Believing without belonging — the 21th-century “religion”

Naiara Leão
3 min readJan 9, 2018

Seek God but not at church. This is a major religious trend nowadays. The “believing without belonging” phenomenon represents those who believe in God or some kind of superior force and even engage in some kind of individual practice but want nothing to do with organized religion.

Religious practice has decreased an average of 51% between 1971 and 2002 in the UE and in countries such as Argentina and Canada. This data was organized by the British historians Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart from a variety of censuses [Brazilian data is inconsistent]. However, it doesn’t mean that more people are becoming atheists. The belief in the afterlife, in some deity and the frequent contact with sacred texts remained high, showing that there is faith unrelated to religious practice.

These numbers confirm what scholars have been saying for a while now. The “believing without belonging” term was coined in the 1980s by the British sociologist Grace Davie to refer to the rejection of organized religion. According to her, it is typical of secular societies, which doesn’t have religion in its center, but as a compartmentalized part of life, so as State, family, work and so on.

Church reacts

The first time I heard the “believing without belonging” expression was at a Methodist Church in Chicago, in 2015. During the Sunday morning sermon, the minister warned the congregation — mostly formed by African-Americans, Asians, and White elderly — against the danger of personal faith. “What is the first thing a predator does when he is trying to attack a sheep? He separates her from the flock.”

Several institutions’ ministers have declared that believing without belonging is one of the greatest challenges of our time. The Vatican itself admitted to having it on its top priority list of discussion. “While more and more people have no problem at all with Jesus Christ, they love him and accept him as their Lord and Saviour, they do have problems with the church,” said the New York Cardinal Thimothy Dolan to Reuters in the occasion of the pope’s election, in 2013.

And as odd as it may seem, the religious “without religions” are beginning to organize themselves as groups. In the United States, there’s a whole movement of…



Naiara Leão

Nomad. PhD student of Religion, early Christianity and Women's and Gender Studies. Follow my IG @academicanomad