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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Having none of it

Religion | Americans who claim no religion make up a growing demographic-and an opening for the church

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

NEW YORK-When everyone in Luke Heinkel's Lutheran church stood to say the Apostles' Creed, no one seemed to feel the weight of it like Heinkel did.

"The Apostles' Creed stressed me out," he said. "We would say it every time and we would make these huge statements, and I would remember as a little 12-year-old being, 'What? Can we talk about these things?'" For a while he decided which ones he believed and only said those, mumbling so his dad wouldn't chide him for skipping around. Fifteen years later, he can still say the Creed.

Heinkel, now 27, is a sunny guy who spent three and a half years in the Peace Corps and applied to New York University's School of Public Service because he could no longer stomach the thought of planning subdivisions with his civil engineering degree. All his life, he has balanced extremes: the urbanism of his mom's home in Chicago and the rural mores of his dad's dairy farm, the liberalism of his University of Wisconsin alma mater and the conservatism of his home community, his reticence to choose a religion with his belief in God.

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He knows he's not Lutheran. He doesn't go to church. He considers himself Christian, which he says means "a strong relationship with God" and regular prayer, but he is not wholly convinced that Jesus died for his sins. The story resonates with him, "But I don't know. I just feel that at the end of it all when you're at the pearly gates, I won't be shocked if it's not exactly like it was written in the Bible."

It comes to this, he says: "I have a lot of faith, but no religion."

And despite feeling alone in this, he's not. Trinity College's American Religious Identification Survey recently crunched the numbers to take a closer look at this growing population-people who say they have "no religion," or "Nones," as the survey dubs them. This irreligious population could grow to 25 percent of the U.S. population in 20 years, partly because 22 percent of Americans aged 18-29 number among the Nones.

Amy Black, politics professor at Wheaton College and author of Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians Make Sense of American Politics, said this may represent not a tidal change but more willingness to identify as an unbeliever. Instead of naming a nominal religious affiliation as their parents might have, Americans are simply more comfortable saying "None." "There is less of a stigma now," said Black.

For instance, politicians rarely talk of their lack of religion, but Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongonski recently told NPR in an interview about fly fishing, "I must admit, I may not be as religious but I'm very spiritual-and I believe if there is a God, this is where he lives. He's on the river, he's in the mountains-this is what it's all about."

The Nones look a lot like Heinkel.

For instance, 73 percent of the Nones have a religious background. Black qualifies this by noting that the surveys don't reveal just how religious the families were: "One can identify as Christian or Jewish or another religion yet never or rarely attend services. We can't tell from the data how many young people are rejecting faith as practiced in their homes and how many are just more comfortable labeling themselves as not religious." Heinkel's family, for instance, was divided. His mom's side of the family went to church on Easter and Christmas, while his dad's side went every week, without fail.

Heinkel said when he started to question the Apostles' Creed, he didn't find people who asked the same questions. He saw people with no crises or questions or doubts-or depth. Once he told a certain pious relative that he thought some people went to church just because it was a safe bet: If it was true, they'd go to heaven. If it wasn't true, they'd rot like everyone else. His relative replied, to his bemusement, "Oh, I'm absolutely one of those people."

There is another thing that Heinkel has in common with the Nones: Most aren't atheists. In fact, a broad majority (59 percent) are agnostics or deists. Heinkel is not an atheist because in his struggle to answer his questions, there have always been people helping him through-people he unwaveringly believes that God put in his life to show him the divine.

The first was a guy on his high-school diving team. They didn't know each other that well and the friend wasn't even very religious at the time, but he would suddenly start saying what Heinkel needed to hear. They both found it weird: "It was just from God. There was just no question. I would have prayed the night before and this would be relevant to that. Or I would be having some kind of internal struggle about some major life decision and he would give me advice that was profound."

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