Monday, December 26, 2022

The Making of Ex-Christian America


Everybody has heard of the "nones," a word which likely gets a lot of its appeal and its staying power from being a homonym. An acquaintance of mine used to like to talk about the "dones," that is, those who were now "nones" but had once been something else. His "dones" would definitely count among Stephen Bullivant's "nonverts."

Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America (Oxford University Press, 2022) is about those now "nones" who were once religious and who therefore view their non-affiliation differently from those who were raised without any religion or with at most nominal affiliation. "Nonvert" is obviously a play on the word "convert," a word with considerable resonance in American religious experience, in order to highlight what the author sees as particularly distinctive about the recent past in which suddenly so many adults seem to have been leaving religion behind.

The author builds his case around chapters based on interviews with formerly religious "nonverts," alternating with more theoretical chapters. His fundamental argument is that "nonverts are the key to understanding much of the so-called rise of the nones, how and why it happened, who they are exactly, and what it all means for the present and future of America." His aim is to show that "there are a whole lot of nones, and a whole lot of those nones were once religious. And they are in the process of fundamentally and decisively changing the face of American society." (In particular, he notes that there are "roughly 16 million nonverts who say they were brought up Catholic.")

In contrast with the demographic patters which have characterized religious growth over the course of American history, he argues that the rise of the "nones" is not due to immigration or non-religious parents producing a multitude of non-religiously raised children, "Instead, it’s primarily due to a vast, wholly unprecedented “mass nonversion” of millions upon millions of Americans who were raised religious." His "single, summarizable argument it is that the USA is in the midst of a social, cultural, and religious watershed—one that today’s Americans are not merely living through, but millions have actively lived out in their own stories. This shift, while in many (not all) cases a very gradual one from the perspective of an individual lifetime, has manifested itself at the national level very swiftly indeed."

This state of affairs is perhaps complicated by, but not contradicted by the fact that "a good chunk of people who say they were raised nonreligiously who might, on a different day, tick one of the religious options. Obviously, there are different degrees of being raised religiously: where a weak, nominal, or culturally Christian upbringing ends, and a nonreligious one begins, is not always clear-cut.)"

Bullivant's treatment is especially helpful in the way he looks at different groups of "nonverts" based on their previous affiliations. Thus, he has separate chapters on ex-Mormons, ex-Mainliners, and ex-Evangelicals. He fully recognizes as what he calls a "key Catholic distinctive" the "broad church" character of Catholicism,  "the sheer diversity it encompasses, not just ethnically and racially (though certainly that), but socially, culturally, and ideologically too." And, while, on the one hand, he recognizes "the ongoing salience of a Catholic upbringing, even long after one has fundamentally rejected it," he also notes how among "all US cradle Catholics born since 1970, a 'Catholic upbringing' has produced twice as many nones as it has weekly Mass-going Catholics."

The author acknowledges that the U.S. is "still a much more religious country than most of its Western, developed, democratic peers." That said, The Making of Ex-Christian America tells what are in effect two simultaneous but interrelated stories, the making of many Americans who were once Christians into ex-Christians and also the making of a once Christian nation into an ex-Christian one, which is what makes this such "a decisive moment in American religious and cultural history."

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