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Almost a fifth of American adults, including a third of those younger than 30, do not belong to any religion, the highest proportion ever recorded in a poll by the Pew Research Center, the nonpartisan organization announced in October.

This religious “disaffiliation” spiked particularly in the past five years, driven almost entirely by an exodus of white evangelical and mainline Protestants. American “nones,” as some experts call the nonreligious, increased by 28 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to survey results.

Some of that rise swelled the ranks of atheists, who don’t believe in any god, and agnostics, who maintain that the supernatural is unknowable. But about 33 million of the nation’s estimated 46 million nones would reject both of those labels, instead choosing “nothing in particular” in lieu of any religious affiliation, the study suggests.

While nones include members of every demographic group, 71 percent of the unaffiliated are white, rising to 82 percent of avowed atheists and agnostics. The unaffiliated also tend to be young, male, unmarried and politically liberal, results suggest.

But the beliefs of the group are hard to pin down. While 72 percent rarely or never attend church or other services, two-thirds say they believe in God and one-fifth pray every day, according to the report “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” compiled by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And 88 percent of them are content with their spiritual life, or lack of one, and are “not looking” for a religion.

The study did not draw any conclusions about the source of the shift, but it is reflected in the diverse approaches, from atheist activism to reverence for nature, of disaffiliated Southern Marylanders living in the midst of a Christian majority.

Disillusionment

One Christmas Day in the early 1970s, the pews of a Methodist church in North Carolina were full as people waited for the service to begin. Then, a few black families came inside, and about half the congregation, which was entirely white, rose quietly to its feet and left.

The incident was June Mellinger’s “first experience with racism” as a child, and she watched, mortified, as her co-congregants shunned her playmates, the 50-year-old Lusby resident recalled. Mellinger’s father, a Vietnam War veteran who had just returned home for good, had invited the family’s neighbors to the church.

After enduring the service alongside those who had stayed, Mellinger asked her father if she had to go back to the church the family had attended regularly for years. Not if she didn’t want to, he replied.

“Needless to say, I’ve never once walked through those doors since. I was 12,” Mellinger wrote.

As a young adult, she explored Christianity again but eventually left for good. Now, she respects Christian friends and neighbors without sharing their beliefs, she said.

“I wouldn’t know what characteristics [my own faith] would be because it doesn’t fall under anything. I wouldn’t call myself an atheist because I do believe. I just don’t have a specific God that I believe in,” Mellinger said.

Others drifted out the church door without ever feeling pushed.

Shanon Nebo, 29, a La Plata atheist, was a faithful nondenominational Protestant until her early 20s, she said. Then, she started questioning what she’d been taught.

“It wasn’t, you don’t just wake up and say, ‘I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God anymore.’ It was just basically a series of questions. And when I was Christian, I read the Bible a lot and I would see things in it and they just didn’t make any sense to me. They would kind of disagree with each other: God loves all of his children, but ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ God loves all his children and don’t judge each other, unless the other person is gay. … What I didn’t understand was, if we have this all-loving God, why are so many of us essentially damned?” Nebo said.

When she believed, Nebo fretted about the souls of Jews and Muslims, people brought up in their own religions just as she’d been raised as a Christian. When she stopped believing, she feared for her own.

“It was very scary. It took months before I really felt comfortable and stopped being scared. There was this fear, if I get in a car accident, what’s going to happen to me after I die?” she said.

Her father, a religious man, was also frightened for her, Nebo said. Recently, his fear melted into acceptance.

“Just this past Christmas, we went over there and he got out the Bible. And I was like, ‘Oh, gosh, here we go.’ It wasn’t so bad, and he asked us to read a passage out of the Bible. I think it was out of Timothy. Basically, the point of the passage is everyone is saved, no matter what. I guess he was explaining he was concerned because he was scared. He didn’t want me to go to hell after I die. And that passage shows that we’re all saved, so I guess he feels more comfortable now,” Nebo said.

Church was a place for fun and community when he was young, said Mike Morris of Issue. As a teenager, he played Joseph in his church’s Christmas pageant even though he’d secretly decided he didn’t believe in the Christian God.

Morris, 57, doesn’t apply a particular label to himself but said the word agnostic comes closest because he believes God is unknowable. His beliefs didn’t stop him from attending a church in La Plata with his girlfriend recently, but after two visits, he won’t be going back, he said.

After the first service, the pastor “asked me, ‘Are you a Christian?’ I said flat out, ‘No, I’m not.’ And it was like icicles formed in the room,” Morris remembered.

Still, he accompanied his girlfriend the next Sunday and found himself unexpectedly the center of attention.

“It seemed to me that they had made a plan to save my soul, so to speak, because the preacher did most of the preaching looking directly at me. [There was] a lot of stuff about, if you don’t believe Jesus is the son of God, et cetera, et cetera. … I knew he was talking to me. It got to a point where a few of them came over and literally laid their hands on me and said, ‘If you ever need any help, we’ll help you, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ I felt ganged up on. And it’s not what I was expecting,” Morris said.

Not wanting to experience that again, he won’t return, Morris said. But “I hold no grudge against them. They believe they have to do that. They believe I’m going to die in eternity and they’re going to live in eternity. Wouldn’t you want to tell somebody about that?”

Good without God

Clifford Andrew prophesied trouble for a visitor inquiring about secularism, predicting that no one would speak up. He helps organize Maryland Freethinkers, an Annapolis-based “fellowship of people who share a worldview free of mystical and supernatural elements,” according to its website.

“Being an atheist today is almost like being gay 20 years ago,” Andrew said. “They’re afraid to talk about it. They’re in the closet. Atheists probably [are] one of the most discriminated-against groups in America. If you’re an atheist, they think you eat your kids.”

A psychological study summarized last January in Scientific American bore out this warning. Subjects considered a hypothetical driver who fled after hitting a parked car; they deemed him equally likely to be an atheist or a rapist, and unlikely to be Christian or Muslim. People expect good behavior from those who think God, the ultimate authority figure, is watching, the study’s authors concluded.

But secularists are generally as concerned with their fellow humans’ well-being as anyone else, local people said.

“I think it’s important to know that atheists are just normal people who want to lead a good life and do good things for other people,” said Matthew Jones, 25, of Lexington Park. “I know they can be demonized sometimes, but I just want people to know that they’re just like everyone else. There’s probably quite a few people you know that are atheists, and you wouldn’t even realize it.”

As an atheist, he still adheres to the Golden Rule because he cares about the well-being of other people, said the Air Force veteran. His lack of faith doesn’t affect his morality, but it does impact the way he sees the future.

“I do think it gives you a sense of, you’re in control of your own destiny, gives you kind of a different thought process, wanting to be in control of things,” because God is not in control, he said. “You try harder to get the things you want.”

Morris, a small-business owner, worried that some customers would shun him upon learning that he is not a Christian.

“If you’re an agnostic in Southern Maryland, you’d better keep your head down or you’re going to be in trouble. That’s what I think,” he said.

Other businesses use Christian symbolism, including the fish, to reassure customers that they won’t be ripped off.

“But I’m as honest as you are. I can’t put a fish on my thing in good conscience, but I’m as honest as you are. I get why they do it,” he said.

Christianity can serve as cover for the dishonest, including politicians, Morris said. “Bob Dylan had a line in a song of his: ‘To live outside the law, you must be honest.’ I get what he was saying. He was talking about criminals, gangsters, smugglers,” but it applies to secularists in a religious society as well, he said.

Religion is “used as a cover a lot. That’s all. If you’re not going to use that, you’re just a person. You are going to be judged on what you do, what your beliefs are and what your actions are. And I welcome that. I live my life morally, and I’m not doing it because I think I have to or I’ll die forever. To me, aren’t I more moral?” he asked.

Like Morris, Nebo and her husband Mark, 32, own a small business. Instead of fearing the impact of their nonbelief on trade, they embrace it, starting a second business, Be Secular, online a few months ago. The site offers bracelets and T-shirts emblazoned with the company name, which the couple hopes will embolden people to publicly display their lack of belief. Half of the proceeds go to atheist groups, according to the website.

The Nebos, who are active in several atheist groups and consider themselves activists, urge nervous doubters to reveal themselves.

“When most people have been honest with themselves and realize the doubt that has been inside them has really boiled over, they all say they wish they had done it earlier. There’s no reason to hide,” Mark Nebo said. “And that’s one of the messages I want people to have. If you don’t believe, if you’re just going through the motions to make others feel better, there are many other people and groups like you that are out there to help.”

But circumstances can make that revelation difficult. To avoid expulsion from his Christian high school, Jered Miller, 25, of Lexington Park kept his teenage doubts to himself. He lost friends when he returned to St. Mary’s County from Towson University as an “outspoken” atheist and finds Southern Marylanders more apt to “attack” him for his disbelief than were Baltimoreans.

“I’ve run into a lot of people that try to argue this way and tell me that I’m going to hell and get really upset when they hear somebody doesn’t believe the same way they do. I think it’s a mind-set propagated by the church that atheists are evil. We’re a bunch of godless heathens that just want to do whatever we want instead of subjecting ourselves to their kind of religious viewpoint,” Miller said.

That way of thinking is familiar to Jacob Wallace, 22, of Piney Point, who wants to start a local secular community service group. The organization would provide an outlet for people who want to help out but aren’t entirely comfortable with the Christian orientation of prominent charities like Habitat for Humanity. It would also demonstrate to the religious majority that secularists care about other people, too, said Wallace, a civilian employee of a military contractor.

“My goal for the group is basically to volunteer at least once a month, community outreach. … Just trying to do anything that’s positive for the community to show people you can do good without believing in God,” Wallace said.

In his short time in St. Mary’s County, Alan Wilkinson, 25, hasn’t encountered much “friction” from his atheism. He doesn’t mention it unless someone else brings up religion, and discussions about faith have been “civil.” This nonconfrontational approach extends to a group, organized online, of Southern Maryland secularists who meet up in restaurants to share a meal and conversation, said Wilkinson, who works for a military contractor and lives in California.

“We keep our voices down. We know that most people who are out having breakfast in the morning, they’re not going to want to hear a bunch of people saying that [we] think [their] religion is wrong,” Wilkinson said.

When he first moved to St. Mary’s County, Wilkinson tried attending a Unitarian Universalist church, a denomination that accepts nonbelief, in order to make friends. But it didn’t work out for the “scientifically minded” new arrival.

“That’s when I figured out that religious ceremonies weird me out. I just don’t get it,” he said. “Everyone has a group that they don’t quite understand. For example, think of hippies sitting around a drum circle or something, talking about how they’re going to change the world, smoking pot, not really doing anything about it. Sitting there and they’ve got these far-out, crazy ideas. It’s like, ‘OK, that’s cool, you guys have fun, but I don’t see how what you’re doing and what you’re talking about is really relevant to what’s going on.’”

Science vs. faith

To Justin Williams of La Plata, ninth-grade earth science class contradicted Baptist Sunday school. So he chose science.

“I had two books in front of me and, on Sunday, I would see this book,” the Bible, teaching that the world had been made in six days. “Then, I’d go to class on Monday. There’s tests, things that people have proven and found and discovered. This book seems to me just a lot more interesting, not just stories and tales. It’s things that people have done,” said Williams, 27.

For a while, Williams considered himself an atheist and made sure everyone knew it, he said. Now, he doesn’t ascribe a particular label to himself and is more reticent, partly to appease his Christian parents.

“I used to share every link or picture, something I saw on Facebook. It was all about shaking my fist, standing on a soapbox, yelling to the masses. Then, as offended as I would get when somebody tried to change my mind, I figured it would be just as offensive for me to do,” so he toned it down, he said.

Studying the sciences of anthropology, paleontology and aeronautics helped confirm Grenda Dennis of Lexington Park in her skepticism, although she already was not religious. So did the hippie movement, which emboldened her to question authority.

The stigma against nonbelievers seems to be fading, said Dennis, 67, even though the new tolerance isn’t particularly warm, she added.

“You can see this transition in the world today, where people are thinking about these things. I think that people are more accepting, but it’s not an overwhelming acceptance. They just say, ‘Oh, whatever, you’re wrong and go away,’” Dennis said.

Nothing is missing from her life despite lacking religion, Dennis said.

“All I have to do is look at nature, and I would imagine I get the same feeling that they do,” she said, a sentiment familiar to other Southern Maryland secularists. After rejecting the Methodist church, Mellinger found solace in the woods.

“I would get on my horse and just go somewhere on horseback, not go with any particular place in mind, just into the woods, God’s house. To me, that’s God’s house, not this church where people talk behind each other’s backs when they’re supposed to be Christian,” Mellinger said.

A symptom of pluralism?

The drift away from religion could reflect a distrust of hierarchy and the consequences of diversity rather than declining interest in spiritual matters, said Daniel Meckel, an associate professor of religious studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

“As the population becomes more globally minded and aware of the vast diversity of religious perspectives in the world, it becomes harder and harder for them — or for us, if you want — to be uncritical of ourselves. Giving up theism doesn’t mean giving up spirituality,” Meckel said. “Agnostics and atheists can still be very spiritual but give up a sense of having a clear grasp on the ultimate.”

Nature could take the place of the Christian God, but people still seek to be “in touch with creative and powerful and loving forces beyond our ordinary experience,” he said.

No one truly rejects religion, Meckel insisted.

“I’ve got no beef with atheists at all, but lots of people who are atheists are so because they embrace what they call a scientific world view. But science has strong religious dimensions. … Doctrinaire science is as literalistic and conservative as fundamentalist religion. They’re two sides of the same coin in the sense that each considers itself to have a handle on truth, a monopoly on truth and [on] how to arrive at it,” he said.

That argument was familiar to, and vehemently rejected by, Rick Wingrove, founder of Beltway Atheists, a social and activist group comprising mainly Northern Virginians. Anyone can experience “this overwhelming sense of awe,” but “there’s nothing supernatural about it. It’s something all humans experience. It has nothing to do with gods or ghosts or demons,” he said.

Science differs from religion because science depends on evidence, added Wingrove, who is also an employee of American Atheists, a nationwide activist group.

“It’s nothing that we worship. It’s something we recognize as the one and only tool available to humans for the discovery of knowledge. It is a rigorous way of asking and answering questions, to study a problem and find the solution to that problem,” he said. “They say we have faith in science. That’s not faith, that’s confidence.”

emitrano@somdnews.com