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Understanding the Rise of the Nones

You've probably seen or heard about the Pew Research Center's recent survey revealing a sharp decline in Christian affiliation among Americans in recent years. Several observers have suggested this is a result of nominal Christians being more honest about their lack of commitment. Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research uses church attendance statistics to back that claim, and he's found a lot of agreement among other church leaders.

But Bart Ehrman, a Bible scholar and an agnostic, is skeptical of this explanation.

One of the reasons I find this so interesting is because of all the email I get, and have been getting, several times a week, for years now, email from people who actually were committed, hard-core Christians – either Bible-believing evangelicals, or sincerely devoted Catholics, or something else – who over time began to have doubts about their faith. These emails are rarely from nominal Christians.

Now maybe it's just that nominal Christians are less likely to discuss their doubts with Bible scholars, but maybe Ehrman is seeing something the typical pastor does not. Ehrman also speaks from experience, because he too was once a committed Christian who lost his faith  the very type of person, evangelicals assure him, doesn't exist.

Many evangelicals are convinced that if you are a committed evangelical Christian, you have the truth, you have the answers to life and death, you have all you would ever possibly need – and so of course you would never leave the faith. If anyone leaves the faith, therefore, they must not really have been committed in the first place.

Ehrman chalks this up to cognitive dissonance.

Meanwhile, Mark Lockard has found nuance in the Pew data. The "nones," Lockard argues, is a catchall category, made up of multiple disparate groups. One group comprises those who have no religious affiliatoin, of course, but there are at least two others.

The "spiritual but not religious" group is often disparaged, says Lockard, but within it you can find "some legitimate expressions from thoughtful people who are keenly aware of divinity as deeply woven into life, even though they have no interest in an organized structure focused on it."

Conversely, there are a number of people who might be classified as "religious but not spiritual."

...a growing group who are keenly aware of the importance of religious community, of liturgical expression, of the collective search for mystery. Yet they do not experience the spiritual elements of the faith community as personally transformative, at least not in the traditional ways that other adherents within the community might.

So what is really happening? There are a number of possible explanations, and no clear consensus. Perhaps several factors are in play. Readers, do you have any thoughts?

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