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: What made you decide to write this book?
ELIZABETH DRESCHER: When I was in graduate school, I still owned a home in Pennsylvania and would drive back in the spring and fall from Berkeley to visit family. I would stop and visit friends on the way, and I always had this curiosity about what people were doing in these spaces spiritually. The book gave me the opportunity to kind of scratch that itch.
In the book I talk about how when you see a survey of how religious America is, they 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 about religion and spirituality in my classes, those were not what came up—with the exception of prayer, sometimes. Even among people studying to be clergy, being in church was never at the top of the list.
SCM: What was your approach to tackling what’s a pretty immense topic?
DRESCHER: I started by surveying about 1,000 people across the country, including both people who identified as religiously affiliated and unaffiliated. When I asked them to rank religious activities, the top of the list was pretty much the same for the religiously affiliated and unaffiliated. And they were not conventional religious practices. I call them 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. And sharing and preparing food.
The only conventional item on the top ten list was prayer, which is sort of the mobile technology of religion. I drew from that group of people—about 25 percent of which were unaffiliated one way or another—to conduct interviews across the country. Over a period of about three years, I asked people from Maine to Maui tell me about their spiritual life. It was amazing, because largely the demographic categories used to describe religion and spirituality don’t include the things most people think are spiritually significant. And no one ever really asks them. So, people were quite happy to talk about the things that mattered to them, and it was quite an honor to listen to the stories of how people came to understand themselves as “Nones” and how they structured their spirituality.
SCM: Did you define spirituality for them, or did you allow them to do that on their own?
DRESCHER: I would just ask, “How would you describe yourself if somebody asked you whether you’re religious or spiritual?” I took that definition from them and said, “What do you think of as spiritually important in your life?” That allowed people I initially discounted to be included. For example, I assumed somebody who identified as an atheist wouldn’t think of herself as spiritual.
Early on, I wrote a small article about recent publications about the unaffiliated, and they were all focused on people who believed in God, a higher power, or a life force. I got a bunch of emails from atheists and secularists and humanists asking, “Why aren’t you talking about secular spiritualties or atheist spiritualties?” I thought, “What?” Then I started talking to atheists, agnostics, secularists, and secular humanists about how they understood the human spirit or a life spirit or the animating spirit of the cosmos and what they did to nurture that. Allowing people to define what was spiritual opened the conversation much more broadly than I would have considered initially.
SCM: Why do you think people have veered away from the traditional means of expressing religiousness or spirituality?
DRESCHER: There’s really no one way to get to a root cause—a simple root cause. There are certainly social factors. For centuries, the religion or spirituality people practiced had to do with what the people in charge decreed that everyone should practice and believe. So, violence or the threat of violence was a remarkably effective way of ensuring religious participation.
Also, the sense of a sort of religious worldview versus scientific worldview and the ways in which those came into conflict in the modern era has had a huge impact. Religions that insist those are in conflict have struggled within the wider population. They have some currency within their narrowly defined population; but more broadly, they tend to fall apart. Again, when you have free market religion and not compulsive religion, then you can decide you just don’t need this, that it just doesn’t make sense.
The other thing that is significant—and not everyone agrees with this—but until the early 1900s, life expectancy in the United States was incredibly low. So, prior to the 1800s, if you lived to 35 or 40, you had lived a ripe old age. You go to the early 1900s and maybe people live into their 60s. Even more affluent people had to work a lot. So, life was difficult, often violent, and short. In that context, shopping around for the religion that “feels right” is just not a priority. You kind of go with what you’ve got. Now we have a lot more leisure and personal freedom. And we’re in a consumer culture where we craft our lifestyles with the products available—and that includes religion and spirituality. Most women who are in their 50s are expected to live well over 100. So, if you didn’t like what you grew up with, you can try something else when you’re 30 and something else when you’re 60.
SCM: The title of the book, Choosing our Religion obviously plays off the phrasing “Losing Our Religion” from the R.E.M. song. Do you think America is losing its religion—or is it just changing?
DRESCHER: One of the things we’re really clearly seeing is a waning in the emphasis on belief-based expressions of religion and spirituality that rely on doctrinal or scriptural teachings. That is such a focus of the modern period, and we can almost mark the day in history when it shifted.
Descartes gets up in the morning and says, “I think therefore I am,” and everybody goes, “Oh, whoa, we need to have doctrinal beliefs as the center of every thought system.” That defines modernity.
That has changed in the current late modern, or postmodern, era. We’re now much more practice focused. The people who talked to me were not so concerned with belief, per se. They were concerned about, “What does this practice do in my life and the lives of people and communities I care about?”
I think that has always been true in a way. But in the new media environment today, we see it all the time. Nobody is going to post on Facebook about the Cappadocians’ rendering of transubstantiation versus Thomas Aquinas’s—even in my religio-geeky network. But people will talk about how they feel about religious practice, about meditating or doing a pilgrimage. Somebody just put something on my Facebook timeline the other day about how spending the day baking for friends was spiritually enriching. So, the concrete things we do with our bodies in relationship to other people, those begin to define our spiritual worlds.
SCM: You mentioned that people still engage in many religious activities. They still find some value in scripture. How do people engage with the literal practice of attending church?
DRESCHER: There was a study done in the Catholic Diocese of New Jersey by researchers at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown, involving a survey of people who are no longer members of Catholic churches. While they found lots of doctrinal differences about married clergy, or women in leadership, or clergy, or abortion, or contraception, or LGBT inclusion, the main reason people left churches was related to relationships. They felt the clergy or congregation was uncaring, unsupportive. They didn’t find it personally nurturing.
The majority of the religiously unaffiliated come from religious backgrounds, and most are Christians—about 70 percent. Our churches are manufacturing the unaffiliated. It’s not some bogeyman in the outside world. It’s not Bill Maher who did it. It’s something happening in churches, or not happening, that alienates people from their spirituality.
Some people told me that going to church meant actually spending less time with their families. The kids are in church school. Maybe one parent is in the choir. The other is on some committee. They go their separate ways, and that’s three or four hours on a Sunday they’re not spending together. So not going to church can feel more spiritually enriching because they spend time with people they love. So that’s part of it.
If what’s important spiritually is spending time with family, friends, and pets, sharing and preparing food, there’s no radical theological shift required to make that significantly foregrounded in the church. I mean, the Eucharistic rite is modeled on a meal, not the opposite way around. It’s a dinner party. But the rite itself has become calcified as something that doesn’t look like people gathering with friends, family, and maybe pets to have a sacred dinner. When people who define as unaffiliated connect with institutional churches, they’re drawn by those practices that touch on, that affirm and enrich, the reality of their own lived experience—the relationships that matter, the marking of significant life passages, the desire for aesthetic richness, the spiritual bonding that happens through common prayer. So, they’ll drop in for a Taizé service, or walk a labyrinth. They’ll lend a hand in caring for the poor.
SCM: What did you learn about prayer?
DRESCHER: I was surprised by the degree to which prayer came up in the survey. People talked about it all the time. I had atheists who insisted they prayed. I would think, “What is that about? Who do you pray to? What do you expect to happen?” What I came to understand was that the word prayer itself has a capaciousness—it holds a certain kind of emotional content we don’t have another word for in the language. Because, when I say “I’m praying for you,” it’s different than when I say “I’m thinking about you.” I want to convey I have concern and hope for you, right? The phrase “thinking about you” doesn’t hold that kind of paradoxical complex reality that says, “I’m afraid for you and also I want the best for you.” People often use the word “prayer” because the language doesn’t have another word to do that kind of work.
There are people who said, “I don’t mean to pray.” A lot of people said, “It sneaks up on me.” In certain circumstances though, it’s the only thing they can do that addresses the emotional complexity of a particular situation of stress, trauma, illness, or heartbreak. “I don’t believe that I’m praying to God,” a None might tell me, “but I’m doing an activity I call praying.”
SCM: Do you think spirituality shifts in people throughout the years?
DRESCHER: People see that at different parts of their lives, they need different things. There were times in my 20s that I carb loaded all the time. I can’t even conceive of eating that much pasta and rice now. I have to eat different things. In the same way, my spirit needs different things.
People talked to me about having an organic, holistic, evolutionary spirituality that changes over time rather having than a fixed spiritual identity. I think we’re seeing elasticity to spirituality, but I do think the important thing in all of this is we’re not necessarily seeing less of 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. I don’t think institutional religions are going to dramatically revitalize and draw people back in ten years. But I do think a range of new things, new practices, new ways of working with traditional religious resources are emerging. Or, it might be more accurate to say that different ways of being religious and spiritual are becoming more visible. Either way, the exciting thing about being a religion scholar is you get to watch that happening.
SCM: You let the “Nones” speak for themselves in this book. Why was that so important to you?
DRESCHER: There’s been a whole spate of books written largely in a pastoral context from churchy people about, “Why don’t they like us anymore?” There’s this sort of deep, wrenching, self-pitying vibe among many institutional church leaders about the numerical declines in their congregations. That seems to invite some of them to go to a dismissive, demeaning kind of place about how the religiously unaffiliated are vapid and superficial; they can’t make commitments. Against that backdrop, I just never felt like I was hearing the voices of people I know—people who are in my life who are not religiously affiliated, who are spiritually interesting and complex people, who do all kinds of amazing work in the world for justice and peace. I felt like, first of all, those people were not being treated with the respect and dignity that is part of my religious and spiritual conviction. So, I wanted them to be heard in their own voices.
When I think about the churches really being the factories for “Nones,” I have to think that for people who are in ministry and who are unintentionally “manufacturing Nones” right now, not being willing to listen openly to what’s really happening in the lives of people is going to hinder sincere attempts to enrich spiritual practice in institutional settings. So, if people can’t listen to that, they can’t make a change. A lot of the writing about the unaffiliated before that was about, “How do we fix them?” “What can we do to change them?” And I just had a sense from my own life that, they’re good. They’re going to be fine. They’re not sitting at home wondering how to be fixed.
So, if you’re going to understand how to fix institutional religion to the extent that it can be, it’s going to come from learning from them—learning more about what Nones are telling churches and other institutional religions that religion and spirituality is becoming. That changes what the “fix” for institutional religion—if there is one—might be. Dramatically.