I’ve been thinking about the recent Pew Research Center poll finding that about 20 percent of American adults claim no religious affiliation – more like a third when you look only at people under 30. It’s a dramatic rise in the number of “nones” – just five years ago, Pew put the figure at about 15 percent – and brings us to the highest level in history (the history of polling about religious affiliation, anyway). What I’ve been wondering is, what does this trend mean for us as an Ethical Culture Society? We are a religion, but are we a religion of the type that people are pulling away from? Or are we a religion that perhaps some of those unaffiliated would affiliate with?

The Pew Report made something of a media splash, so maybe you’ve been pondering the results
too. Some of the most intriguing findings weren’t in the headlines. For example, the “nones” include the almost six percent of the U.S. public that say they are atheists or agnostics (that’s 13 million people, if you’re counting), but fully two-thirds of the “nones” believe in god. A majority identify themselves as either “religious” or “spiritual but not religious,” and say they often think about the meaning and purpose of life. But the vast majority are not seeking to find a religious group to join. They are unaffiliated and fine with that.

The group’s stated attitudes toward religious organizations perhaps explain why they are not rushing about trying to find a place to belong. Most think religion generally is losing its influence on American life – and think that’s a good thing. Those without a stated religion are more likely than the general public to view organized religion as all about power and money, with too much focus on rules, and too much involvement in politics. No wonder they’re not in any big hurry to find somewhere to attend weekly services or otherwise join up.

People counting themselves among the “nones” nonetheless firmly view religions as potential forces for good in the world. More than three-quarters say religions can bond people and communities, and do play a key role in helping the disadvantaged.

If only there were a place that brought people together, built community, and helped those in society who need it – but didn’t inappropriately pursue power (political or otherwise), overemphasize money, or insist on a particular set of rules!

Of course we know there is. So I think the question may be, how many people out there know it? And if and when they do, if they check us out, do they feel we are a place for atheists? For believers? For those who don’t know? For those who are spiritual? For those who are not? For those under 30? On any given week (or any given web page), could a visitor tell what we do that binds us together? What we do that serves society? And, can the answer to all of the above even be “yes”? Are we, or do we want to be, all things to all (religiously unaffiliated) people?

These are not new questions for us. But the trend the Pew report describes – and the attention it garnered – brought them into focus for me. Perhaps it signals an opportunity for us. Perhaps the 88 percent who are not looking for a place to join are just not joiners. But I’m betting a lot of them simply aren’t aware of any “deed before creed” options. All the more reason for us to let our light shine more brightly.

Because there’s another way to look at this research, of course. If we don’t plan to be a beacon, our alternate path is definitely darker: we’ll be among the religious organizations from which people are increasingly dis-affiliating. That would be particular shame because what the Pew report says to me is that our Ethical approach to religion is more closely matched with what Americans want than it ever has been before.

— Colleen Kapklein