Elizabeth Drescher, PhD


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3 Things You Might Not Know about Nones

photo-1427348693976-99e4aca06bb9.jpegNones are a name for people who answer “none” when asked with what religious group they most identify or to which they belong. Nones are a growing segment of the US religious landscape but there are some misconceptions about how they practice and what might count as “spirituality” or “religion.” Here are three challenges to typical misconceptions about Nones:

1. They’re not Unbelievers – at least not most of them.

The most recent Pew study of the US religious landscape shows a near doubling in the percentage of Americans who identify as Atheists. That’s a big jump, but it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s from a scant 1.6% in 2007 to a slight 3.1% in 2014. Nearly 80% of Nones were raised in a home with at least nominal religious identification and affiliation, and a majority—more than 65%—say that religion remains important to them. Yes, Nones are less likely to profess a belief in God, but more than 70% of the participants on Pew’s 2012 “Nones on the Rise” survey did report some level of belief in God or a Universal Spirit.

But my research and conversations with Nones showed that questions about religious identification and disidentification tied to traditional research categories of believing and belonging miss what are perhaps more important markers across the religious landscape in the United States. Many Nones who talked with me—those who believed in a supernatural being or power as well as those who did not—were often frustrated with what they saw as a fixation on religious belief as an essential component of religiosity or spirituality. Many resisted religious labeling and, with it, the idea that, once set, religious beliefs, identities, and affiliations remain fixed over the course of a lifetime. Indeed, attention to the evolution of spiritual and religious identity, practice, and belief throughout life was a defining feature of Nones.

Dorit Brauer, a Spiritual None from Pittsburgh, put it this way: “I would say I am ‘spiritual,’” she said, “but I am interested in religion, too. I don’t worry so much about the labels. You know, a long time ago, I couldn’t go into a church and feel comfortable. But that has changed for me over time. Now I can go to a Catholic mass with my mother and it’s a very spiritual experience—and a religious experience, I guess. But that is not the core of my spirituality, of course.”

2. Many are looking for spiritual community – just not necessarily a religious community.

It’s by now a commonplace to call out the religiously unaffiliated for individualistic, private, and, as they are very often characterized, narcissistic spiritualities. The idea of spiritual self-absorption and isolationism among Nones was reinforced by the Pew “Nones on the Rise” study. Researchers asked “Are you looking for a religion that would be right for you?” A commanding majority—88%—said, “not so much.”

This was true of many of the Nones who shared their spiritual stories with me. Most were not looking for a community to which they would belong for the rest of their lives. But many were also involved in multiple forms of gathering with different degrees of formality and regularity, some continuing for years, some popping up for a time, then fading away. Nones experienced yoga classes, monthly gatherings of musician friends and their families, gatherings of neighbors for weekly dinners, outings with coworkers to explore the culture of their city, community gardens, and online networks as richly spiritual. What tended to distinguish Nones in this regard was a cosmopolitan outlook rather than a communitarian one—the idea that regular and periodic encounters with others known well, only casually, or not really at all could be occasions of spiritual connection and significance.

This spiritual cosmopolitanism hardly ruled out all engagement with traditional religious communities. “I guess I still have a lot of religion in me, you could say. It just comes out differently now,” said Dan Li, a None from Waimea, Hawaii, who takes as a spiritual practice regularly visiting a diversity of religious sites. “I feel comfortable in a church for the most part, or in a Buddhist temple, or whatever, even if I don’t exactly believe what they believe. All religions have something good in them,” he acknowledged, “even the most small-minded of them. I like that. I like to be open to all of it.”

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Such viewpoints mark Nones as very different from the Baby Boomer “generation of seekers” profiled by Wade Clark Roof (1993) in that they are not on an ongoing quest in hopes of finding one, lasting spiritual home. Rather, they enjoy the array of spiritual experiences available to them, and which they can create, in a more open and diverse spiritual environment. This reinforced the idea that traditional categories of believing and belonging are not significant markers of religiosity for Nones, but it challenged the idea that Nones have no interest in spiritual connection with others. Rather, being and becoming spiritual, as that unfolded organically in the course of everyday life and its diverse networks of relationships, were far more important.

3. They’re not inarticulate about religion and spirituality—They’re creating new languages.

Especially in research involving teens and young adults, an assertion has been made by some scholars that religious affiliation is fueled at least in part by Nones’ lack of familiarity and fluency with the languages of the religious traditions in which most of them were raised (Smith and Lindquist, 2005; Dean, 2010). They don’t, that is, learn how to talk about faith in ways that make institutional religious practice a part of their personal religious story.

That may be true in terms of the doctrinal teachings and dogma of traditional religions. But I’m not convinced that a deeper appreciation of Christian atonement theology or the twelve-linked chain of causation in Buddhist teaching would make much of a difference in terms of durable, institutional religious affiliation. The Nones I talked with were remarkably articulate about their own spiritual experience and its significance in their lives once they felt comfortable that their perspectives would be heard without impatience or judgment. I found, in particular, that what is often seen as a dismissive, throwaway phrase, “or whatever,” was in fact often an indication that the person speaking had not yet found language to fully express the particularity of their spiritual experience.

This was especially the case precisely because their experience didn’t map directly to conventional religious belief and practice. Nones often felt that the readily available language was freighted with religious connotations that were problematic, especially for nontheistic Nones. Further, because of the range of stereotypes about Nones as spiritually superficial and narcissistic, many Nones don’t have opportunities to discuss their spiritual lives in great breadth or depth. I found that in their descriptions and explanations of what was spiritually significant in their lives, Nones were often in the process of developing—perhaps for the first time—language that seemed true to their experience.

For example, when I asked Kimberly Arthur, a Secular Humanist from Phoenix, what she meant by “spiritual, or whatever,” she said, “I guess maybe it’s the experiences that people call ‘spiritual’ that I’m talking about. You know, when I say, ‘or whatever,” it’s because ‘spirituality’ isn’t exactly what I’m experiencing, but I don’t know what else you would call it. I mean, it’s just hard to explain when all the words are so loaded. I’ve never really thought about it a whole lot, I guess, what would be a better word. I don’t even know if there is one.”

Processes of spiritual and religious being and becoming trump the classic religious categories of believing, belonging, and behaving for Nones. New modes of networked, cosmopolitan affiliation tend to characterize the way Nones gather through their spiritual lives. And, from this, new stories of spiritual and religious experience that both draw upon and move beyond traditional religious language are beginning to emerge.

– Originally published on the OUPBlog at http://blog.oup.com/2016/04/3-things-about-religious-nones/.


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Epiphany Update: Jesus is Just Alright with (Many) Nones

The weekend after Christmas, a tweeted quote from comedian John Fugelsang made its way from the Huffington Post to the Facebook pages, Pinterest boards, and Twitter feeds of progressive Christians of my ilk:

FugelsangJesus

Fugelsang’s spin on the popular “Jesus was a Liberal” bumper sticker likewise appeared on the social media feeds of many atheists, agnostics, humanists, and sundry other Nones—people who do not claim an institutional religious affiliation—of my social media acquaintance. Many of these were participants in my study of the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated in America, which has involved interviewing nearly a hundred Nones across the United States over the past eighteen months and gathering narrative input from another hundred-and-forty online.

While the appeal to this religiously unaffiliated cohort of such plainly religious (and, not for nothing, political) messaging might come as a surprise to some, according to the 2008 Pew “US Religious Landscape Survey,” seven-in-ten Nones emerge into Noneness from Christian backgrounds. So, it makes sense that the Christian idiom—its narratives, rituals, symbols, professed ethics, and so on—remains a significant resource for many Nones, whether they’re arguing against it’s religious principles and practices or adapting them to what they understand as more meaningful spiritualities.

This was certainly the case for the majority of the Nones I interviewed across the country, regardless of their current self-understanding with regard to religious belief or unbelief, or the practices through which they nurtured and expressed that understanding. Repeatedly, people I interviewed told me how much they admired the Jesus of the Christian Gospels, typically understanding him in much the same light as he appears in the Fugelsang meme—as a radical defender of the poor and outcast. Indeed, as one of their own.

“Being an atheist doesn’t mean I hate Jesus,” a None from North Carolina who had been raised in a nondenominational Evangelical family told me. “You have to love the whole Good Samaritan story, or the way he stood up for the adultery woman. You don’t want to throw that away, because we need those stories.” He paused, “It’s just that my church experience didn’t really focus on that. It was about no sinning, avoiding temptation. It was about helping yourself to get saved, not helping others so much.”

Another None, a Californian who had been brought up as a Presbyterian but now sets an adaptation of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, Hatha yoga, and long mountain hikes at the center of her spiritual life, called on an understanding of Jesus as a social justice exemplar as an important part of her own ethical views. On a small home altar—among assorted crystals; small Buddhist and Hindu figurines; feathers, seashells, small stones collected on nature walks; and photos of family and friends—leaned a contemporary Orthodox-style icon depicting Jesus as the Good Samaritan. When I asked her about it, she explained,

I just was always inspired by that story ever since I was little. You know, that we could be that way toward each other. It’s really the ideal for me of how people should behave. Not “do unto others,” but more like “do what they need when you find them on the road.” That still really matters to me even though I don’t think of myself as a “Christian” in a religious sense anymore. Spiritually, though, I guess I still have that in my personal beliefs—that this was what Jesus stood for and expected us to emulate.

“I think of Jesus first and foremost as a healer,” a secular humanist from Boston who had been educated by Jesuits in Brazil told me. “He’s such an icon for reaching out to people most in need. That didn’t end up making me believe in a supernatural being who gives out miracle cures,” he made clear, “but it’s a big social lesson. It’s really the best side of Christianity.

Indeed, so compelling is this understanding of Jesus to many Nones that in close to a hundred interviews, the story of the Good Samaritan, specifically, came up nearly twenty times. Other Gospel stories of Jesus’s healing and advocacy for those on the margins of society were cited as influential in the spiritualities of these and another thirty Nones. At the end of the day, for half of the people I interviewed, the Jesus of radical compassion and justice remained spiritually and ethically significant regardless of religious identification, affiliation, or practice.

There are a number of ways to read this small body of qualitative data. The first is, of course, that, growth in the unaffiliated notwithstanding, the majority of Americans still identify with one Christian tradition or another. If you’re outside of that normative religious core, you have to contend on some level with the more dominant religiosity of American culture. Nones—like Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, and others outside of institutional Christianity—live in a culture saturated with Christian language, symbols, and rituals. Given this, and the high percentage of Nones who themselves come from Christian backgrounds, reckoning with the significance of Jesus in relation to their own current beliefs and practices will likely factor into both spiritual and wider social identity construction.

But the Good Samaritan and other Gospel narratives also have an ethical resonance with Nones that extends beyond their place in the larger cultural vocabulary for meaning-making. Nancy Ammerman’s study of what she termed “Golden Rule Christians”—practicing believers across Christian denominations and ideological spectrums who take the scriptural teaching that one should “do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Mt. 7:12) as the core Christian value—certainly tracks a similarly generalized Christian ethic. But I would suggest that the ethical perspective of those I might tag as “Good Samaritan Nones” goes somewhat further in ways that are particular to the spiritualities of American Nones.

Very basically, the ethos of “Golden Rule Christianity” is to treat each person we might encounter with the same fairness and respect we would desire ourselves. Philosophers from Emmanuel Kant to Ayn Rand have criticized ethical practice based on the Golden Rule for a variety of reasons. It assumes self as the basis for authentic knowledge of the needs of the other. It ignores the context in which self and other interact. It values reciprocity over self-preservation and, potentially, justice. It offers a general moral principle without defining normative moral action. Christian thinkers, in turn, have robustly argued that the wider Gospel context of the Golden Rule grounds its interpretation in a self-giving love of neighbor exemplified by Jesus Christ.

Still, “Good Samaritan Nones” up the ethical ante on the basis of their understanding the ministry and character of Jesus as calling for more radical ethical action requiring risk, challenge, and even conflict on behalf of the most marginalized and oppressed. Here, the needs of the other are the starting point for moral engagement rather than a presumed commonality between the other and the self. Indeed, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, difference—otherness—in itself is the locus of both moral action and of the moral assessment of the Samaritan as “good.”

“I’m not a Christian anymore,” said an agnostic woman from Nebraska, “but I’m still impressed by the story of the Good Samaritan in the bible, which was about seeing past ethnic or tribal categories. I wish Christians and other religions would learn that. We all just are who we are walking down the road. We want to be seen as no more and no less than that.”

Some Nones I talked with did fairly routinely point out what they saw as hypocrisy in churches that do not exhibit this Jesus-like quality toward whomever their particular others might be. But most focused more on what the Gospel stories continued to mean for them personally in terms of ethical practice outside of institutional churches. Still, even those who did not critique or condemn churches and their members for their failure to live up to the Good Samaritan ethic did not seem to feel that institutional religions were up to the challenge of offering genuinely self-sacrificing service to others.

“You know,” a None in Kansas who described herself as “an agnostic Jesus Follower” told me, “the big church organizations—Habitat [for Humanity] or whatever—will do things like that. Or, maybe after a hurricane. But day to day, week to week, you don’t really see [churches] where you live being involved—out on the streets with homeless people. I think most of them are just trying to hold on to the members they have, to make them happy and comfortable. They take care of their own, in my experience.”

Now, of course, those active in churches will argue—rightly—that most local churches and their members are involved in all manner of ministries to those on the margins of their communities. They staff and donate to food banks, homeless shelters, meal programs, after school programs, environmental initiatives, anti-violence campaigns, and so on tirelessly. But it is also the case that these activities are almost invisible except to those most actively involved, very often within the sponsoring church communities themselves. Even—sometimes especially—to Nones who come from Christian backgrounds, Good Samaritan practices don’t read as being at the spiritual heart of most churches as they present themselves in worship services, websites, and other public platforms.

An “atheist most days” from Virginia who had been raised in a progressive Episcopalian church talked warmly about annual youth group service trips to Haiti, Mexico, New Orleans, and other “areas in need.” He insisted that these trips had been incredibly important in his personal and spiritual development. But, he said, “they were basically extracurricular activities. You went on these trips, and did a presentation at church one week, then that was it. It was just a thing they did for the youth to develop Christian values of charity and compassion, I guess.”

Few churches, it seems, express their identities in the prophetic, radically other-oriented registers illustrated in the Good Samaritan story, even to their own members. For many, Jesus is the cute, swaddled infant of Christmas pageants; the kindly Good Shepherd who leads us beside still waters; the regal risen Christ who triumphs over sin and death. But, he’s not often a dude who would leave the comfort of a cozy church coffee hour with folks of his own social milieu to part with cloak and coin for the benefit of the dazed Iraq war vet with two pit bulls at the highway underpass down the road from church.

It’s possible, then, to read the lingering significance of “Good Samaritan Jesus” for the religiously unaffiliated as a yearning for a more ethically engaged, prophetic Christianity. It does seem to be the case that some of the largest and most vibrant Christian congregations across the denominational and ideological spectrum are those with a pointedly prophetic self-representation. Take the Mars Hill nondenominational industrial complex, for instance, with its booming call to conservative hipster masculinist Christianity; or, in a much more progressive register, All Saints Church, Pasadena, with its sustained advocacy for LGBT inclusion and interreligious engagement. Even the recently launched Sunday Assembly—“a global movement of wonder and good,” according to its website—offers a call to community and service to atheists, humanists, and others among the religiously unaffiliated.

So, do Nones of a more spiritual leaning hunger for participation in religious and/or spiritual institutions that more boldly call for the sorts of practices Good Samaritan Jesus represents? Perhaps some do, but largely, not so much. Or, at least not in the ways religious organizations and religion researchers typically understand participation in religious institutions, in terms of sustained, exclusive affiliation on the model of voluntary membership. Thus, when Pew researchers asked Nones if they were “looking for a religion that would be right for you,” a commanding majority—88%—said, “thanks, but no thanks.”

My qualitative research with Nones, however, cautions me not to read this demographic data as an indication that Nones are necessarily anti-institutional or uninterested in participation in religious organizations overall. Indeed, some twenty percent of the Nones I interviewed were at least somewhat active in traditional religious communities. But the plural here—communities—is important. Many Nones in my study, that is, reported participating on a regular basis in more than one community they identified as spiritual or religious, perhaps taking in a Taizé service at a local church on Saturday evening, practicing yoga a few times a week, and sitting with a meditation group from time to time.

Any enduring attractiveness of Good Samaritan Jesus, then, does not translate into a desire for exclusive Christian affiliation. Indeed, the appeal of Good Samaritan Noneness over Golden Rule Christianity may have much to do with the fact that it is not understood as a universal ethic centered in an exclusive (even if welcoming) community, but as a multiversal one—as an ethic for a profoundly pluralistic, cosmopolitan postmodernity much defined by encounters with wide varieties of ethnic, racial, national, gendered, and religious others. In this cosmopolitan spiritual landscape, Jesus is just alright with Nones—othered as they are by choice or circumstance from traditional religions—to the extent that he is seen as a particularly exemplary inhabitant of the “many dwelling places” in a diverse cosmic household rather than as the keeper of the “narrow gate.”

The appeal of Jesus to Nones, especially as it is characterized in Gospel stories like that of the Good Samaritan, may also have to do with the practical, material enactment of his ministry—his willingness to walk across religious and other social boundaries, through the lives of ordinary people, attending to their suffering, healing their afflictions, welcoming them into relationship—over against the credal or doctrinal expressions of Christianity that have largely characterized the tradition since the Reformation.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you what it means to be ‘saved in Jesus,’ or ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit,’” a former Evangelical None from Missouri told me. “But I get what it is to help someone out, to really put yourself out there for someone going through something bad. I think that was what Jesus was all about. Was that Jesus truly God? At this point in my life, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter. But I do believe it probably felt like that to the people he helped.”


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Searching for Soul-Searching Church Conversation After the Trayvon Martin Verdict

Black and White Beach“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching,” said President Obama in a surprise address to the nation during a routine press briefing on Friday. Nearly a week after the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial was announced, and after considerable consternation among many that the leader of the nation had not spoken about the acquittal of George Zimmerman and its meaning for African Americans or for race relations throughout the country, Mr. Obama shared his own experiences of frustration and humiliation as an African American man in a United States that is in no way even close to being “post-racial.”

“Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago,” the president said, offering America a rare glimpse into the heart of a president who has often seemed to be more comfortable as “a president who just happens to be African American” than as “the first African American president.” (Though, given the obvious risks of just happening to be African American, who could blame him for dialing down race in his public persona?)

Whether or not Mr. Obama waited too long to address the verdict and the wider context of racial injustice that has carved a deep wound in the African American psyche, his candor was heartening. As Anthea Butler argued in Politico, for many African Americans—and for many of the rest of us who care about equality and justice for all—Obama’s remarks on Friday were “the speech we were waiting for.”

Outside of the personal vulnerability Mr. Obama displayed in linking his experience to that of Trayvon Martin, the heart of the speech for me was the “soul searching” challenge he put to the country in the wake of the verdict. “[There has] been talk about, should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations,” he said, setting aside the idea that the hard soul work ahead could be done anywhere else but in the context of lived relationships.

“On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces,” he continued, “there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”

This is the sort of conversation I’d hoped to find last week at church, and which I was reasonably certain I wouldn’t find at any of the various churches I attend on the Sundays I’m in town—an assertion that a cursory scan of my Facebook page will make clear was not terribly well received among many clergy when I tweeted about it and discussed it in a blog post. Indeed, just about the time Mr. Obama was addressing the nation via the press corps, I was having coffee with an acquaintance who wondered if it was really fair for me to have expected clergy to at least acknowledge the cultural and spiritual significance of the verdict and for some gesture to have been made toward discussing that meaning in the church community. “What would you have wanted them to do?”

It was a fair question, given that I’d so publicly bemoaned what I thought many predominantly white churches were not doing in response to the verdict. It seems an even more important question in the aftermath of Obama’s remarks, when perhaps more people outside the African American community understand something of the emotional and spiritual pain the verdict stirred in black people.

So, what would I want churches to do now?

Well, looking at my own initial response to conversations on Twitter about the verdict, I’m inclined to suggest that those of us in primarily single-race churches not have these conversations on our own. We must, I think, look for opportunities to broaden and challenge our perspectives by reaching outside our communities rather than reinforcing our views by talking among ourselves and nodding in earnest agreement. We mean to be honest, I’m sure. But we can only see through our own experience, and the experience of white people really isn’t at the center of the present moment of national reflection.

As I discussed the night the verdict was announced, my initial response to the racialized tone of the discussion I encountered on Twitter (where, importantly, my network is far more racially diverse than is my local community) was to try to exclude myself from those white people who don’t understand “white privilege” and “systematic racism.” I wanted to make clear that I really “get it,” I really understand. Recognizing the pain expressed by African Americans all over the Twittersphere, and recoiling at the racist hate that likewise belched out, I wanted to make it known I was not “that kind” of white person.

Now, as an editorial note, I’m speculating in what comes next. And, for narrative effect, I’m probably going to exaggerate. But I have hung out with a fair number of liberal white folks for much of my life. Given this expansive homoracial social experience, I suspect that had I been with a group of white friends when I saw Jason Hines tweet, “You’re seeing white privilege in front of your face, but I’m sure most white people won’t see it,” the outcome would have been very different than it was as a result of my conversation with him.

My hunch is that we liberal white Christians (or whatever) would have nodded in deeply compassionate understanding of Mr. Hines’ anger, and taken to lamenting the biased legal system and racist American society in general. Many of us would also likely have quickly credentialed ourselves as racially sensitive and thoughtful. bell hooks would surely be evoked, and probably Cornell West. Some of us would tell stories about people-of-color-we-know who had been followed around department stores or denied housing after a white landlord saw that they were black. In short order, someone would suggest that we all get I Am George Zimmerman t-shirts to wear under our hoodies to church on Sunday.

And we’d all feel a little better.

The thing is, throughout and after my exchange with Jason Hines, I didn’t feel better. I felt like a profoundly insensitive jackhole who had a lot of the very kinds of soul-searching the president has suggested ahead of her. Thoughtfully, but passionately, Jason pushed back on my initial response. The gift here was that he stayed in conversation, neither ignoring me nor telling me to sod off, which he might justifiably have done.

At the end of it, I didn’t feel better, and that made me feel a little better—just a little bit more human at a time when a tremendous string of failures of humanity had coalesced into a great national wound that burst open when the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was announced.

When I’d first read Jason’s tweet, I’d thought something like, “Well, okay, he’s really angry.” I felt badly for him that he felt so angry—especially at me and my liberal, sophisticated ilk, who have all read W.E.B. Du Bois and Audre Lorde, and are over posting quotes from Malcolm X and Desmond Tutu on their Facebook walls this very second. See how sensitive and understanding we can be?

By the end of our brief conversation, I felt angry along with Jason Hines—not as much by several orders of magnitude, of course, not in the same way. But I had, I think, moved into a close enough emotional register to begin to understand. I had found a part of the most profoundly human part of myself that could not be other than outraged, other than wounded, over the fact that, as I told Jason later that evening, I had been able to hike around a redwood forest the whole day the verdict was announced without ever having to worry that another human would somehow see me as fair game. Shouldn’t we all be angry at that? Shouldn’t we all be kept awake wondering what to do about that?

The upshot of all this was that, as I’ve already reported, I crawled out of bed early on Sunday morning pining for a community in which I could take my anger and join it with the anger, and frustration, and sorrow of others by way of beginning to refine it into something else. I wanted to sit in the bright, hot center of the angry, anguished fire I’d felt in the comments of Jason Hines and thousands of other African Americans last Saturday night.

That was a mistake.

It was a mistake not because the people in predominantly white churches are evil, or thoughtless, or insensitive, or incapable of thinking through complex social issues like racism and taking action to help change the social circumstances that have allowed it to take root.

Rather, it was a mistake because no group of white people on our own is going to have the kind of soul-searching conversation for which the president has called and which I still very much need. We can’t do that because we simply do not have the resources out of our own experience to challenge ourselves in the way Jason Hines challenged me. We might very much want to see to the root of our own participation in a system of white privilege. We might see the racialized American landscape before us with great clarity. But we cannot speak from the experience of living as an African American in that system, in that landscape.

This is surely blinding insight into the obvious, but it seems nonetheless necessary to say: getting close to that deeply human understanding is going to require that we have actual relationships with African Americans and other people who are racially, ethnically, and otherwise different from us. That’s not going to happen at any one of the predominantly white churches near my home and around the country that I periodically attend. Though I know lots of people of different races, the truth is that I don’t worship with any of them.

Because of this, as I try on the basis of my faith to live into the challenge set before us in the president’s remarks and to honor the gift of conversation Jason Hines gave me last Saturday, I will not be attending any predominantly white churches for a while. Rather, I’m going to extend the advice of someone who commented on by blog last week, and visit African American, Latina/o, Asian, and other ethnic and multi-ethnic churches over the next several months.

“Christologically speaking,” the commenter said, “we are to become like Christ. Christ chose to identify with the oppressed. We then must become as the oppressed to be Christlike. This requires immersion, a communing and fellowship. The binding of wounds, carrying the dead weight of others’ afflictions, and finally to pay for restoration of wrongs you didn’t directly cause. This is Jesus The Christ revealed in scripture and must by our words and actions become flesh and dwell among us.”

That doesn’t sound like much fun, and I expect that I might not feel better on plenty of Sundays. But I’m hoping I’ll feel not good in a much better way.


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White Noise: Christian Whispers and Shouts on the Trayvon Martin Case

White Noise“I don’t want to say this in a public forum,” began the first email message in response to my blog post yesterday on my own hesitation to attend church—to participate in “the most segregated hour in America”—on a day when I suspected there would be little real engagement with the issues underlying the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. The writer went on to describe her progressive, white, suburban church’s response—or lack thereof—to the verdict. “I almost burst into tears at the ‘white noise’ of the liturgy,” she wrote.

Through the day, I would receive forty-three such emails,* another four of them this morning, most beginning with some version of the confession that what the writer was about to share was not something that she or he could say on Facebook or Twitter, where congregants, clergy, or colleagues might read it. They came from laypeople (29) and clergy (18); from seminary and university professors (5) and seminarians (12).** Most (41) of the writers were white, but African American (4), Latina/o (1); and Asian (1) correspondents from mostly white churches also contacted me—they, too, expressing a reluctance to speak publicly about how the Martin case was addressed in their churches.

“I could almost feel the physical strain of members of my almost all white congregation—we’re the only black family—trying not to look at me and my daughters as the pastor talked about ‘who is my neighbor’ in the sermon without saying anything about the young man killed on the side of the road in Florida,” a former student from Ohio told me. But, he explained, he didn’t want to make his teenaged daughters feel any more awkward or uncomfortable than he worried they already did. “I didn’t want to make a thing out of it,” he said, “but I was hurt by it.”

A seminarian who is interning at a church in Michigan asked her supervising rector if she should add something to the Prayers of the People about the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial verdict. “Only if you want an empty collection plate,” the rector responded.

Several laypeople talked about wanting to discuss how their churches might respond to the case in the wider community, but they had no idea how to broach the subject in the congregation or with their clergy. “I’ve only been here for a few months,” one person wrote. “I’m not sure it’s my place to say what we should be doing as a community.”

Another wrote, “I was so angry after the sermon today. It was so abstract—nothing to do with anything in the real world, least of all the Trayvon Martin case. But,” she continued, “I’m just getting to know the new rector, and I don’t want to stand out as a complainer at this point. I’m disappointed with myself, but I didn’t feel like I should say anything.”

Still another confessed, “I don’t go all that often, but I did want to be there today. I guess I just expected that something would be said to acknowledge the whole situation and help me sort through it. There was nothing besides ‘love thy neighbor’ fluff. But, I only go maybe once a month or so. Who am I to complain?”

The tone of the comments I received through the day highlighted this silence from the pulpit and from parishioners themselves, and the “white noise” humming over it, so consistently that by evening I was still mulling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A comment a friend had posted on Facebook on the Saturday the verdict was announced turned over and over in my head. Then, having noted the gospel reading set in the Common Lectionary, I’d tweeted, “Hey preachers: Luke 10:25-37 for tomorrow. Time to change it up.”

My friend Matt responded, drawing on a teaching of David Steindl-Rast, that one of the ways in which the Good Samaritan story addressed the idea of social privilege was in the inability or unwillingness of the legal expert quizzing Jesus to so much as say “Samaritan.”

“When Jesus asked ‘who was a neighbor to the beaten man?,’” Matt wrote, “the only answer the lawyer could give was ‘the one who showed him mercy.’ He could not even name the Samaritan. At this moment, what are we unable to even name that gets to the core of the matter?”

Certainly, the bigger answer to Matt’s question includes things like “white privilege” and “racism,” things like “justice” and “equity.” But it also struck me that there was a simpler silence that brought these more complex concepts to a human level: the silence in many churches around the very name of the teenager who was killed in Florida, Trayvon Martin—the slain young man who calls into question all of our theological musings about what it means to treat someone as a “neighbor.”

As a starting point, I thought, we at least need to be saying and hearing that name in our churches, holding the reality of the lost human life it stands for in our hearts. In my multitasking way, I was thinking about this while also scanning Twitter where, on most Sunday evenings, a wide selection of the day’s sermons begin popping up from around the U.S. and across the globe. One after another, I clicked through them—sixteen in total before I lost patience, at which point I tweeted:

If you preached a sermon today w/out saying the name ‪#‎TrayvonMartin‬, you need to rethink your vocation. Just sayin…

Almost immediately, a flurry of clergy began complaining on Twitter and Facebook that I’d been unfair, insulting, judgmental, arrogant, unkind, thoughtless, and more. I hadn’t, I was told, considered congregational contexts and sensitivities, the difficulty of changing up sermons on the fly in light of the responsibilities of a clergyperson on Sunday, the need for time to reflect before speaking, and so on. Perhaps most, I was taken to task for calling into question people’s vocations.

Now, with good reason, clergy can be a defensive lot when called to task, fairly or otherwise. For one thing, most clergy I know are called to task quite often by various parishioners on issues ranging from drone strikes, to the offertory hymn, to the brand of tissue in the loo. Most are overworked, and underpaid, and pretty much all of them, like teachers and nurses, are undervalued in the culture. Many people inside the church and out assume that, outside of presiding and preaching at Sunday services, a clergyperson’s day consists mainly of reflecting on scripture, taking tea with the odd ailing shut-in, and organizing bible-themed games for the youth group. This could hardly be further from the truth in all but the very rarest of cases. But the result of the skewed perception means that many clergy live in a sour spot between the assumption that they do only what is seen in public and complaints about their performance therein.

So, it seems easy to understand the touchiness of many clergypeople when anyone pokes around at vocations they commit to against very great, often very daily, pressures to do otherwise. I get it. And, I’ll grant that my words were strong. Perhaps I might, as one commentator suggested, have asked how clergy had approached discussing the verdict in their congregations. If not in the sermon, I might have queried, why not? How otherwise was the topic explored?

I might have done that. But the truth is that I don’t expect the ensuing conversation would have been especially meaningful. I don’t think this moment in the moral history of the country calls for genteel reflection. And, I can’t imagine very many congregational contexts in the American Church in which a note from the pulpit that the nation is (once again) struggling with matters of race, legal equity, and social justice would not be appropriate—even though I know there are many such contexts in which such a note would be disturbing, provocative, and otherwise unwelcome.

To wit, several clergy contacted me after having tried their best to at least nod to the Martin case only to be rebuffed by congregants.

A Roman Catholic priest who serves an affluent, white congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, added two sentences to his seven-minute homily on the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Maybe we think this difficulty with understanding who is our neighbor and how we should respond to them is a feature of ancient tribal rivalries that we don’t suffer from in our modern age. But we only have to look at the headlines to see that when people who don’t look like us walk through neighborhoods like ours, we often have a hard time truly seeing them as ‘neighbors.’”

No mention of Trayvon Martin or his killer. No labored reflection or confused, unfocused reactions. Just a note “at the intersection of Word and community” as both exist in much wider world to which said community is obligated.

When the priest offered a communion wafer to a congregant who is a significant donor to the church, he reported, the man met “The Body of Christ” with “Keep your opinions to yourself.”

Another followed a similar path in amending the sermon with a sentence or two. She was scolded by the largest donor to the church, “It sounded like Cornell West up there!”

Other clergy have apparently had that sort of experience enough in the past to know better than to try. “I preached about immigration last year in what I thought was the most temperate of ways and about poverty, which I’d think Christians would be concerned about regardless of political leaning,” said a minister from a church in Colorado. “Both sermons were cited in my annual review as evidence of my preaching being ‘too political’ and ‘not spiritual enough.’ I give up,” she wrote.

I’d be inclined to give up, too, I suppose. Indeed, I’ve walked away from this post several times today because, like most people, I find arguing disheartening and exhausting. Even when I feel like I’m right, I don’t like having the smug, self-righteous tone that the privileged position of having a public voice can provoke in me when I’m pissed off called out by people I respect and admire. The whole of it just sucks. None of it feels good.

In the end, however, we just can’t give up. Too much is at stake.

We are in the process of losing the Church, giving up on the vision of a Kingdom of love and justice that Jesus invited us to join us in creating. You may well think the growing population of the unaffiliated—Nones—are uncommitted, narcissistic, vapid bores. (I could write a book about how you’re wrong about that…) But we have to contend with the fact that the majority of Nones are being formed in our churches. They’re hearing our sermons, sitting through our liturgies, seeing us act in the world on the basis of the beliefs we profess. And we are again and again found wanting, particularly at moments when the larger culture (from which the Church is not excused) is focused on events like the announcement of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. Particularly when the voices of people with a claim to some measure of moral and social insight are needed most. Again, I just don’t know of many contexts in which saying something about that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Finally, I know that the strong words and feelings in this conversation have clearly been difficult to work though. But, however imperfect our words might be—mine especially, perhaps—however uncomfortable the feelings they provoke, they are better than white noise humming over to many of our churches, making so many of us—laypeople and clergy alike—feel that we cannot speak, that we cannot risk speaking, that the context won’t tolerate it.

At times like these, those of us with the privilege of any kind of pulpit or public platform simply must speak. Trust me, if we don’t get it exactly right, someone will let us know. In which case, we’ll still be in conversation.

_______________________________________

*I’ve adapted quotes from these emails to protect the anonymity of the correspondents.

**The numbers add to more than forty-seven because of overlap across categories. That is, some of the seminary professors are also clergy as are some of the seminarians.


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Trayvon Martin and “The Most Segregated Hour of the Week”

Trayvon MartinI’ve been up since about four in the morning this Sunday with pictures of a sweet-faced African American boy and his family swimming in my head, and this has made me hesitant about going to church today. The pictures aren’t of Trayvon Martin, but rather of the two-and-a-half-year-old son of the Reverend Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, who posted this on Facebook in the aftermath of the verdict:

The Zimmerman verdict won’t keep me up at night. I get it: “not guilty” doesn’t equal “innocent.” What keeps me up at night is being the mother of a son who is lauded by strangers as “cute” at 2.5 years but by in just over a decade may be perceived as a threat by the same just because he is male and black. In the time it takes me to post this status another young black man is shot in this country. I can’t change the Zimmerman verdict but we can all do something to change the world we live in.

Can we? Can we all do something to change the world we live in? The question strikes me in particular this morning, this Sunday morning, as I contemplate dragging myself to the almost all white, suburban church I attend. Will anything change—will anything even nod in the direction of change let alone press toward any sort of action (and what would that be?) that might invite change—during “the most segregated hour of the week,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. famously put it?

Now, the priest at my church is a fine preacher. I am certain she was up through the night retooling a sermon on the week’s gospel reading, the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), to make clear the links between the Trayvon Martin case and Jesus’s  teachings about who our neighbors are—who merits our unconditional compassion and care—in a culture rigidly segmented and stratified on the basis of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and other social categories. I expect that she won’t, for instance, offer tepid prayers for the comfort of the Martin family and a promise of compensatory goodies at some heavenly banquet in the hereafter where, in one of the stupidest prayers I came across on Facebook in the wee hours of the morning, we are promised, “there is no death, pain or sorrow; nor prejudice or racism, but the fullness of joy with of your saints, equally beloved.” I expect she’ll offer some sort of challenge, that she might even utter phrases like “white privilege” and “racial justice” that make even progressive white congregations like ours a little nervous. She’s a good preacher, as I’ve said, and I expect she’ll give us much to think about in light of the provocative gospel reading and the news of the day.

But, the truth is, I don’t want much more to think on. I’ve had plenty, much of it stirred not by the Trayvon Martin verdict itself—after all, could anyone really have expected it would fall any other way?—but rather by brief, but powerful exchanges like one I had on Twitter with Jason Hines, an African American doctoral student at Baylor University, who vented his angst after the verdict by tweeting, “You’re seeing white privilege in front of your face, but I’m sure most white people won’t see it.”

I have to confess, I was put off by the tweet at first. I’d just seen lots and lots of white people expressing a keen understanding of how white privilege played into the treatment of Zimmerman and the verdict. I thought the calling out of white privilege was helpful, but tagging “most white people” as blind to it wasn’t. I tweeted this concern to Hines in the few minutes it took for me to get that he was right, if not about “most white people,” at least about me. I couldn’t see my own privilege at that particular moment, even as I was updating my Facebook cover and profile picture to reflect my outrage over the verdict. That is, the deep insight of me and the over-educated, liberal white folks in my social networks about the concept of white privilege has very little to do with the experience of white privilege that marked Trayvon Martin for death, that freed his killer, that called out in Hines a racialized ire provoked by a racialized tragedy, and that will stir anxiety in Baskerville-Burrows and other parents of African American children for years to come. I can’t possibly have a clue about that understanding of white privilege.

Who am I to say what’s “helpful” here? “Helpful” to whom? To Reverend Baskerville-Burrow’s cute little boy, who, let’s be honest, wouldn’t be able to walk through the neighborhood where my church is located at Trayvon Martin’s age without raising the curiosity if not outright suspicion of more than a few people? Though I apologized to Hines (who was gracious with forgiveness), the conversation, along with the Rev. Baskerville-Burrow’s post, and snippets of the Good Samaritan reading kept me up through the night.

In the parable, an expert in religious law asks Jesus to explain who constitutes “a neighbor”—a person to whom we are obligated by divine kinship. Most of us, I suspect, know how the neighbor bit plays out well enough: everyone one in need is our neighbor. But, maybe the point of the story has been rendered a bit murky by our very familiarity with it. Indeed, in light of the number of posts I’ve seen this morning on how people are planning to preach on the parable, I feel compelled to point out that the “neighbor” Jesus describes doesn’t include either the robbers, who strip and beat the stranger then leave him on the side of the road; the people who pass him by; or the legal expert, who, the gospel reading specifies, is “seeking to justify himself.” These are not, mind, beyond our love and compassion. But neither are they subjects of our immediate obligation. That is, by analogy to the parable, Trayvon Martin and his family and George Zimmerman are not both the neighbors Jesus holds up in the parable.

Likewise, I am not the subject of Jason Hines’ or Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows’ immediate obligation, but they, in the case of this national tragedy, are the subject of my immediate obligation. We are each other’s neighbors only when I act on my privilege for their benefit. There might be cases in which the tables are turned—when their privilige can benefit me or someone else. But in this case, I am called to do what I can to dress their wounds, paying for this out of my own purse if need be. The parable, thus, is not the “love everyone equally” message that we usually enjoy hearing because, in the end, it asks very little of us. Rather, it sets a clear priority that makes those of us who benefit most from the American market system uncomfortable: from each according to [their] ability, each according to [their] need. I’m not meant to feel good at the end of the story, to feel comforted. I’m not meant to feel that the parable is “helpful” to me. I’m meant to feel indicted along with the legal expert “seeking to justify himself,” the bandits on the road, and the smug élites who pass by the wounded victim while posting links to savvy articles in the New Yorker and the Atlantic on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial.

As far as I can tell from my understanding of truths found in the Christian foundational myth of the incarnation of the divine as the human Jesus who walked among the suffering, the oppressed, the sick, and the outcast; the Jesus whose advocacy on their behalf resulted in his own torture by the corrupted powers of religion and civil government; his anguished cry of forsakenness even by God as he died on the cross; and an eventual resurrection of the Christ that seems as much about reminding those of us with the various cultural, political, and economic resources to change the circumstances of those with fewer to get our shit together as it does with any kind of magical hereafter kingdom where a lovely banquet free from racial, gender, ethnic, class, and other social biases will be offered to all… As far as I can tell from that, I’m meant to do something to contribute to the creation of the world envisioned as the Kingdom of God.

It’s this last bit—the challenge to get up and act for justice—that I suspect will be missing from today’s lesson at my white, suburban church. Or, if there’s a hint of it, it won’t be followed by any immediate mechanism within the church to act in common to bring about, as the Episcopal Bishop of Central Florida, Greg Brewer, tweeted this morning as his desire, “a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.” Brewer adds, “Come Lord Jesus!” Well, okay. Christians say that. But it’s not enough. We cannot just hope for the kingdom to come, squeak out the closing hymn, and go have coffee. That’s just not helpful.

That’s why I’m finding it hard to get myself to church this morning. I’ve had two cups of coffee already this morning. I’m good. I’ve got plenty more. What I don’t have enough of is justice for the too many people we are leaving on the side of the road in America—the poor, women, people of color, immigrants. What I don’t have enough of are people of privilege who are willing to challenge me and themselves to draw on their faith to do something about that—now. That’s what Jesus was about. That’s what the early Church was about. That’s what the Church has been from time to time, but by no means often enough, since then. We’ve been radical world changers.

“You go and do likewise”—be like the Samaritan, who sees not ethnicity or religion or race, but only need—Jesus tells the man who asked how to determine his obligation to others as the parable closes. “You go and do likewise”—all of you who have ears to hear. Joined in the Eucharistic body though I may be by common sacramental worship, I’m pretty sure I can’t do that over coffee.

Note: An earlier version of this post named the Reverend Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows incorrectly as “Butler-Burrows.” My apologies. Thanks to Jim Naughton for pointing out the error of my ways.


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I Am A Disgrace to Journalism (Or Maybe Not So Much…)

Old Man Yells at CloudA month ago, on the National Day of Prayer, I wrote an article in the Washington Post, “What the ‘Nones’ Teach Us on the National Day of Prayer.” The article piqued the ire of a couple self-described Nones/Atheists, including one Gil Gaudia, PhD, who wrote the following comment (then, when I didn’t respond, made sure to email it to me again):

Your slanderous article about “Nones” is a disgrace to journalism, philosophy and morality. You have mischaracterized the vast majority of people who call themselves “Nones” and certainly the group of thirty-five or so senior citizens in the community where I reside in Eugene Oregon who meet weekly to discuss the issues you claim to be knowledgeable about. Your description of “praying atheists and agnostics” is ludicrous on its face and demonstrates that you simply make it up as you go along. You should be ashamed to call yourself a commentator on religious or nonreligious matters, because it is obvious that the word research means to you about the same as my plumber saying, “I heard that it will be a cold summer this year. 

You say “My research shows that prayer stands alone among traditional practices like attending church and reading scripture,” but you don’t say how you conducted your “research” or who the subject population was. 

Just exactly what do you mean by “prayer” and how would anyone with even a modicum of scientific acumen admit to such an inane practice? To ascribe it the Nones that I know and interact with regularly is an insult to all atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, secular humanists and other non-theists, and a display of gross incompetence and ignorance on your part.

I usually don’t respond to comments on news sites unless someone’s pointed out a factual error (which happens more than I wish, but did not in this case) because I feel like I’ve already had my say in the article. I leave the comment space for readers, from whom I often learn a great deal. Indeed, as I’ll discuss shortly, reader comments have changed my research on Nones in important ways. But, setting aside good Dr. Gaudia’s over the top invectives, his comments reflect more common confusions about Nones and about different kinds of scholarship and writing. So it seems it might be a good idea to respond in some measure. I can’t address all of his complaints in a blog post, but I’ll try to address those that speak to more general questions and confusions.

First, the demographic data on which I base my research is well-known and highly credible. It comes from the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2008), the American Religious Identification Survey (2008), and the Pew “Nones on the Rise Study” (2012), among others. All of these show, first, that relatively few—about 20 percent—of whose who answer “none” when asked with what religion they are affiliated or with which they identify, are unbelievers. Indeed, in the most recent Pew report, four in ten of those who self identify as “Atheist” or “Agnostic” report some level of belief in a divinity, including, say the Pew folk, 14 percent of Atheists. Much of this empirical research has been confirmed in the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the U.S. government, which was recently analyzed by researchers at UC Berkeley and Duke University (2013). Go figure.

Source: Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, "Nones on the Rise," October 2012. Available online at http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

Source: Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, “Nones on the Rise,” October 2012. Available online at http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

My own research is more ethnographic than empirical in nature. That is, I listen to people’s stories and sometimes observe how they practice their spirituality. I have also conducted narrative surveys that allow people to offer written responses to a number of questions about their religious or spiritual perspectives. In light of this research, my hunch, having spoken to many self-described Atheists who retain some sort belief in some sort of supernatural, transcendent reality that influences humanity and creation in direct or indirect ways, is that they aren’t meaning to offer “insult to all atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, secular humanists and other non-theists … [in a] a display of gross incompetence and ignorance.” Rather, in some cases, they value how the label stands ideologically and politically in relation to various religious or spiritual designations. Maybe they don’t entirely understand the complicated historical, political, and lexical meanings of the term, it’s true. Often, it seems, when someone tells me she or he is an Atheist, it seems to mean something along the lines of, “I really don’t want to talk about what I believe, and people leave me alone on that count if I say I’m an ‘atheist.’” Sometimes, too, it means, “I was thinking of myself as an Atheist when you first asked me, then I kind of changed my mind.”

This raises two important points that Dr. Gaudia, and perhaps many others, misunderstand about research on current or historical cultural phenomenon and, further, about religious identity in the current age. With regard to the former, as a researcher, when I ask people how they describe themselves in religious, spiritual, or philosophical terms, I accept the descriptions they offer as valid for them. That is, I don’t say (though sometimes I want to, and I gather that Dr. Gaudia would expect me to), “You know, if you believe in God or prayer or whatever, you really aren’t an Atheist. Stop saying that!). I note what they say, and what they think it means, not what I might think it should mean. It’s an interview, not a quiz.

This is the difference between a theological or philosophical assessment, which would ask if the prayer practice is valid within a particular tradition, and a social or cultural study, which asks what people do when they say they pray and tries to determine how that contributes to changing meanings of the term and associated practices in the wider culture. Lots of people are confused by this distinction, so Dr. Gaudia might be excused for his ignorance on this count (though that would be easier if he were less, you know, nasty).

Thus, having conducted in depth, narrative surveys with more than a thousand people across the country, and having interviewed a few dozen people in considerably more depth, what I’m able to see is certain patterns in how religious identifications and other definitions vary from the more formal, academic definitions that Dr. Gaudia believes I have flagrantly disregarded. (Well, to be fair, I have kind of disregarded such definitions, because my research is not about how well people conform to standard definitions. But I don’t think I’m full on “flagrant” about it.)

Now, many Nones do report praying on a regular basis, including no small number of those who self-identify as Atheist or Agnostic. The most recent Pew report shows more than 40 percent of Nones overall praying at least monthly, including close to 20 percent of those in the Atheist/Agnostic category. In a survey I conducted in 2012, “prayer” was among the top practices that the unaffiliated ranked as “spiritually meaningful”—the only traditional religious practice that made it to the top of the list. Like many people, perhaps—although I hope with fewer preconceived notions about an ironic, almost papal inerrancy about my own perspectives than Dr. Gaudia seems to maintain—I was curious about what it would mean for someone who says she is “atheist” or “agnostic” or “unaffiliated” in some less specific way to “pray.” But, initially, I had bracketed unbelievers out of my study.

I was actually tipped to the modest pervasiveness of prayer and other “spiritual” practices among self-described unbelievers themselves by Atheists and Agnostics themselves, however, after a December 2012 article in Religion Dispatches that offered a short reading list on Nones. In response to the piece, a number of (generally very polite and respectful) Atheists and Agnostics contacted me to ask why I hadn’t included any titles on their “spirituality.” This actually shifted my research away from a more exclusive attention to so-called “religious Nones”—the unaffiliated who claim belief in God or a higher power—to include the narratives of non-believing Nones. Again, rather than evaluating their self-descriptions as “valid” or “invalid” by my definition of “atheist,” “secular,” “humanist,” “freethinker,” “unbeliever,” “skeptic,” and so on, I aimed to listen to theirs and to better understand how they understood “spirituality” and existential meaning-making more generally from the point of view they claimed. I’m facilitating conversation, not conducting midterms.

This confirmed for me a second key point that many people, including no few researchers such as those at the Pew Forum, Gallup, the Barna Group, the GSS, and so on often forget: late modern religious identification and affiliation is not fixed or durable in the same way it has been in previous generations. That is, in a world in which people no longer die before they’re 50—when most of us will live well into our 70s and 80s or beyond—an identity as a Catholic, or an Evangelical, or an Atheist is less and less likely to last a lifetime. For one thing, as Charles Taylor has described as the particular mode of “secularity” that characterizes the present period, we “live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on” (A Secular Age, 11). For another, we simply have more time to think about those “different construals,” to try them on at least notionally, at different times in our lives. Indeed, under the influence of cultural epistemologies and associated practices in the current Digital Age, we might shift identities and affiliations from one week—or day—to the next.

So, the person who answered “Atheist” when asked about her religious preference in a survey on Tuesday, may by Friday be intrigued by Kabbalah. This is no mere fickleness, but rather a real change in how people approach meaning-making in the present day. Religious and spiritual identity are more provisional, more strategic, more malleable over time. Including self-identified Atheists and Agnostics in my work on the spiritual lives of Nones has allowed me to see what I think are much more significant patterns in American religiosity from the ground up than I would had applied rigid, fundamentalist, definitions of “Atheist” and “prayer” that, say, Pat Robertson and Dr. Gaudia might apply. I’ll have much to say about this in Choosing Our Religion when it’s released next spring. It’s not the sort of material that one covers in an 800-word article for a general readership news outlet.

Now, responding to Dr. Gaudia has required a very, very long blog post, and I appreciate your attention if you’ve made it this far. Indulge me for one final note on what I suspect are the “Nones” of Dr. Gaudia’s more local, Pacific Northwest experience. For some time, the Pacific Northwest was known a “The None Zone.” Well before the blossoming of religious unaffiliation and disidentification in the rest of the United States, some 30 percent of the population in the region identified as “humanist” or having “no religion,” with more than 60 percent claiming “no religious affiliation,” according to a fine collection of academic essays edited by Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk (2004) that drew on data primarily from 2001 and 2000, and slightly earlier.

I expect that Dr. Gaudia and his None community in Eugene have a very different experience of unaffiliation than do the more recently going population of Nones elsewhere in the country. Which is to say, when we look outside the window, most of the time we don’t see the world, we see our world.

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