Choosing Our Religion

The Spiritual Lives of America's Nones

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Elizabeth Drescher
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2016.
     344 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199341221.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

     READ INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR HERE

Every semester in my undergraduate courses at the University of San Diego, I task my students with completing an assignment called “Religion in the News.” The prompt is relatively simple: students are to pick a news article that has to do with religion in today’s world, write a short summary and analysis of it, and then present the article to the rest of the class for discussion. There are two things in particular that I like about this exercise. First, it helps students see that our class lessons have real, pragmatic application in understanding our contemporary world. Second, this assignment gives me insight into the sorts of issues, trends, and events that my students find interesting. Over the past year and a half, there has been one topic that students have gravitated toward more than any other: the rise of the religious Nones—those who select “none” as their religious affiliation—in the United States. Each time an article on this trend comes up in class, we inevitably land upon the same set of questions: What factors are driving some Americans to move away from historically prevalent forms of religious affiliation? Is this trend proof that the secularization thesis—which postulates that the rise of science and technology will lead to a decline in religious belief—is true? And, do human beings need religion in order to live moral and ethical lives?

Elizabeth Drescher’s Choosing Our Religionprovides the groundwork for much deeper and more interesting conversations about who Nones are and how they live their lives. Her book, which is based on narrative surveys with more than a thousand religiously affiliated and unaffiliated Americans as well as extended interviews with more than one hundred Nones from across the country, strives to paint a human portrait of this increasingly important demographic. In doing so, Drescher challenges many of the stigmas that currently exist against the religiously unaffiliated in the United States, such as notions that Nones are a homogenous group of atheists or that they lack moral and ethical frameworks. Two points that emerge in her work are particularly worth noting. The first is that there is a tremendous amount of diversity in how American Nones self-identify, which can include designations such as agnostic, secular humanist, spiritual-but-not-religious, and more (5). Drescher stays true to this complexity throughout her book by noting how each of her interviewees (sometimes confusingly) self-identified rather than forcing her research subjects into broader frameworks of classification. 

A second major contribution of this book is the manner in which it challenges the reader to think about how porous the boundaries between the affiliated and the unaffiliated can be (10). For example, chapter 7 centers around the ways in which Nones “pray,” which often bear striking resemblances to the practices of religiously affiliated individuals. In this way, Drescher’s project encourages the reader to imagine religion and religious identity in less binary ways. As she writes in her conclusion: “the None-ing of American is not a turn away from religion, but rather the emergence of multiple, sometimes overlapping, sometimes diverging narratives of religious and spiritual experience that move through more diverse conceptions of what it means to be human and to be citizens of the nation and the world” (251). 

For those unfamiliar with current demographic trends surrounding Nones in America today, the first chapter of Drescher’s work contains a helpful overview and analysis of data. Drawing especially from recent surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the researcher notes that 23.9% of Americans say they have no religious affiliation (18) and that unaffiliation is on the rise among all racial, ethnic, gender, and other categories (20). Here, Drescher also points out that while the lived religion approach has enriched scholarly understandings of ordinary religious people and their everyday practices and beliefs, we have heretofore neglected to consider the everyday spirituality of non-religious persons (45). 

The subsequent chapters of the book seek to remedy this gap in our knowledge by tracing the paths that Nones followed to arrive at their current identities, the different resources (including teachings, writings, spaces, and modes of entertainment) and practices that Nones draw upon to enrich their lives, and more. Drescher’s writing foregrounds the voices of the Nones who she interviewed and her commitment to doing justice to their diverse, complex experiences is admirable. Scholars and educators who want to learn more about Nones’ ethics and morals will find chapters 6 and 7 particularly interesting. In the former chapter, Drescher illuminates the “care ethics” (184) of compassion, cooperation, empathy, and interdependency that characterize many Nones’ interactions with others; in the latter chapter, she analyzes the ways in which None parents inculcate spiritual curiosity and an ethics of care in their children. 

Choosing Our Religionis the first qualitative study of Nones in America and yet, as Drescher herself acknowledges, one book can “hardly map the whole of unaffiliated spirituality” (8). Consequently, Drescher’s work provides an excellent starting point for deeper conversations about the topics and dynamics that this book briefly introduces. For example, many of Drescher’s research subjects identify as former Christians; thus, future studies of Nones might engage individuals coming from Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and other backgrounds. Or, given the rise of scholarship centered around material religion, subsequent projects could more thoroughly analyze the role of material objects in the spiritual lives of American Nones, which Drescher only touches upon in passing (114). 

Selections of this book could be effectively incorporated into undergraduate and graduate-level courses in religious studies, anthropology, and sociology. For example, chapter 4, which centers around the spiritual practices of Nones, would pair nicely with seminal works in the field of lived religion (by thinkers such as Meredith McGuire, Robert Orsi, and Nancy Ammerman) and chapter 5, about the role that prayer plays in Nones’ lives, could be taught alongside Tanya Luhrmann’s studies of Evangelical Christian prayer. Ultimately, Choosing Our Religionis a versatile, accessible, and novel text that lends much to our understanding of the complexity of religious and spiritual life in America today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kate Yanina DeConinck is a Teaching Professor at the University of San Diego.

Date of Review: 
April 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth Drescher is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. Her work on American spirituality has been published in numerous periodicals including America, Salon, Sojourners, and The Washington Post. She is also the authorTweet If You [Heart] Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (2011) and co-author of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (2012).

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