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Nuns and Nones

Nuns and Nones

By Matt Morgan

Illustration by Giulio Bonasera
When Elizabeth Drescher was in grad school, she drove home cross-country each spring. She wondered what spirituality meant for those she encountered—not just the religious. So over the past three years, this adjunct associate professor of religious studies asked. From Maui to Maine, she turned to the religiously unaffiliated, the Nones, and said: Tell me about your spiritual lives.

SCM: You’ve written a book called Choosing Our Religion. Why?

ELIZABETH DRESCHER: When you see a survey exploring “how religious America is” or whether “religion is declining,” researchers ask people, “Do you belong to an institutional religious group—a church, a synagogue, or a mosque? Do you believe in God? Do you study a sacred scripture? Do you pray?” When I asked my classes, “How would you describe what’s religiously or spiritually important to you?” those were not the things that came up. When I surveyed people, what they talked about was pretty much the same for the religiously affiliated and unaffiliated—not conventional religious practices. I came to call what I heard “the four F’s of contemporary spirituality”: family, friends, Fido, and food—enjoying time with family; enjoying time with friends; enjoying time with pets or other animals; sharing and preparing food. The only conventional item on the top 10 list was prayer, which is sort of the mobile technology of religion. Anyone can do it, anywhere. 

SCM: What did you learn about prayer?

DRESCHER: I had atheists who insisted they prayed and I would think “What is that about? Who do you pray to? What do you expect to happen?” Those were some of the richest conversations I had. What I came to understand was the word prayer itself has a capaciousness. It holds a certain kind of emotional content we don’t have another word for. When I say, “I’m praying for you,” it’s different than “I’m thinking about you.” I want to convey that I have concern and hope for you. The phrase “thinking about” doesn’t hold that kind of paradoxical complex reality. I also spoke with people who said, “I don’t mean to pray. It sneaks up on me, but in certain circumstances it’s the only thing I can do that addresses the emotional complexity of a particular situation.”

SCM: Do you think we Americans are losing our religion?

DRESCHER: We’re seeing a new elasticity to spirituality. But the important thing is that we’re not seeing less religion and spirituality. We’re just seeing it grow into something else. I don’t think there’s some big new spiritual awakening about to happen, as some have argued. Institutional religions are not going to dramatically, on their own, revitalize and draw people back in 10 years. Lots of new things are emerging, and the exciting thing about being a religion scholar at this point is you get to watch that happening. 

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