Over the past decade, the number of “nones”—people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”—has been increasing, according to Pew Research Center surveys on America’s changing religious landscape. The most recent survey, from October 2019, found that the religiously unaffiliated compose 26% of the population—up from 17% in 2009. Despite clear changes to modern beliefs and behaviors, interest in spirituality remains high, according to several publishers with new books for and about nones.
Readers are searching for individualized spiritual beliefs and practices, and they are unafraid of combining traditions and forming a do-it-yourself religion, says Clive Priddle, publisher at PublicAffairs, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group. “We’re in a creative moment,” he notes. “It looks like the mixing and slicing and dicing and personalizing is a signature habit of our age.”
In May, PublicAffairs is releasing Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by religious scholar and Religion News Service columnist Tara Isabella Burton. The book walks readers through examples of modern American religiosity, be it in the form of the Silicon Valley’s techno-utopians or Brooklyn’s witches, as Burton argues for a renaissance of faith rather than its decline.
“It really shows that people who we previously thought of as irreligious, or simply heretical, haven’t given up on God at all but [have given up] on the traditional intercessors,” Priddle says. “The book is a gleeful journey in search of the many alternative pathways now on offer, and the pioneering religious explorers you can find along the way.”
In None of the Above: Nonreligious Identity in the U.S. and Canada (New York Univ., Apr.), another resource about the spiritual but not religious, sociologists Joel Thiessen and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme examine how an irreligious identity affects daily life in North America—where, they write, secular attitudes are on the rise. Relying on survey and interview data, the authors make a case for how religious and nonreligious populations are becoming more distant when it comes to moral and political values as well as behaviors, and what this could mean for religious tolerance and spirituality in the future.
Beth Seversen, associate professor of youth and Christian ministries and director of the Center for Youth and Christian Ministries at Chicago’s North Park University, asserts that adults ages 18–33 are casting off such labels as “none” and “done” (the latter describing individuals who have left organized religion due to dissatisfaction, disillusionment, or other issues). Instead, they are embracing a new kind of Christian faith, she writes in Not Done Yet: Reaching and Keeping Unchurched Emerging Adults (IVP, July). Drawing on her own research, Seversen attempts to demonstrate why millennials and Generation Z are attracted to churches that provide community as well as the opportunity to make a difference.
Also from IVP, Stina Kielsmeier-Cook’s memoir Blessed Are the Nones: Mixed-Faith Marriage and My Search for Spiritual Community (Sept.) describes the challenges of being “spiritually single” after her husband became an agnostic. The book addresses questions and doubts related to faith as well as wisdom gleaned from the lives of female Catholic saints in order to show readers that there is no such thing as spiritually single after all.
Exploring different avenues within Christian spirituality, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity (WJK, Sept.) by Christian ethics professor David P. Gushee reflects on evangelical support for the Trump presidency and the questions that arose as a result. The book proposes a new, more morally robust Christianity for disillusioned post-evangelicals who feel their faith journey may otherwise be over. Jessica Miller Kelley, senior acquisitions editor for Westminster John Knox, believes the book serves a ripe market for values-driven narratives. It’s geared toward readers who care deeply about human issues and want to make a positive difference but are skeptical of religion.
“So many of the so-called nones are actually dones—raised in families that went to church or would at least select ‘Christian’ on a survey—who have found religion to be largely irrelevant to their adult lives,” Kelley says. “Some are fleeing the toxicity of a fundamentalist upbringing; some never knew there was a Christianity that welcomes doubt, freedom of inquiry, or diversity of human identity and expression.”
Rob Bell, a former megachurch pastor and bestselling author of books such as What We Talk About When We Talk About God, offers a guide to art, science, sex, and death in Everything Is Spiritual: Who We Are and What We’re Doing Here, according to St. Martin’s Essentials, which is publishing the book in September.
“I would describe this book as an exploration of all the ways in which everything is connected: from the smallest particles in the universe, to farthest reaches of space,” says Jennifer Enderlin, St. Martin’s Essentials’ executive v-p and publisher. “You may think you are isolated and acting only for your own good, but there’s much more to it than that.”
Coming from Church Publishing in May, Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost: A Story of Church by Traces of Faith blogger Traci Rhoades depicts the author’s struggle with such questions as whether Christians can embrace God fully by exploring other faith traditions. The book also features stories from other believers who have discovered a deeper spirituality through numerous forms of worship.
Blending a firsthand account of spiritual turmoil with a range of classic religious writings, Making Peace with the Universe: Personal Crisis and Spiritual Healing by Michael Scott Alexander (Columbia Univ., Nov.) aims to prove the therapeutic impact spirituality can have on one’s life. Featuring the writings of Socrates, the Daoist monk Qui Chuji, Muslim scholar–turned–mystic Hamid al-Ghazali, and others, each account highlights what Wendy Lochner, publisher for philosophy and religion at Columbia University Press, calls moments of spiritual crisis—or “a loss of faith, a dark reminder of the human condition such as illness or the loss of a loved one, or just the silent decay of hope and purpose.” She adds, “The author’s claim that such crises have resulted in spiritual masterpieces of psychologically therapeutic insight is a very new approach.”
Chronicle Books is also among the publishers with a focus on the growing number of nonreligious seekers. In August, the press is releasing For All of Our Days, a resource for engaged couples of all backgrounds who are selecting readings for their weddings. The book features a collection of romantic, traditional, and religious excerpts taken from sources such as Shakespearean sonnets, biblical verses, and passages from the Koran.
And in an effort to bring the benefits of Buddhism to all spiritual seekers, Sebene Selassie, the meditation expert on Dan Harris’s 10% Happier podcast, explores mindful meditation as a means for finding true belonging and becoming more authentic, centered, and confident in You Belong: A Call for Connection (HarperOne, Aug.). The book also offers tips on living in the present moment, forgiving, focusing, and breathing.
A new normal
Publishers agree that interest in books for the spiritual but not religious show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. And the trending interest in spirituality comes with potential benefits for all of society, says Enderlin at St. Martin’s. “We are living in a polarized world, with an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, and this is harming both people and the planet,” she notes. “If you know that everything is connected and everything is spiritual, we will move our entire human development forward.”
Additionally, the variety of books for the religiously unaffiliated can serve as a comforting encouragement to those on difficult spiritual paths, according to Columbia University’s Lochner. “I would hope that readers would realize that they are not alone, that spiritual seekers in every country and culture have felt despair, have longed for healing guidance—and have found it in many different places and forms.”