Pray for Me

How, why, and what Americans are praying for

Nones at Prayer

People with no religion still pray. Why?

The “nones” are multiplying faster than any other religious group.

Nones, which is what scholars are calling people who claim no religion, make up 20 percent of the population, and their numbers are rising faster than any other religious category. One third of Americans under 30 fall into that group.

That’s a lot of folks.

And when you understand the backstory to these stats, those numbers look even bigger. Almost all studies on religious behavior rely on what people say they believe and what they say they do. But religion and sex are two categories where people have so many ideas of what they’re supposed to believe and do that it’s hard to get a real fix on what they actually believe and do.

So some of what the “none” numbers might show is a shift in what’s okay to say aloud. Maybe 20 percent of the population have always felt no real affiliation with religion and now they’re just feeling like they can say so. Maybe one third of people under 30 have always been cool enough to religion that they don’t actually practice one. We don’t really know.

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But we might suspect that these folks don’t go to places of worship and don’t intend to. They say they aren’t clinging to any kind of formal religious belief system. Their answers imply that they aren’t relying on any kind of holy teachings to guide their behavior – at least not any that’s affiliated with a particular faith or denomination.

With one exception. Fifty-one percent of nones say they pray once a month or more.

Why?

Because prayer offers an openness and flexibility that appeals to them, says researcher Elizabeth Drescher, a lecturer in Religious Studies and Pastoral Ministries at Santa Clara University.

Drescher has done more than give people a survey that they have to fit their ideas into. She’s sat down with the nones and let them tell her exactly what’s going on. What many tell her is that their beliefs can swirl in all and every direction or evaporate entirely, but they still find comfort and hope in prayer.

It’s almost as though the reaching out that prayer embodies is some deeply embedded human reflex that requires no traditional support at all. No doctrine. No structure. No teaching. And even no definable concept of god.

Everything can fall away. And prayer still remains.

What does that mean? Here are three ideas:

We bleat out our pain and fear because we can’t help it. But because we are human and humans always seek meaning, we fashion more meaning out of our animal cries than any animal ever would or could.

Or

Addressing ourselves to some higher, greater being calms us, quieting our minds simply by taking us out of our current turmoil in much the same way that deep breathing quiets our bodies.

Or (and here’s the really radical one)

The idea that this is a random, soulless universe is simply so foreign to our core human need for order and meaning, that even when we truly believe we accept a godless universe, we don’t. Not really. And since communicating is our irresistible impulse, we pray. We just can’t help ourselves.

Christine Wicker is an author and a journalist. 

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