Religious Nuns are one thing. Religious Nones are something completely different. When it comes to these two groups, spelling really matters. Nuns are devout and committed to religious faith. Religious Nones are largely (though not always) the exact opposite. When we consider trends in religious identification, “Nones” are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian (and other Western countries) population these days. Demographically, Nones are on a far different trajectory than Nuns!
Nones are those people who do not identify with any established religion. On a census survey they check the box “none” in any question that asks participants to identify themselves religiously.
The New Leaf Network Canada (www.newleafnetwork.ca) has developed a one-day workshop that addresses the phenomenon of the “Nones.” Presented by a number of academics and ministry leaders (Jarrod Siebert, Joel Thiessen, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, James Robertson), the workshop examines some of the data and historical trends that help us describe and understand the Nones, and give us some insight into how the church in Canada can respond to Nones in a way that is contextually sensitive and relevant.
The Nones make up 23.6% of the Canadian population as of 2011, compared to under 1% in 1961. According to Thiessen’s and Wilkins-LaFlamme’s research presented at the workshop, this ranges from a low of 15% in Atlantic Canada to 44% in British Columbia—and the common assumption is that this trend is growing. It is supported by the fact that it is far more socially acceptable to be a “None” than in times past, that many forms of religion are considered corrupt, and that religious socialization is at an all time low (i.e., parents do not practice religion and so do not expect it of their children, schools do not impose religious practices on students, etc.).
This does not mean that Nones do not have religious beliefs or spiritual commitments. While some would consider themselves agnostic or atheist, many would identify themselves as a theist, deist, or spiritual person. They just do not connect with an organized religious group or want to be identified with one.
In the post-Christendom context, this reality is a game changing one because it is something we have never experienced before. While the church faces a myriad of challenges in whatever context that it finds itself, the church in Western culture has never faced a context where many people in that context have no personal connection to or genuine familiarity with Christianity as a belief system or the church as an expression of that system. Whatever traction that familiarity offered, it is quickly evaporating. When it comes to effectively engaging people in our culture it is increasingly like trying to climb an ice-covered hill in running shoes with nothing to grab onto for support.
So, what do we do? That is at the crux of the conversation for the church in post-Christian society. Two things seem clear. First, the church must continue to be a faithful presence. We have to live our faith consistently and passionately, love our neighbors and serve our communities, offer a reason for the hope that we have when asked, always with gentleness and respect and be there for those times in people’s lives where they naturally turn to religion for help (i.e., deaths, weddings, personal crisis, having children, etc.). The church needs to remain actively present in the community even if no one really takes all that much notice of us. Second, we need to really start thinking about what the church needs to be fifty years from now and then get working on it. Too often the church is reactive to its context and not proactive about shaping that context. This is not a statement about power. Rather, it is a statement about the need for the church to begin looking ahead to see what we have to contribute to the massive challenges that lay ahead for Western culture. How will the church respond and help the world think about millions of people being displaced by climate change and the effects it will have? How will the church respond and help the world think about the ethics of emerging medical technologies? Cyber technology? Robotics? Sexual ethics? Immigration? Inter-faith dialogue? Where are these things going? Just as importantly, why would we just wait to see? The church more than ever needs to be proactive and plunge into these topics offering a reasonable, theologically informed voice that is helpful in the overall discussion and more importantly start living in ways that embody an effective response. Christendom may have allowed for (or even empowered) a passive, reactionary ethos in the church; post-Christendom should empower the opposite—a proactive spirit that wants to help the world negotiate the future and all its challenges.
The Nones are not a problem to be solved, but a reality that we need to understand and address. We must do this if we are going to serve them well and give them a reason to become a Jesus follower instead of a None. We cannot forget that God loves the Nones as much as he loves the Nuns—and so should we. Being both faithful and proactive is how we can demonstrate this love to an increasing tribe of people in our midst.
Clarke, Brian and Macdonald, Stuart. Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada
since 1945. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2017.
Thiessen, Joel. The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of belief in a Secular Age. Montreal and
Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2015.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*