Nathalie Charles, even in her mid-teens, felt unwelcome in her Baptist congregation, with her conservative views on immigration, gender and sexuality. So she left.
“I just don’t feel like it matches my vision of what God is and what God can be,” said Charles, an 18-year-old of Haitian descent who identifies as queer. and is now a freshman at Princeton University.
“It wasn’t a very loving or nurturing environment for anyone’s faith.”
After leaving her church in New Jersey three years ago, she identified as an atheist, then an agnostic, before embracing a spiritual but not religious life. In her dorm, she mixes rituals on an altar, chanting Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu mantras and paying homage to her ancestors as she meditates and prays.
The path Charles took puts her among those unaffiliated with religion — the fastest growing group in polls asking Americans about their religious identity. They describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular”.
Video: Millennial parents are raising their children without religion
According to a survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center, this group – commonly referred to as the “nones” – now constitutes 29% of American adults. This represents an increase from 23% in 2016 and 19% in 2011.
“If the unaffiliated were a religion, they would be the largest religious group in the United States,” said Elizabeth Drescher, an assistant professor at Santa Clara University who has written a book about the spiritual life of the unaffiliated.
People with no religious affiliation were once concentrated in urban and coastal areas but now live across the United States, representing a diversity of ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds, Drescher said.
Even in their personal philosophies, U.S. no’s vary widely, according to a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. For example, 30% say they feel a connection to God or a higher power, and 19% say religion is of some importance to them even though they have no religious affiliation.
About 12% describe themselves as religious and spiritual and 28% as spiritual but not religious. More than half describe themselves as neither.
According to the AP-NORC poll, nearly 60% of non-respondents say religion was at least somewhat important to their family when they were growing up. He revealed that 30% of non-meditators and 26% pray privately at least a few times a month, while a smaller number periodically consult a religious or spiritual leader.
“There are people who actually practice, either in a particular religious tradition that we would recognize or in multiple religious traditions,” Drescher said. “They are not interested in either formally belonging to these communities or identifying as someone of this religion.”
In recent years, the prevalence of no’s in the United States has been roughly comparable to that in Western Europe – but on the whole, Americans remain more religious, with higher rates of daily prayer and belief in God, as described in the Bible. According to a 2018 Pew survey, about two-thirds of American Christians pray daily, compared to 6% in Britain and 9% in Germany.
The growth of nuns in the United States has come largely at the expense of the Protestant population in the United States, according to the new Pew survey. He said 40% of American adults are now Protestant, up from 50% a decade ago.
Former Protestants include Shianda Simmons, 36, of Lakeland, Florida, who began identifying as an atheist in 2013.
She grew up as a Baptist and attended church regularly; she says she left mainly because of the unequal treatment of women by the church.
Not everyone in her family knows she gave up on religion, and some who do find it hard to come to terms with it, Simmons said.
“There are some people I can’t say I’m an atheist,” she said. “It made me distance myself from my family.”
Likewise, in the beauty shop she owns, she feels she must keep her atheism “hidden” from customers, lest they go elsewhere.
Like Simmons, Mandisa Thomas is a black atheist — an identity that can be difficult in the many African-American communities where churches are a powerful force. Thomas sang in a church choir as a child, but was not raised a Christian.
“Within the black community, we face ostracism,” said Thomas, who lives near Atlanta and founded a support group, Black Unbelievers, in 2011. Something white people do .
Another advocate for the no’s is Kevin Bolling, who grew up in a military family and served as a Catholic altar boy. In college, he began to question the role of the church and was appalled at its stance on sexuality after coming out as gay.
He is now executive director of the Secular Student Alliance, which has more than 200 branches in colleges and schools nationwide. The chapters, he said, serve as a refuge for lay students or those who question their faith.
“I think this generation may be the first generation to be predominantly non-religious versus predominantly religious,” he said.
Being Catholic also played an important role in Ashley Taylor’s upbringing – she became an altar server at age 9. Now 30, she identifies as unaffiliated with religion.
“It just means finding meaning and maybe even spirituality without practicing a religion…. draw from anything that makes sense to me or anything that aligns with my values,” she said.
Her faith gave her strength when she had cancer at 11, she said, but she also feels that growing up Catholic negatively affected her emotional and sexual development and set her back as a child. that queer.
Eventually, Taylor discovered Sunday Assembly, which provided her with a congregation-like community but in a secular way, offering activities such as singing, book clubs, and trivial parties. She is now chair of the board of Sunday Assembly Pittsburgh.
“They’re not trying to tell you what’s true,” Taylor said. “There is always a spirit of curiosity, questioning and openness.”
For some, like 70-year-old Zayne Marston of Shelburne, Massachusetts, their spiritual journey continues to evolve over the decades.
Growing up near Boston, Marston attended a Congregational church with his family — he remembers Bible study, church-sponsored dances, itching in his flannel pants during Sunday services.
In high school and college, he “strayed” from Christian beliefs and, in his thirties, began a serious and lasting journey into spirituality while in rehab to curb his alcoholism.
“Spirituality is a soul-based journey into the heart, surrendering the will of the ego to a higher will.” he said. “We are looking for our own answers, beyond the programming we received growing up.”
His path has been difficult at times – the death of his wife from rapidly progressing cancer, financial problems resulting in the loss of his home – but he says his spiritual practice has replaced his anxieties with “sweet joy” and a desire to help others.
He previously worked as a landscaper and real estate appraiser, and now runs a school where he teaches qigong, a practice from China that combines slow, relaxed movements with breathing exercises and meditation.
“As a child, I thought of God on a throne, with a white beard, judging, but that totally changed,” Marston said. “My higher power is the universe… It’s always there for me, if I can get out of my ego’s way.”
The AP-NORC poll of 1,083 adults was conducted Oct. 21-25 using a sample designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The Pew survey was conducted with 3,937 respondents from May 29 to August 25. Its margin of error for the full sample of respondents is plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.
Associated Press writer Mariam Fam contributed to this report.
Associated Press religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.