After a recent study found that many American adults are not affiliated with any religion, the PBS series Religion & Ethics Newsweekly saw a story — and came to Akron for help in telling it.
The half-hour weekly series, now in its 16th season, is running None of the Above, a three-part report on the unaffiliated — atheists, agnostics and those who answered “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious choice by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Some 16.1 percent of the adults in the poll were unaffiliated, as were about one in four adults 18 to 29 years old. And the numbers have been growing.
“The first part of the miniseries [which has already aired] looked at who are these people, what do they believe,” said Kim Lawton, managing editor of the program. “The second part looks at what are the political implications of this trend, and the third part looks at what the implications are for religious congregations and institutions.”
The 10-minute second part will look closely at people in Akron, including interviews with University of Akron politics expert John Green, Stow resident Monette Richards and religiously unaffiliated students from the university’s Secular Student Alliance and the College Republicans. (Those students include Brad Phlipot, Matthew Moneypenny, Brian Crisan, Bryan Poole and Nick Castro.)
The program will air at 9 a.m. Sunday on WVIZ (Channel 25) and at midnight Monday (that is, late Sunday night) on WNEO/WEAO (Channels 45/49). It will also be on PBS World, a supplemental over-the-air channel of WVIZ which is on Time Warner Cable Channel 991, at 11:30 a.m. Saturday and 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
Akron became a focus “because we were going to interview John Green,” Lawton said. Green “is someone that I’ve interviewed many times covering religion and politics. … He is really one of our key sources on that. And certainly because Ohio is such a key state in this election, it sort of heightens the importance of this trend. So we thought, well, why don’t we look around in Akron for people who fit in?”
Green is also leading the Ohio Civility Project, in conjunction with which the Beacon Journal has been running its “America Today” series of stories, many of them drawing on local focus groups. Richards, an atheist, participated in the group focusing on religion, and Green then suggested her to Lawton.
Although the focus group participants were given anonymity by the Beacon Journal, Richards — who works in IT for a medical collections agency — said she had no problem being more public in the TV program.
“I would have done the focus group without anonymity,” she said. “I am not worried about that at all. I am very much out in my life.”
Her interviews “took a couple of hours out of my time at my house,” Richards said. “They came to me, they brought a camera, set up in my backyard. And they got some extra footage as I was doing some phone-banking for the Sherrod Brown campaign.”
It was not Richards’ first time in front of cameras. She was also in the 2004 documentary Stoners, about people who play the online game The Stone. But this was still a bit unnerving.
“When we were actually talking, I was fine,” she said. “But afterwards they did this kind of weird thing where they took footage of Kim talking, and I just had to sit there. So that was really awkward. … Once I’m talking, I’m fine.”
She thought it important to be in None of the Above to show “what atheists are like, and how religion in our public policy affects us. … It affects us greatly, from abortion to gay rights to even the Pledge of Allegiance having ‘under God’ in it.”
But Lawton noted that the unaffiliated are not necessarily non-believers; in the Pew survey, the unaffiliated who self-identified as “nothing in particular” outnumbered the atheists and agnostics together by three to one.
“The group is really complex,” Lawton said. “You have all sorts of people within that group. But we did find large numbers of people who say, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ [or] ‘I do believe in God. … I just don’t identify with one particular religion.’ ”
Lawton said the first installment in the series “got a lot of good response from people saying, ‘Thanks for taking a closer look at this,’ and to realize that it’s more complicated than just saying all these people are losing their religion.”
Then again, the R.E.M. song was used in a promo for the show. Lawton laughed when reminded. “That was for people in the know,” she said, still laughing. “We were not being that literal.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.