Sue Pizor Yoder and Co.lab.inq.
Fortress Press, 208 pages| Published July 25, 2023
Few people have written more about the “the nones” – that group of Americans who mark “none” for the “religious affiliation” category of the General Social Survey (GSS) – than Ryan Burge. His Substack newsletter, “Graphs About Religion,” charts the group’s genesis and growth over the past several decades with a degree of granularity that is in turns impressive and deflating.
Consider this from a July newsletter: “The nones are just about 29% [of the GSS]. That’s essentially a five-fold increase in three decades — the rise of the nones may be the most significant shift in American society over the last thirty years.”
Sue Pizor Yoder and her team of collaborators (Co.lab.inq.) certainly aren’t surprised. In Hear Us Out: Six Questions on Belonging and Belief, they cite Burge’s works and a truckload of others (the bibliography is seven pages long!) to argue urgently for congregations engaging the religiously unaffiliated, particularly those under 40.
The value of Hear Us Out, though, lies in the 225 interviews Co.lab.inq. conducted with emerging adults who self-identify as both “nones” and “dones” (those who used to claim a religious affiliation but have since rejected it). Guided by the question, “How are people aged 18-35 who do not affiliate with any religious tradition exploring and constructing meaning in community?” Pizor Yoder and team unearthed stories that create an “unfiltered” description of “nones” and “dones” driven by more curiosity than judgment and more empathy than analysis. The book aims for “depth rather than scope,” and it succeeds on that front.
The insights are abundant, presented not in pie charts but excerpts of stories shared by interviewees. Families – in particular, grandparents – are an enduring source of belonging and identity. Poor mental health is “a part of life to be accepted in ourselves and others” and not “a challenge to be overcome.” A particularly resonant insight comes from the chapter about the legacy religiously unaffiliated young adults desire to leave in the world, because that question relies on grappling with the reality of death. Religious communities and institutions have rituals surrounding that provide comfort, if not meaning, in the face of death. The religiously unaffiliated lack these rituals. So Hear Us Out wonders how congregations might come alongside their none and done neighbors to offer them.
Hear Us Out is a useful companion for understanding the religiously unaffiliated, yet its shortcomings are inevitable and owned by the authors. “Don’t look for definitive conclusions here,” says the introduction. “There aren’t any, and probably never will be.” Fair enough. Yet the reader is justified in desiring a greater level of critical engagement with the book’s insights. For example, that “nones” and “dones” both yearn for “authentic community” and resist personally joining organizations deserves scrutiny. Similarly, the documented desire of interviewees to construct meaning on their own terms needs to be critically interrogated, but mostly is not. Finally (and perhaps most fundamentally), it deserves to be asked how much weight ought to be given to the perceptions of Christianity and the church on the part of a group largely characterized by their lack of personal experience with them.
Hear Us Out is a beneficial contribution to an urgent conversation about the changing religious landscape. Though short of practical suggestions, the attentive ministry leader won’t have much trouble imagining them on her own.
Presbyterian Outlook supports local bookstores. Join us! Click on the link below to purchase Hear Us Out: Six Questions on Belonging and Belief from BookShop, an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. As an affiliate, Outlook will also earn a commission from your purchase.