I recently listened to one of Blair Hodges’ Maxwell Institute Podcasts. He was speaking with Elizabeth Drescher, discussing “The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones.” She studied the behaviors and beliefs of the increasing number of people who are leaving religion behind and claiming no affiliation. Personally, I hate podcasts, but this one was well worth a listen, and I’m a new fangirl of Blair as an interviewer. His questions were thoughtful and on point; it’s like he actually read her book! The podcast made me want to read it, too.

Spiritual vs. Religious

One of the critiques of Pew Forum Research that was mentioned in the podcast was that it preferences spiritual practices that religions consider spiritual, not necessarily the practices that unaffiliated people recognize as spiritual.  Drescher found four themes among unaffiliated people, things they considered to be their own form of spiritual practices:

DRESCHER:  “So among the whole group, the top five practices were spending time or enjoying time with family, enjoying time with friends, preparing and sharing food, and enjoying time with pets and other animals. I refer to them as the Four F’s of contemporary spirituality: family, friends, Fido and food. And the only traditional practice in there was prayer, which is of course the mobile technology of religion. One of the guys I interviewed was spiritual-but-not-religious, “Jesus Follower,” says it’s the one thing the church can’t get its hand on.”

Historically, we’ve privileged the types of things that religions call “spiritual”: attending church, prayer, reading scriptures.  Churches exert a lot of control on these forms of spirituality. Even prayers in different religions have a set of approved guidelines from the church, be it the Catholic Rosary or versions of the Lord’s Prayer recited.  Reading scriptures is likewise in a church’s control, although that control is somewhat indirect, because different churches regard different books of scripture as canon or not, and within Christianity, different faiths prefer different translations. Even if you are reading the same translation, within a religion you are subject to doctrine and dogma, the church’s interpretations of those scriptures. Regarding the observation that prayer was the one thing the church couldn’t get its hands on, this sounds a lot like correlation. That’s true to the extent that your prayers are from the heart and personal, but even preferences for the form of prayer are correlated by different religions.

Rejecting Labels

It should come as no surprise that the unaffiliated aren’t generally thrilled to be pigeonholed. This disdain for labels is probably connected to their original disaffiliation – they didn’t feel their religion described them accurately or was an accurate heuristic for who they were spiritually, so they know how crummy it feels to be inaccurately portrayed. They want to be themselves, not lost behind a label. Atheists don’t want to be affiliated with militant atheism. Drescher elaborated on the difficulty of identifying the unaffiliated.

DRESCHER:  Some identify just as None. They don’t want to have any kind of label at all. But I will say and I talk about this in the book, the idea of labeling is part of that baggage of how we do religion and how we mark it demographically. So for people across that spectrum, first of all, the labels changed all the time. So they would start out saying “well, I’m agnostic but I’m really spiritual,” that there wasn’t really language for describing who they were in the culture but also that the labels themselves were heuristics. They were provisional. They were marking where they were in a moment, and people were really frustrated with this sense of having to have a durable label that would extend throughout a life and that was almost like an ethnicity or an ontological category. Across the board, people were really pretty uncomfortable with that.

For many, even the label “Christian” carried too much baggage.

DRESCHER: Among some people I interviewed…and this was like a big surprise. I was a speaker at a really big worship leader conference where I thought I’d find lots of Christian-y people, and I just happened upon lots of people who said, “Oh, no. I don’t identify as Christian at all. I see myself at best as a Jesus follower.” And these Jesus followers, whatever we might call them now, think of themselves as people who don’t want to be tainted by the negative aspects of Christianity—that they’re politically conservative, that they’re homophobic, sexist, anti-evolutionary, anti-environmentalist, all of those kinds of things, close-minded, judgmental, actually the whole “why don’t they like us” list. They don’t want to be associated with that.

So there was that variety but there were also people on the other end of the spectrum who traditionally would have been identified as atheists who don’t want to be involved in that argument either. So I think for people who feel like “if you put an identity on me that that makes me seem to be on the strident extremes of religiosity, then I don’t get to be human with you and what I want is for us to be having a human experience together.”

I could certainly relate to what she was saying as I imagine many Mormons can, particularly in the bloggernacle. If Mormonism means voting Republican, homophobia, women not working outside the home, having to care how other people dress and fake swearing, then don’t call me Mormon either. There’s a difference between a stereotype or a norm and what defines a group of people, and then there is the allowance for individuals to differ, the variety that exists within any group of people.

Why Did They Leave?

The most interesting part of these types of narratives is why individuals left their faiths. Drescher talked about religious people searching their collective souls about those who had left their faith, wondering “What’s wrong with us? Why don’t people like us?”

DRESCHER:  “Somebody just said to me last week, “Well, how do you lure them in?” And I was just, wow. That sounds just like incredibly compelling, [laughs] as a strategy for engaging human beings. . . . they sort of vacillate between the shame-based “What’s wrong with us? Why don’t they like us? What did we do wrong?” and the “How do we get them? How do get them to come back?””

This type of relentless focus on evangelizing is doubtless off-putting for many who have unaffiliated.  So let’s dig in. What’s wrong with us?

She noticed three distinct exit paths that were most common. What was interesting is that the exit path followed a pattern, not based so much on the type of person who had disaffiated, but based on the type of religious environment they had left:

  • Mainline Protestants.  She mentions Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and Congregationalist, noting that Mainline Protestants are producing the most “Nones” when compared across churches. When they spoke about becoming unaffiliated, they regarded it as a sort of graduation, like they outgrew church attendance or simply got bored; this group did not generally feel bitterness toward their church.  They said things like “I don’t need to hear the same thing every week.” They expressed a fondness for their childhood experiences in the religion, but no compulsion to continue in it as adults or at this later stage of life. There was a sense that they “got” it and didn’t need the repetition.
  • Conservative Churches.  She mentioned that these individuals were Pentacostal, Evangelical, some Mormons, non-denominational Protestants, American Baptists, and Southern Baptists.[1] These exit stories were more emotional and less positive.  People expressed betrayal and anger.  In Mormonism, one “None” talked about feeling that his questions weren’t welcome or that he was viewed with suspicion for having them. Drescher noted other conservative faiths took a similar approach to doubts, viewing the person with doubts as faithless or bad.  An individual who left Evangelicalism talked about feeling embarrassed and mortified to discover through higher education that the alternative to science that he’d been taught through home schooling was not credible, that the earth was older than 6,000 years, that humans didn’t coexist with dinosaurs. Drescher noted that those who had left conservative churches were more likely to use profanity! They were often angry, and profanity allowed them to break former taboos.
  • Catholicism.  Somehow this made up its own group, although with the caveat that it was a small sample size of 100 individuals she interviewed more personally like this.  These individuals felt wounded and mourned a lost identity; they felt they didn’t belong or that they were outcasts from an ethnic group to which their family belonged. They felt the church didn’t support them or that they didn’t fit in. They longed to be part of it, but recognized that the community didn’t embrace them. They didn’t belong.

I guess if I had to sum up these three reasons for leaving, I’d suggest the following:

  • Church is boring.
  • Church is too authoritative, pushy, and conformist.
  • Church isn’t supportive enough of individuals who don’t fit the mold.

Any of those three exit reason categories fit Mormonism, depending on to whom we talk. So if we want to know (as Drescher puts it) what’s wrong with us, this is what’s wrong with us.

The author’s overview of her discussion with a disaffiliated Mormon:

Hodges: So here is a quote from Ethan from the book. He said, “Religion dictated so much of my life as a child, not just what we believed but really who we were against the rest of the world.” He’s describing an oppositional position vis-à-vis the world and he said, “We were Mormons first. We’re from five generations of Mormons but I was always asking questions. Why do we do it this way? Why can’t I drink a Coke? And my mom or dad would say, ‘Well, you just have to have faith.’ So I knew enough to shut up and you know as a kid I didn’t really disagree exactly, I just wanted to know why. And I was always like that so I asked questions about everything. But ask too much about the church though, that seemed to be the worst sin you could do.”

So that sort of shut-down conversation later manifested itself as anger in him when he ended up disaffiliating.

This anti-questioning approach happens when a religion is very authoritative, when those in charge hand down the “rules” and those below follow those rules whether they understand them or not. So when someone asks a question, the simple fact is that the person they ask, a parent or local leader, may not have an answer that explains “why” beyond “Act in faith” or “Follow the prophet” or “Obey.” But these aren’t answers; they are a subtle critique of the person asking the question. They put the onus back on the person asking, even if that person is a curious child. Children learn not to ask in this kind of environment.

From the discussion on Catholics who left:

DRESCHER:  One of the people that I interviewed—Natalie Darling—still goes to a Taize service regularly, has friends in the church, had considered becoming an N-U-N nun at one point. But felt just, again, betrayed and heartbroken when her bishops came out so strongly against marriage equality and the full inclusion of LGBT people in the church and the role of women. She felt it undermined the role of women in the church. There was a sense of “I love this, but there is no place for me here.” She talks about having being cast out, but she didn’t leave. She was cast out of the tradition. Judith—the woman I talked about at the beginning of the chapter—turned to the church in the time of a horrible marriage crisis and got no support at all and was—

HODGES: Divorce is pretty taboo in some Catholic circles.

DRESCHER: Right. And just really found that she could not find any support, in the face of a very abusive relationship, in that community. Another guy that I interview, Frank, talks about his church community not being able support his whole family that had a big identification with Catholicism.

So all of these things, yeah, they have some of the elements of anger that I saw in more conservative traditions, Nones who came from more conservative traditions, but there was a sense of real loss, real sorrow. In some cases a sense of “I wish I could find a place there, but I’m just not going to. There’s not going to be a place for me.” And it was sad. It was a really sad kind of thing.

To take that to the next logical step, if the worth of souls really is great, if we love and value our fellow beings more than our own comfort and complacency, we need to quit blaming those who exit for their reasons for leaving and start listening to what we need to do better as a community. How does that blame look? Just applying it to the 3 themes Drescher identified, it looks like this:

  • They’ll get as much out of church as they put into it. They need to pray and read their scriptures more.
    • Let’s face facts, some of our lesson material is pretty threadbare, some of our teachers uninformed and uninspiring, and it’s all pretty repetitive–literally repeating every 4 years.
  • They hate the prophets. They are too critical of others. They don’t want to be told what to do. They’re prideful.
    • Contrast this with Joseph Smith who said, “It feels so good not to be trammeled.” Believe me, we know a thing or two about trammeling in most Mormon wards.
  • Everybody thinks they are an exception. We have to preach the ideal. If they do what they are supposed to do, they’ll fit in.
    • It’s not a sin to be different. If church is there to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, why are we so much better at comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted? Practice, that’s why.

So, what do you think?

  • Is it possible to stanch the tide of disaffection? How do we do it?
  • Does the church really care about the people who are leaving for these reasons? Do people care enough to change it? Why or why not / defend your answer.
  • Does Drescher’s research feel accurate to you and your experience?
  • What exit path do you see the majority of unaffiliated Mormons fitting?



[1] First of all, I was a bit dismayed to see Mormons lumped in with these groups; I’ve historically seen us as more in the category of Mainline Protestants–that universalist bent we have to our doctrine should preserve us from this type of characterization. But I think there’s an increasingly alarming case to be made that we’ve become like these faiths through the church’s association with them in the culture wars.