Dr. Jessica Johnson: Finding the truth for ‘nones’

Toward the end of January, the Pew Research Center published results of a 2023 summer survey it conducted through its American Trends Panel on religious “nones,” people who identify as “atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.” Out of a targeted sample size of 12,932 U.S. adults, 11,201 participated, resulting in an impressive 87% response rate.

I find Pew’s tracking of religious affiliation and people’s faith, or lack thereof, very interesting. In thinking about how Americans view spirituality, particularly those who are nones, very few of them, 13%, believe in God “as described in the Bible.” Over 50% believe in a “higher power,” and 29% “believe in neither.”

Atheists and agnostics only comprised 17% and 20% of the respondents, respectively, while 63% did not indicate any specific religious faith. Other noteworthy breakdowns that caught my attention were that almost half of the atheists and agnostics surveyed were college graduates, and overall, most nones stated that they were “skeptical” regarding religion and questioned church teachings.

I’m sure most people don’t consider it surprising that many college graduates do not believe in God or doubt His existence. With the contested political and cultural battlegrounds that many college campuses have become in recent years, students’ faith will certainly be tested.

My first encounter with atheism was as an undergraduate during the late 1980s at North Carolina Central University, an historically Black institution in Durham. I had a freshman honors professor who was an atheist and pushed especially hard against Christianity. I and most of my classmates were from Christian homes, which was the case for many Black students attending southern HBCUs back then. The bulk of our course focused on existentialism and the works of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Our most intriguing assignment was reading the book of Job. I will never forget how nervous I was when I gave my class presentation on Job’s themes of suffering and trusting God through calamity. At just 18, I was still too young to fully understand the severity of Job’s anguish as the vicissitudes of life had not hit me yet, but I was determined to convey what I believed was the strength of Job’s steadfastness. My professor said he was impressed that I had courage to express my faith in his class, and to my relief, I received an A on this assignment.

This was my first college experience that had an ingrained impact on me coming of age as a young woman, and as I was exposed to other philosophical theories and secular viewpoints throughout college and later during graduate school at Ohio State University, I often struggled not to become cynical in what I professed to believe.

The nones in the Pew survey who stated that their skepticism is due to religious teachings caused me to reflect on the importance of correct biblical instruction. I genuinely believe that the downfall or decreasing influence of many churches in America today is because the basic application of faith for victorious living is not being imparted. People see prosperity gimmicks or pastors jockeying for political and social clout, but casual congregants in churches like these are not taught how to apply faith.

Jesus demonstrated that a fundamental tenet of faith is that it must be acted upon and spoken to overcome trying situations. In Mark 11:22-23, Jesus explained that through faith in God, we can speak to the mountains we face in life and order them to be removed. The Greek translation for “say” or speak in verse 23 is to “command.” So, this means that we have divine authority to command mountains of depression and anxiety, illness or any other significant burden out of our lives. However, it’s easy to be skeptical and very hard to believe in God when grueling circumstances like these continue to weigh people down.

I have been consistently following Pew surveys on U.S. religion and nones, and I have always hoped that more respondents in these studies would be willing to take a big leap of faith and seek to have an intimate and personal connection with God.

Considering my own Christian walk, I’ve never been satisfied with simply believing that there is a God. I wanted and needed more sound doctrine to have a strong, sacred foundation in my life, a foundation that would be able to withstand hardship and uncertainty. I believe many nones are still searching for this spiritual assurance as well.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.