What do the religiously unaffiliated pray for?

A stained glass window glows, restored and then donated to the Museum of Divine Statues, is seen beyond a statue … Continued

A stained glass window glows, restored and then donated to the Museum of Divine Statues, is seen beyond a statue reclaimed from St. Propcop Church of Cleveland at the museum in Lakewood, Ohio on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011. (Amy Sancetta — AP)

“The National Day of Prayer belongs to all Americans. It is a day that transcends differences, bringing together citizens from all backgrounds,” insists the Web site for the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private, non-profit organization with no official relationship to the annual congressionally-endorsed observance on the first Thursday in May.

The NDP Task Force is closely affiliated with the conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family, however, rendering its interreligious pronouncements suspect to many non-Christians, progressive Christians, and, perhaps especially, the growing population of the religiously unaffiliated—the “nones” who comprise twenty percent of the population overall and a third of adults under age 30.

Most nones believe in God or a higher power, and a plurality pray regularly. According to Pew’s research, some 51 percent of those who say their religious affiliation is “nothing in particular” and 19 percent of those who say they are agnostic or atheist pray at least once a month. That’s less than the 88 percent of religiously affiliated Americans who pray at least monthly, but it’s not nothing in an America where institutional religion has been declining for decades.

There is no growth or revitalization movement in within America’s Christian majority these days. Megachurches are shrinking, some sliding into bankruptcy. Leaders of the “Emergent Church” movement have aged well beyond the sorts of enthusiastic younger Christians they inspired in the 1980s and ’90s. Conservative evangelicalism is sowing dissent that makes clear that younger adults haven’t merely misunderstood fundamentalist doctrine. They get it. And they don’t much like it.

Likewise, Catholic leaders quashed revitalizations associated with liberation theology, and conservative charismatic Catholicism has waned as well. The clergy abuse scandal and a perceived hostility toward women have also put off many Catholics. Across all denominations, what many see as failure of both reason and Christian charity toward lesbians and gays has soured more and more Americans on religion.

The majority of nones come from Christian backgrounds, carrying hurt, anger, or boredom with their childhood faith along with fragments of belief, ritual, and everyday spiritual practice that they weave into approaches to meaning-making within which prayer has a continuing significance.

My research shows that prayer stands alone among traditional practices like attending church and reading scripture tracked by pollsters as “spiritually meaningful” for nones. For many nones, prayer offers an openness and flexibility that makes it functional for those who have left the religions of their childhoods but who don’t’ want to—or can’t—forget them entirely.

“I pray because I always have,” says a none from Missouri who left an evangelical church he found “shut off from the love I found in the Bible.” Prayer, he told me, “is where religion is most true for me. You know, it’s not a show of how holy I am.”

He added, “it’s more than just something going on in my head. It’s about me in relationship to others through God. I don’t go to church anymore, but I still need that focus in my life—that it’s not all about me. I pray for myself and I pray for others—that things can be better for them. That I can be better for them, too.”

Other nones move further from religious roots in their prayer—or at least they try to.

“I still pray to ‘Jehovah,'” a none from Northern California reported with some embarrassment. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, she left in college. “I know it’s ridiculous. I don’t believe in any of that anymore,” she insisted. “But even all these years later, when I find myself in the kind of still, contemplative place that would have been ripe for ‘calling on Jehovah’ in my early life, I speak that name in my mind. I used to correct myself. But now I don’t bother. I know it’s just a container in my memory for a certain kind of experience I’m having.”

What is that “certain kind of experience,” we might wonder? Is it something that can be shared across a nation understood as a network of individuals whose differences the religiously unaffiliated would just as soon not transcend, not mark over with an imagined, mostly Christian, homogeneity?

This is certainly true of a Hawaiian none brought up in a widely interreligious extended family—Mormon at home, Methodist at grandma’s, Buddhist among some cousins, native Hawaiian religions among others. “What works for me is the mix of it,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to work out what it all means in their own way, but we all sit down to dinner together.”

“I love all of them,” he said, “but never too much. If I get too attached to one thing or another, I let it go for a while. I don’t want to get caught in any one net.” This engagement with a diversity of spiritualities along with an open questioning of any of them characteristic of meaning-making for many nones.

Still, the he assured me, “I’ll pray with anyone. I’ll kneel down with you. I’ll make an offering at your temple. I’ll celebrate the rains and the harvest. That can’t be bad, right?”

I suspect not. Maybe prayer—the last holdout among traditional religious practices valued by a majority of Americans—can teach us something about the spirit of a nation defined by the religious differences it has struggled to honor throughout its history.

On a National Day of Prayer in a time of profound religious transformation, we might see the prayers of nones as part of a generous, tolerant religiosity that truly does belong to all Americans, believers or not.

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is a lecturer in Religious Studies and Pastoral Ministries at Santa Clara University. Her forthcoming book “Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones” will be released by Oxford University Press in 2014.

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  • GoWest2

    Organized religion is more about Sunday collections than spirituality. Fear of God is not a good thing.

  • leibowde84

    I am religious. I, however, have trouble connecting myself with my own Church (The RCC) at this point. I don’t fear God, though. My belief in God provides me with the ability to conquer certain fears. Not that this belief is necessary to conquer fears, but it certainly helps me. I would say that the most beneficial part of this belief is the fact that I have someone or something to thank for the blessings in my life. It makes me feel good to thank God for these things, eventhough I don’t have any proof that God is responsible for them. Nevertheless, I feel the need to give gratitude to something. I guess that is pretty selfish though.

  • awawa1

    “National Day of Wasted Time”. If praying did any good, they’d be paying people to pray.

  • J. Davis

    If praying did any good, they’d be charging people to pay . . . .

  • FreetoThink

    The most frustrating part of being an atheist is that I can’t pray for the end of religion.

  • Hildy J

    I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when there was a much more “generous, tolerant religiosity”. Those days are long gone. Fundamentalism has driven any tolerance far from our shores. It did have one benefit, that of opening my eyes. I was a Presbyterian, was an ordained ruling elder, and a representative to one of their national conventions. The church was not dogmatic and focused on the love that Jesus had for others. Do unto others, love thy neighbor, swords into plowshares, etc. (and not a hint of biblical literalism).

    The modern church movement has devolved into OT smiting. Rather than the parable of the Samaritan, fundamentalists celebrate god’s OT cursing of Samaria (“Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.” Hosea 13:16).

    The one good that has come out of fundamentalism is that it has opened my eyes. Christians believe that all gods, now and in history, are false, save one. I just see no need for that last clause. The moral teachings of Jesus and of the bible are, at times, valuable. But I can accept those without prayer or belief.


    Loving God and loving others-what a horrible world view to promote huh?

  • Continuous Seeker

    It sounds as though you have a church which has financial needs to support the bricks and mortar, as well as those who minister to you. So,can one assume that feeling about collections suggests that you find little value and therefor don’t wish to support. Do you go to a movie and decide after the fact that you should not have to pay for it? Orgnized religion is SOMUCH more than Sunday collection. The invitation is to into a community of like minded believers. When such a group gets together…if you are enriched, don’t you want to throw some money in a common fund to allowth necessary tasks to be done? And, how do you define spirituality. In the RCC tradition – the whole first part of the Mass is penetential…trying to find a common ground. to focus on what God has done for us and our reflecting prayerfully on these grace filled moments. And, what do you mean when you put Sunday collections and spirituality..and fear of God in a sentence. It seems a rather underdeveloped maturity of faith

  • blahblah3

    To bad Bushies kill hundreds of thousands in name of Chrsitian Religion and terrorists kill at ease in name of religion. Can’t wait until this scourge of the human race goes the way of the dodo

  • The last word (continued)

    The last word (continued)

  • The last word (continued)

    We are all connected to God, just as if we shared his DNA, our first parents having been made in the Divine image. Some of us are more conscious of it than others, who knows why – how we are wired at conception? No wonder many of us who called ourselves atheists still found ourselves praying when we reached that “contemplative place”. It is because our Maker is not far off from each one of us. Our Creator draws close to those who draw close to him. A close relationship with the Almighty should be the chief pursuit of all of his offspring. Relationships take effort to cultivate, like digging for buried treasure. And it is easier with a map.

  • Gloria2

    Is someone twisting your arm to join a religion or believe in God?

  • Rongoklunk

    Atheists don’t pray. If they pray then they’re not atheists. And I doubt that any self-respecting agnostic would pray either – but you never know. But atheists certainly don’t, because they know there’s nobody to pray to. I’m am atheist who is certain there’s no god. And in my worst moments I wouldn’t even think about praying. I’m an old man. I raised five non-believing children. When my daughter was a baby she was diagnosed with cancer. She had two years of treatment, including two operations, chemotherapy and radiation. They removed a tumor from the base of her spine – only to find that it had grown through her abdominal cavity – which necessitated another operation. But praying didn’t cross my mind. I didn’t even think of it. Maybe if I’d thought of it I might have given it a try. Praying is free and you never know…but it never entered my head. Looking back I’m glad I didn’t pray. Otherwise I may have attributed her recovery to the prayer and to a God. But it was all about great surgeons and modern medicine; science in other words. That’s what I had faith in. And it didn’t let me down.

  • Rongoklunk

    It was religion that took down the World Trade Center on 9/11. They did it for God. No sensible person would ever do a thing like that. But they weren’t crazy. Just very religious.

  • Gloria2

    Rongi, they took down the towers because some of them follow the hate they believe Mohammad taught in God’s name. Mohammad was a prophet, not God. God is not hate.

  • Gloria2

    If you don’t like praying, don’t pray. What does it hurt you if others pray?

  • Ricardo Fern?ndez

    I propose the third of may has National Desappointment Day

  • Gil Gaudia, Ph.D.

    Your slanderous article about “Nones” is a disgrace to journalism, philosophy and morality. You have mischaracterized the vast majority of people who call themselves “Nones” and certainly the group of thirty-five or so senior citizens in the community where I reside in Eugene Oregon who meet weekly to discuss the issues you claim to be knowledgeable about. Your description of “praying atheists and agnostics” is ludicrous on its face and demonstrates that you simply make it up as you go along. You should be ashamed to call yourself a commentator on religious or nonreligious matters, because it is obvious that the word research means to you about the same as my plumber saying, “I heard that it will be a cold summer this year.

    You say “My research shows that prayer stands alone among traditional practices like attending church and reading scripture,” but you don’t say how you conducted your “research” or who the subject population was.

    Just exactly what do you mean by “prayer” and how would anyone with even a modicum of scientific acumen admit to such an inane practice? To ascribe it the Nones that I know and interact with regularly is an insult to all atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, secular humanists and other non-theists, and a display of gross incompetence and ignorance on your part.