Published September 4, 2019

By Nora Pehrson

April Manalang is an assistant professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Norfolk State University, where she teaches classes on citizenship, race, religion, and immigration. As a Virginia Humanities Resident Fellow, Manalang spent this summer researching the decline of churchgoing in minority millennial populations. In 2016, she spent time with Virginia Humanities researching Filipino-American military service and civic engagement on the East Coast. In July she sat down with communications intern, Nora Pehrson, to discuss her current project, “Minority Millennials and the Rise of “Religious Nones”: A Comparative Analysis.”

Recently, you’ve been studying the decline of religion and churchgoing among different young minority groups in the United States. What got you interested in this topic?

As a millennial I’ve noticed within my own community that young people are leaving the church. It’s also a national trend. According to the Pew Research Center, one out of three millennials report that they are “religious nones,” which means that they report that they have no affiliation with a religious community. So, I want to find out the why.

What is the “why”?

Millennials report a wide range of different reasons that aren’t necessarily against God—they might still love God, and they might still believe in God. It’s not a theological debate, necessarily, for millennials. In my interviews, millennials report that they want to be agents of change. It’s more of a social justice activist concern for issues like LGBTQ rights, or, in some cases, maybe they want more direct engagement with issues like immigration rights. Part of my work is trying to unpack  and illuminate nuanced perspectives of why that might be. I want to add more to the story.

In your research, you use the terms “religious nones” and “unbelief.” Can you unpack those terms a little? What do they mean and how are they different from “atheist”?

“Unbelief” and “religious none” recognize the fact that just because someone doesn’t attend church, it doesn’t mean they are an atheist. There’s a phrase by the scholar Grace Davies called “believing without belonging,” which suggests that there is a rise of spirituality in the United States as opposed to religiosity. If you’re religious, you belong to a religious community; you attend and participate in church activities. Spirituality means that you believe in God or a higher power, but you don’t necessarily belong to a respective religious community per se.

Your research draws directly from human stories. Can you tell me more about your research methods?

This is a qualitative in-depth research study, and we’ve conducted about 45 interviews thus far. Human stories matter. What my work does is augment the data from national studies to explain the why, and the how. The question isn’t whether you’re religious or not—there’s a lot of in-between and a lot of negotiation that takes place, and I’m interested in that tension.

A lot of the millennials I’ve interviewed are struggling between navigating their highly religious families and disaffiliating from the church. Another piece of this research is that minority millennials’ culture and religion are often intertwined and deeply bound. Therefore, when they leave the church, to what extent do they pay a cultural cost of unbelief? In other words, when they leave their religious communities, do they lose a part of their culture, too? What is that struggle about, and how are their families responding to it? Do their families even know? Through those human stories, you get a chance to understand those struggles better. You learn about any ambivalence they might feel. Or, if they’re happy, then you learn what it is that gives them peace and their sense of meaning in their life.

Part of this research also explores the religious histories of each individual: when they first attended church, how long they went, in what capacity they were involved, and what led to their departure.

What is the best part about being a Virginia Humanities Fellow?

I enthusiastically love this place, and I deeply love everyone here. Virginia Humanities really gives a public face to the scholarship that researchers like myself are doing. On my end as a scholar, we write peer-reviewed scholarly articles; if we’re lucky, maybe three people will read it. I want to connect with my local community and with Virginia at-large and have a national conversation about a question that matters for all of us, which is about the role of religion in the 21st century.

So really this is the best place I could possibly be. Virginia Humanities supported me from the very beginning of my career and I’m forever grateful. There’s a term in the Filipino culture called “utang ng loob”  which means indebtedness. I would not be where I am without their support. I feel so indebted to Virginia Humanities, in a beautiful way.

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