Religiously unaffiliated on the rise in the South and across the U.S.

Published: Jul. 19, 2015 at 4:49 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 18, 2015 at 4:49 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (Tim Funk/The Charlotte Observer) - Nunzio Cimino of Kannapolis grew up Southern Baptist, but going to church is no longer on his to-do list for Sundays. It's now a day to tend to his garden, do yoga and, on a recent Sunday, drive to Charlotte to hang with friends at the Common Market, a store/deli/bar in Plaza Midwood that draws more young adults these days than many churches do.

Over drinks on the patio, Cimino, 24, explained that he rejected the doctrines and the do's and don'ts of organized religion "as I developed my own mind," and now finds meaning not in a church pew, but in the outdoors.

"I just believe in spirituality. And I think nature is the closest thing to spirituality," he said. "Even taking my shoes off and walking out in the grass gets me better connected."

Cimino, who writes software for a company in Salisbury, is part of the fastest growing group on the American religious landscape: those with no religious affiliation.

Or, as pollsters call them, the "Nones."

Though this trend is affecting Americans of all ages, it's "particularly pronounced" among young adults, or "Millennials," says the Washington-based Pew Research Center. More than one of every three people in Cimino's age group, 18 to 24, are Nones.

Even in the South, long a bastion of evangelical Christianity, the number of Nones is up, way up – including in the Carolinas. In North Carolina, those reporting no religious affiliation has jumped from 12 percent in 2007 to 20 percent. The growth has been similar in South Carolina – from 10 percent to 19 percent.

To keep things in perspective: The United States still has more Christians than any other country. And the South remains its most Christian region, with many churches, such as Charlotte's Elevation, flourishing by attracting young adults.

But scholars, Christian leaders and advocates for non-believers all agree that the religious portrait of America and the South is likely to continue changing.

"I think (the share) of Nones is going to get higher," said the Rev. James Emery White, pastor of evangelical Mecklenburg Community Church and author of "The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated."

He argues that the culture is increasingly "post-Christian," making it easier for people of nominal faith to opt out of religion.

"When the culture exerted pressure to attend church, these people in the squishy center went," White said. "Now the pressure in the culture is to not identify with Christianity."

Todd Stiefel, the Raleigh-based chairman of Openly Secular, a campaign seeking to eliminate discrimination against atheists, agnostics and other secular people, said the South, while three-quarters Christian, is home to a growing number of people who don't subscribe to the book that gave the region one of its names.

Changing religious profile

The Nones – a collection of atheists, agnostics, seekers, unchurched believers and the spiritual-but-not-religious – now make up 23 percent of the U.S. population. According to Pew, there are now more Nones in America than Catholics (21 percent), mainline Christians such as Methodists and Presbyterians (15 percent) and members of historically black churches (7 percent). Only evangelical Christians, with 25 percent of the population, outnumber them.

Theories abound about why the country's religious profile is changing – less faith in institutions, online access to more ideas and experiences, rejection of churches' focus on rules, politics and money, the drop-off of casual Christians, even what one North Carolina religious scholar calls "the changing sociology of Sunday."

"The demands of Sunday on family and society have changed so that people have so many more choices," said Bill Leonard, a Baptist minister, professor of church history and former dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. His list includes attending the kids' soccer games, visiting aging parents, and – in North Carolina – relaxing at the beach or in the mountains.

"Church attendance is no longer the prevailing Sunday mode," Leonard said, causing a decline in Sunday school, which historically offered spiritual nurturing from childhood for mainline Christians, and in multi-week church revivals, the evangelical setting for many "born-again" conversions.

A previous Pew poll, in 2012, found that while most Nones gave religion credit for bringing people together and helping the poor and needy, they were sharply critical in other ways. About 70 percent of Nones said religious institutions were too concerned with power, and nearly that many faulted churches and other houses of worship for being too focused on rules and too involved with politics.

I've been saying to evangelical churches: Before you get to 'You must be born again,' start with Jesus by the seashore. His first followers were galvanized by this strange rabbi and his teaching – Jesus, the church's most arresting figure.

Bill Leonard, former dean of the Wake Forest University divinity school

Call to reach out

Instead of panicking, some pastors say the trends amount to an invitation for churches to become missionaries again, honing a more welcoming message, developing signature ministries that attract Millennials, and re-emphasizing Jesus – a figure popular even among many Nones.

"Rather than decrying how far things are going away or how our numbers are diminishing, this is an opportunity to demonstrate how true we are and, more importantly, how true (Jesus) is to us," said Bishop Claude Alexander, pastor of The Park, a predominantly black Baptist church in Charlotte. "I really believe we are moving into a time where we … are called to be like the early church, to be the prophet."

Churches that attract – and keep – big crowds every weekend may offer lessons. Elevation draws 17,000 worshipers, including many Millennials, to its various Charlotte-area campuses.

Genevieve Nalls, 25, of Charlotte, said she had "gone off to do my own thing" after feeling that churches had too many rules. Then she sampled Elevation and is now a regular.

"What really drew me was how they didn't expect people to be perfect and they weren't condemning," said Nalls, an architect/graphics and event designer. "They understand that everybody goes through things, everyone has past mistakes. They understand that God has a plan for everybody and the best is ahead of us."

White's Mecklenburg Community Church is also successful in reaching out to young adults, partly by tailoring its approach to welcoming and explaining things to the unchurched rather than those "already convinced," he said. "Many churches have lost touch with people not in their midst."

Could there be an opening for churches to win over more of the Nones?

Atheists and agnostics are in the minority among the religiously unaffiliated and, though growing, total about 7 percent of the U.S. population.

And Pew did find a "spiritual pulse" among many of the Nones, said Greg Smith, the polling firm's associate director of research. "It is important to realize that not all religiously unaffiliated people are non-believers."

But Smith added that Pew also found, even among Nones who gave their religious affiliation as "nothing in particular," nearly 90 percent said they were not out shopping for the right religion.

The first sentence of Pew's 2015 report on "America's Changing Religious Landscape" suggests the challenge ahead for churches: "The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing."

About 71 percent of Americans now call themselves Christians. It was 78 percent as recently as 2007.

The national trends are evident in the South, where the share of Nones has jumped from 13 percent in 2007 to 19 percent. But just as clear, Pew's Smith said, is that each region of the country still has traits that make it religiously distinctive.

"The South continues to have more evangelicals and a greater Protestant presence," Smith said. "The Northeast still has more Catholics. And in the West, the unaffiliated, at 28 percent, is the single largest religious group."

Changing Southerner

Sean McCloud, a professor of religious studies at UNC Charlotte whose specialty is American religions, agreed there are still regional differences. He also pointed out that Southerners remain more inclined than those elsewhere to affiliate with religious institutions.

But, he said, the definition of a Southerner and the religious picture in individual states, notably North Carolina, could be changing. One of the big reasons: the migration of people to the Tar Heel State from other parts of the country where religion may be less talked about or practiced.

"With this immigration to North Carolina," McCloud said, "fewer people may identify in a poll as Christians."

Immigrants from other countries may be the key to one of the Pew report's other findings: Non-Christian religions such as Islam and Hinduism are growing, though they still make up a tiny percentage of the U.S. population, and Judaism, at 2 percent, remains the biggest non-Christian religion in America.

Meanwhile, the drop in the numbers professing Christianity can partly be explained by what Pew's Smith called "generational replacement."

Translation: "As (older Americans) pass away," Smith said, "they are being replaced by a new generation of young adults that is far less Christian and far more religiously unaffiliated than their parents and grandparents."

On Sundays in Charlotte, while older believers attend church, many young Nones can be found gathered for brunch and conversation in coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants dotting neighborhoods like Plaza Midwood, Southend and NoDa.

On a recent Sunday at Amelie's, a popular bakery in NoDa, friends Joshua Berridge, 24, and Erika Cox, 27, said they both attended church occasionally as children but would never consider going back.

Cox of Rowan County said she doesn't believe "in a god or a higher power. I only believe what I can see, basically. … I believe in science."

Berridge of Cornelius said he believes there may be "something" out there in the universe and allows that Jesus "may have been a really awesome guy who said all that stuff." But the computer engineer added that he's been turned off by houses of worship, which seem quick to condemn and routinely cherry-pick passages from their own sacred books.

"I don't feel a strong pull toward any certain religion," he said, echoing many in his generation. "They don't seem to offer as much morally or ethically as I can teach myself."