply intertwined.

Often personal events that strike at identity and belonging send people on the exploration. Guarascio watched her mother, as a single mother, try to find her faith community but recoil when she was told women needed to stay in the home where they belonged. “We never returned to that church,” Guarascio says. “My mother still prays. She still considers herself a Christian.”

Vandermey’s father had business troubles, then got blacklisted in the small Minnesota faith community because he was unable to tithe. “He was on the naughty list,” he says. “I was unaffiliated and not willing to look at anything for years.”

But as an adult, Vandermey came back into a belief system first through Al-Anon, then through his partner, Lesley, who flat-out told him one day, “If you’re going to be involved with me, we have to go to church.”

That launched some church-shopping, which started with the Presbyterians but arrived at Unity, and he’s glad he did. He went a long time without that foundation.

“It was important to me, but I didn’t know it. When you don’t have anything, the world can be very lonely. When you’re involved in a faith tradition, you’re not alone.”

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