Back to the Future of Religion

Does Demographic Research Create the Religious "Reality" It Describes?

If you somehow managed to Marty McFly yourself back to the High Middle Ages—the epoch of Christendom influence in the pre-Reformation West—you’d likely catch a glimpse of the future of faith even as you regarded the sights, sounds, and (alas) smells of its glorious past. And if you happened to be a researcher from the Pew Forum, survey form in hand, you might become a bit confused if you asked the average alewife, fishmonger, or even a priest if she or he identified more as “religious,” “secular,” or “spiritual.”

“Without end is the number of fools!” the alewife might cry out, quoting Ecclesiastes. “I am neither clerk nor cannon nor cardinal, but laity!” And the fishmonger would surely laugh and curse right along with her.

Scratching his head, the demographer from the future might then move on to the priest, thinking him perhaps an easier mark. But the response would be no less vexing.

“Oh, thou art a fool, indeed. Else thy wit is overcome! Surely you see that I am secular, clearly in the spirituality” the priest might chortle, taking the researcher for a drunken fool who could not see the obvious.

Our hapless researcher would fail in his task of distinguishing between the religious, the secular, and the spiritual because each of the three characteristics was understood, prior to the Protestant Reformation, as a different way of being faithful within the hierarchical structure of the Church. Clergy, that is, came in two forms: “religious”—those who belonged to monastic orders and whose vocation was (in theory, at least) to be set apart from the world and its carnal pleasures; and “secular”—those who ministered “in the world” (the Latin meaning of the word), among the common people. The “spirituality” was the institutional church, its ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the hallowed grounds of its places of worship, devotion, and vocational enclosure. All three were opposed to the laity—the common people to whom the religious, the secular, and the spirituality overall ministered.

In the medieval West—a world in which everyone would be presumed to be Christian—what we now think of as “religious affiliation” or “religious identity” would be hard to tease out on the basis of demographic categories. Ticking off boxes would tell very little at a time when “religious,” “secular,” and “spiritual” marked how clergy carried out their vocations, rather than which institutionalized or non-institutional ideologies and practices contributed to their senses of self.

In the medieval West—a world in which everyone would be presumed to be Christian—what we now think of as “religious affiliation” or “religious identity” would be hard to tease out on the basis of demographic categories.

That all would change, of course, in the Reformation, when Martin Luther and other reformers challenged the idea of “vocation”—or Divine calling—as exclusive to the clergy. Luther pointed out that it was well within God’s power to have created each new human being without need of any human participation. But rather than causing babies to appear ex nihilo in cabbage patches across the globe, God enlisted human participation in the creation of new life, for humans and for nature. Thus, Luther argued, the work of creating loving relationships between spouses, of caring for children, of tending the earth, and of sharing cultivated and fabricated goods with others were no less sacred callings than were the vocations of “the religious” and “the seculars” in “the spirituality.”

This meant not that “the religious” was separated from “the secular” (at least not at first), but rather that the clergy were no longer seen as distinctly “religious” in opposition to the laity—“the common people” (from the Greek, laikos) whose lives are “of the ground” (hence the verb “lay,” as in a hen “laying an egg” on the ground or people “laying together” sexually).

One could, then, be a secular religious layperson in the world of everyday life. Faithfulness was defined not by labels, but by how one practiced one’s vocation and lived the whole of life as a holy calling.

Now, it eventually did happen that the words “religious” and “secular” came to be considered as opposites, with “spirituality” threading mysteriously through them. We have the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to thank for that eighteenth-century shift in historical usage, which has lasted through today, when it is reinforced by contemporary reports like the Pew Forum’s newly-released 2014 US Religious Landscape Survey.

U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious,” announces Pew on its website, as it points out not only a continued increase in the number of people who do not affiliate with an institutional religious group, but also the increasing secularity of these “nones” (assuming that “secularity” is indicated by declines in the perceived importance of religion, belief in God, attendance at religious services, and frequency of prayer).

But the labels and practices tracked by demographers to measure the changing religiosity of the United States miss the mark in at least two ways, as I’ve argued in my forthcoming book, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. First, they fail to recognize changes in the way that social identity is formed and expressed in the current age—an age in which digital social media practices invite us to explore, shape, and present situationally and relationally nuanced versions of our “authentic selves” in diverse and changing contexts in ways that were not possible, let alone imaginable, in the past. “Facebook Me” is really me. But it’s not exactly “Instagram Me.” Or “Yik-Yak Me.” Or, certainly, “Professor Me.” Except to the extent it is. Facets of who I am emerge and recede as I move through various networks, crossing the boundaries of digital and local space with considerable frequency.


This identity fluidity was apparent when I interviewed more than 100 Nones across the United States for the book. People described their spiritual or religious identities through a wide array of labels when I asked, “How would you respond to someone who asked you what your religion is?” And even these labels had a somewhat provisional, utilitarian quality to them. Interviewees would shift labels in the course of an interview, sometimes quite a lot.

“I was an Atheist back then,” Megan Coleman, a 27-year-old None from Salem, Alabama, said of her early spiritual life. “But now I’d say I’m more of an Agnostic. I think I have less certainty about everything, and that applies to my spiritual life and whatever I might think about the idea of a divinity.” Describing changing spiritual identification often offered a lens through which Nones’ spiritual lives could be seen as more complex and dynamic features of their ever-evolving life stories.

On other occasions, Nones seemed to be testing various labels within the interview itself, or asking for my designation based on what they had shared. “Maybe that makes me more of an Agnostic,” said 19-year-old Priscilla Danford, a college student from Bloomington, Indiana, as she described her understanding of god or a higher power:

I mean, I do think there’s something, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t think anyone can be sure, you know? No one can prove it. And I sure don’t think it matters, you know, in terms of how most of the world works—like the government or businesses. I mean, I feel really spiritual sometimes, and I’ve done yoga and other things that I think are really spiritual. But it’s not part of, like, my school, or work, or anything. I mean, I don’t pray or meditate while I’m shelving books in the library. So, does that mean I’m Secular instead of Spiritual? Can I be both at the same time? What would you call me?

Those who spoke with me reported sometimes using the “None” designation as a shield against religious labeling generally. “This obsession with labeling everyone—putting me in this category and you over there—I just don’t get it,” Robbie Smith, a 29-year-old from Auburn, Georgia, told me. “I want to be known as who I am, by how I relate to you, by what I do in the world. Not by some designation that’s meant to tell everyone everything about me and never change over time.”

All of this is, on the one hand, missed in demographic labeling, while, on the other, the increasing use of such labels in the popular reporting about religiosity invites people to adopt the catch-all label “none” to express a more complex secular-religious-spiritual way of being in the world for which there is yet no language. In this sense, each successive demographic study tends to conjure the population it named in the previous ones.

Knowing that we are less likely to believe in a supernatural being, less likely to petition that being through prayer, less likely to gather with others for ritualized veneration of that being, and so on fails to tell us much about the true soul of American life. It’s kind of like saying that the decline in Americans’ use of horses and buggies means we’re no longer interested in transportation, or that our lack of belief in the four humors means we no longer care about our health.

A second limitation of demographic reporting on religion that I explore in Choosing Our Religion is the degree to which it limits our understanding of the range and diversity of practices that count as “spiritual” or “religious” for the religiously affiliated and religiously unaffiliated alike. Belief in God, frequency of prayer, attending worship at an institutional religious location, and marking religion itself as “important” all tell us something about how the spiritual lives of Americans are changing, certainly. But knowing that we are less likely to believe in a supernatural being, less likely to petition that being through prayer, less likely to gather with others for ritualized veneration of that being, and so on fails to tell us much about the true soul of American life. It’s kind of like saying that the decline in Americans’ use of horses and buggies means we’re no longer interested in transportation, or that our lack of belief in the four humors means we no longer care about our health.

Certainly, the decrease in institutional religious affiliation and identification has huge, important implications not only for churches in the twenty-first century, but also for politics, education, health care, and other aspects of our common lives. We need to pay attention to that.

But we must also understand that the Spirit—the Holy Spirit, if that’s your thing; the Human Spirit, the Spirit of Life, if it’s not so much—is moving in new ways. The very structures and processes though which we approach the experiences and questions that have animated so much of human life since at least the days of ancient cave-dwellers are changing. The way we come to understand how these changes are unfolding is not by obsessively moving people from one demographic box to another, like so many deck chairs on a doomed nineteenth-century cruise liner. The path to understanding is, rather, to travel once more back to the pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment, pre-Cartesian world and walk along with fellow pilgrims as they share their stories. Of course, we need not leave everything we’ve learned since then behind. That expansive Reformation notion of vocation will come in handy—as will an iPad with a transtemporal Wi-Fi connection, so we can extend the conversation in diverse, digital, cosmopolitan directions.

Elizabeth Drescher

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is the editor of Bearings and a Consulting Scholar at The BTS Center. She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press, 2016), Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse 2011), and, with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012) and Click 2 Save: Reboot (Church Publishing, 2018). Her commentary on contemporary religion and spirituality has been published in Alternet, AmericaThe AtlanticSalon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, Religion Dispatches, The Washington Post, and other national publications. She is a much sought after speaker for religious and academic groups engaging the changing religious landscape in the United States. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter @edrescherphd.

Image credits:

Cover: Detail of mural by Ezra Winter illustrating the characters in the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, as found on the West Wall of the North Reading Room in the Library of Congress (Washington, DC). Shown left to right are the “clerk of Oxenford, reading his beloved classics; the manciple; the sailor; the prioress; the nun; and three priests.”

Chart: From 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey (November 3, 2015), p. 15, available online at